Alec Jack Farm

February 2005

Alec and Kelly Jack, Northland.
Beef finishing, once-bred heifers (OBH) and calf rearing.
Driving time 20mins from Kerikeri and one hour from Whangarei.

The Jack farm is 1400 acres (560ha) with 1000 acres (400ha) effective and the balance is native bush, farm forestry or lake/lagoon. Protected volcanic country occupies 60ha and with restricted fertiliser and farming operations, contains kikuyu-dominant pastures. The farm also has 60ha of flats, and the balance of the effective area is easy rolling Northland clay country.

The farm has been closely subdivided (except the volcanic country) down to 2 and 3ha paddocks (with 8-wire fences and electric outriggers) most of which are further cut in two or three with poly wires.

A feature of the property are the numerous timber lines of poplar and pines along the fencelines, providing shade and some wood return in future. The property is very picturesque with the native bush, timber lines, volcanic outcrops and lakes. Winter grass growth is also a feature of the property and beef finishing is timed to get animals away before the summer dry.

Alec's grandfather bought the base farm of 400ha in 1949, to which has been added more blocks, including lake frontage, in the 1950s, and more pastures carved out of scrub. Alec's father Ned (married to Amber) has farmed the property all his life and changed to all-beef cattle over 25 years ago, when he subdivided down to 2/3ha paddocks to gain more control over pastures and regrowth using cattle. The basic farming approach during the 1980's and 1990's was finishing prime export steers (rising 3yr) to target carcase weights of 345kg, with peak cattle numbers during the year of 1100 to 1200 cattle. Ned was early-adopter of small paddock sizes, after seeing trial work in Northland, and he installed intensive farm water scheme, based on two tanks on high points, fed from the lake, and gravity feeding to troughs in each paddock.

After school and Massey University (B. Ag. 1985-87) Alec travelled overseas and returned to the farm in 1992. In the late 1990's, he worked as a flight attendant on international for Air New Zealand and saved money to put into the farm. He also met and married Kelly, and they have a young daughter and son.

In 1997 Alec began adding in some cows and calves to what had become a bull finishing farm, typical of many around Northland. He used 80 Friesian Hereford cows as nurse cows, which have their own calves (by Simmental bulls) and then have another Friesian or Friesian-cross calf fostered or mothered on, by tethering the two calves together, so the new one gets milk also without being rejected by the cow.

As home-bred heifers came along Alec put them to the bull at 14 months (target weight 320kg) to calve at two years of age, then finishes the heifer after her calf is weaned and she is sent to slaughter. This is the once-bred heifer (OBH) system.

In 2004 he introduced calf rearing on the Poukawa system, using milk powder and meal, bringing on 200 4-day Friesian bull calves sourced from dairy industry.

He hopes to be able to buy in 150-200 R1yr autumn-born bulls each year.

The age structure of the finishing cattle on the Jack property has now shifted to younger, lighter cattle, being R1yr and R2