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Solving the puzzle of high-country productivity
The easy option for John Chapman might have been to cut back stock numbers to take some of the pressure off farming Inverary Station, near Mid Canterbury’s Mt Somers.
But that would have come with its own problems and was never going to be the final solution, or a way forward to unlock the farm’s potential.
Only after deep analysis, some soul searching and 35 pasture cages did the answers come.
This is what keeps the 70-something Mr Chapman from joining the retirement fold.
"Farming’s like an unrelenting puzzle. You are always looking for the next piece."
For decades, the Chapmans had turned a nice profit at Inverary Station as a breeding farm for a large halfbred flock and Angus herd.
The animals largely wintered on tractor-sown flats when they weren’t on the vast browntop coating the backcountry.
This worked fine when there was no shortage of finishing farmers in early summer willing to take their smaller store animals and finish them for the works.
But times changed, and these types of properties are in short supply on the Canterbury Plains today so it became beholding of Inverary Station to fulfil this role.
That’s easier said than done.
Mr Chapman and his wife Anne own the 4250ha of freehold and leasehold property which is run in an equity partnership with 50% of the stock and plant owned by managers Bert and Kate Oliver.
"My family are pretty keen to have the property kept so they can visit and be a part of it, but they don’t actually want to be farmers. Rather than limping into old age, it’s nice having the place lifted and carried and going ahead. It’s future proofing and they are good, good people."
His father arrived at the station in 1928-29, just before the Depression. A plunging sharemarket turned an expected first-year loss into several bigger losses, but he hung in and later successfully added more land to the property.
Store lambs offloaded at 20kg to 25kg provided a nice income. That was when farmers on thousands of irrigated hectares on the Canterbury Plains were just waiting to take their lambs.
Not too long out of Lincoln College, Mr Chapman took over the station in the mid-1970s and was keen to put into practice what he’d learned from his father in tow with his tertiary studies.
Naturally, he started by following the same model.
Increasingly though, the feeling started to grow that they hadn’t raised the property to the next level.
"We were still stuck around those low lambing percentages and low growth rates and selling store lambs. I knew there wasn’t a big future in that."
So an irrigated finishing and wintering farm was bought in 1992 on the Canterbury Plains in Carew and that certainly finished the lambs for them and provided wintering for younger stock.
But it didn’t improve the ewe flock — the real "engine room" of the property — or do a lot to their bottom line because there was debt to service and the lambs’ growth rates weren’t as high as expected.
That was because much of the property was in older high-endophyte ryegrass pastures on an old border dyke irrigation system. Footrot in fine-wooled lambs was also a constant challenge under irrigation.
So when the dairy boom arrived and capital gains lifted overnight, the decision was made to sell.
Not only did Inverary have to winter all its younger stock again, but the rules had changed for backcountry breeding farms.
Inverary lambs were no longer needed by Silver Fern Farms under its Lambplan programme, as dairying was occupying the former fattening grounds. It became apparent that returns from light store lambs couldn’t sustain a viable business.
"So we really had to be producing better lambs, and finishing a good proportion, to make some money out of them," Mr Chapman says.
"At the same time, we had to look at improving our ewe flock performance which had plateaued around 120%. It was difficult to do both, particularly when we were also trying to reintegrate all of the wintering replacement stock back into the home property. We had embarked on a substantial development programme, but the lag effect meant that we found it hard to catch up. It felt like we were chasing our tail and having to buy grazing and feed to try to prop things up."
In charge of daily management, Mr Oliver came up to him one day and admitted that managing the farm’s tension points to keep the ewes fed was getting stressful and suggested reducing the ewe flock numbers.
"I said ‘Bert I don’t quite understand why I’m saying this, I’m not sure dropping numbers will work. It’s not that we’re short of feed, we are short of the right sort of feed. We have to develop our way out of this’. I hadn’t really thought this through, but I knew this was the right direction."
He suggested they take a year and pull the property apart, block by block. His intuition told him this would result in them finding out what they needed to do.
They vowed to get a better understanding of the total farm picture with brutally honest analysis. While they had 15 years of top stock data from their involvement with the StockCare programme, there was little in the way of pasture records.
Thirty-five pasture cages were set up at strategic points in a wide variety of locations including both paddocks and hill blocks. Cuts were taken every six weeks, except during winter, and processed at Lincoln University.
These samples were weighed and dried with notes taken of the pasture composition and metabolisable energy.
Much of this work is being assisted by Lincoln University professor Derrick Moot and Landcare Research. This is tied in with the industry and government-funded Hill Country Futures partnership programme to future-proof hill country farmers and their farm systems.
Mr Chapman says the technical support of analysing harvested feed samples and legumes advice has been invaluable for looking at ways to drive Inverary’s productivity and profitability.
The results, he says, were "gob-smacking".
"We always knew the annual hill pasture production would be limited, but the real insight was just how little browntop grew when we really needed it, particularly in the early spring and then again in the autumn. The vast majority of the growth came in the summer when we were already overflowing with feed and unable to control it."
On the other hand, they learned Inverary’s traditional ryegrass pasture production was comparable with other farms, at 11,000 to 12,000kg of dry matter per hectare a year.
They also had positive results from their early experience with legumes. Lucerne had been outstanding on the lower river flats and red clover has flourished in the higher altitude paddocks where lucerne struggled with the high aluminium levels in the subsoil. Sub clover was tried, but had failed to establish and thrive on the property.
The real lightbulb moment came when they saw how productive the legume pastures were — yielding 15,000 to 16,000kg/DM a year — but particularly when it became obvious that the extra 3000-4000kg/DM of growth came in the spring time.
Both lucerne’s and red clover’s spring growth rates were double the early spring production of their ryegrass counterparts in the paddock next door. Most importantly, this was at a time when Inverary and any hill country property struggled for feed.
They employed Graeme Ogle to run Farmax, a computer model that takes the feed situation and animal demand and throws them and other factors into a mix.
At the same time, they assessed the cover on each block — finding about one-third of the easier hill country on average couldn’t be grazed because it was in scrub, tussock or shingle.
Applying the growth rates from the cages, the Farmax model told them stock were only eating half of the grass grown in the two-thirds of backcountry that was productive.
That meant the blocks were only being used to about 30% to 35% of their potential.
The ongoing result of this was the constant build-up of huge quantities of poor-quality stem and seed head, low in energy quality and unattractive to livestock.
Mr Chapman doesn’t just see this as a problem. "This non-utilised production is also an opportunity and a challenge. You have all that feed and if it’s already growing and if you can find a way to use it, it’s free. We don’t need to go out and more land to expand or add a centre pivot. The feed’s there — the challenge is find ways to make it available at the right time and how to turn it into saleable product."
Inverary begins in the Mid Canterbury foothills, extending westward into a series of higher ranges.
Half the property is in extensive higher country and is only intermittently grazed. About 800ha of lower hill country has been improved and the other half on 800ha less so. About 300ha are in cultivated flats with about the same in higher improved terraces above 600m.
The homestead is at 490m feet with many paddocks above 670m and the highest point is Mt Tripp in the Moorehouse Range 1370m.
Mr Chapman says they can adequately winter their livestock with brassicas, beet and silage, but the real challenge is to bridge the gap between the end of winter feeding and the arrival of sufficient spring growth. Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than when the ewes need to be set stocked for lambing in extensive, low-fertility hill blocks.
"We always knew that pasture growth rates were slow on our hill country, particularly in the early spring, and we have tried to stock accordingly — some blocks at one to two ewes per hectare. What we didn’t know though, was just how bad the early spring growth rates were until we started the pasture cage work."
He says there should be enough growth in theory for a limited number of ewes, but the reality of set stocking browntop is quite different.
A ewe set stocked on a good productive pasture, growing rapidly, can eat her requirements within a few metres of her lamb. But if it goes into a browntop hill block it’s faced with gathering sparsely spread feed from half a hectare or more and can’t harvest enough for itself and its lambs.
Mr Chapman describes it this way:
"It’s not much different from spreading a handful of chocolate sprinkles on the shag-pile carpet for your kids for dinner and telling them to help themselves. It doesn’t usually work out all that well."
One problem leads to another. The limitations on stock numbers imposed by the early spring means there are never going to be enough mouths to control the seedhead production when the browntop growth ramps up through late November, December and January.
Decreasing stock numbers in the spring may have some short-term benefits, but inevitably leads to even poorer pasture quality long term.
"If you can’t control the growth, it gets really nasty, a thatch of useless browntop that just gets worse and worse," Mr Chapman says.
"Anything that grows later on, has to grow through this mat and is not freely available to the animals. In the autumn and winter the quality drops even more with the continuous freeze and thaw. You simply can’t get animals to clean it up and we don’t have enough cows. Force them and they will lose weight at a million miles an hour. Our livestock recording clearly documents the problem of fluctuating body weights year after year on browntop followed by costly remedial feeding on the paddock areas to build them back up."
Subdividing the blocks is of little benefit at this stage as any improvement in one area is compromised by less control in other areas.
This is often the story of the high country, particularly of higher-rainfall stations. In other areas, dry summers limit the amount of surplus growth and preserve the eating quality or warmer climates result in the thatch decomposing during winter.
Mr Chapman says the lessons were obvious. If they wanted to make the property more productive they had to find a way of stopping the surpluses happening in the first place. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, this meant having more animals in the spring.
The challenge was how to do that.
Dots were joined up to see the way forward. Particularly the hill country was chronically short of early spring feed. At the same time, the cage-cut observations demonstrated that legumes on the front country were producing double the amount of feed in spring than ryegrass-based pastures.
Mr Chapman says it was a matter of how to put the two together. Being able to delay the set stocking on the hills for as long as possible while the growth got under way was always useful, but it required something more sustained than that.
By this stage, the flat and rolling country capable of cultivation had all been developed. If the property wanted to extend this legume area, it had to find a way of improving the steeper hill blocks.
The Inverary team calls the technique they developed for blocks unsuitable for drilling or cultivation "spray and delay".
Losing this grazing is no great loss as it’s only small relative to the station, and often chosen because it’s covered in scrub and producing a limited amount of feed, mainly when it isn’t needed.
The blocks are sprayed aerially with a long-acting residual spray and kept fallow for up to two years with a final tidy-up of glyphosate before lime and fertiliser are applied and then aerial seeding. With the disappearance of the old tight sward, the results are a strong seed strike with "spectacular" ongoing production.
Mr Chapman says the potential is enormous once the fertility and plant constraints are removed.
"On one sunny hill block the spring production from September to the end of November was documented at an average of 90kg per day, while the ryegrass paddocks below recorded little more than half that on average. I describe browntop as the school bully. You can ask it nicely to behave, but that just doesn’t work. You have to get rid of otherwise it will always win. It’s an absolute villain."
So how is all this working?
When Mr Chapman took over the reins of the property, there was a halfbred flock of 5000-6000 breeding ewes and 500 breeding cows with all progeny sold as store stock.
Today, there are about 5500 Wairere Romney ewes and 1800 ewe hoggets (including 1200 mated) as well as 700 to 750 breeding Angus cows with 500 yearling cattle.
The better legume feeding has meant store stock sales have been replaced by most of the young stock sold directly to the prime market.
Scanning rates have gone from 150% to 170% since the Carew farm was sold 10 years ago, with lambing mortality from scanning to weaning dropping from 25% to 15%. Lambing percentages are now consistently in the 135% to 145% range. The average growth rates of all Inverary lambs averaged 184g a day after weaning last year.
Mr Chapman says the project is still a work in progress, and challenges remain with thistles, other weeds, aluminium toxicity and legume pasture longevity — let alone the setback from last year’s large floods.
But the overall results are heartwarming for the station, he says.
"We are now selling more meat off Inverary than we did when we had the 270ha irrigated block at Carew — and with 1500 less ewes — so that’s pretty compelling."
On the station a system is evolving. I'm some areas legumes are established as special purpose finishing blocks while in others, they are chosen to kickstart the transition from poor browntop swards to high-fertility pasture.
A bonus is that nitrogen use over the entire property has dropped to 20% of previous levels.
Over time, he can see Inverary Station becoming a mosaic of different grasses and legumes, each one playing its part in the puzzle of a productive hill and high-country operation.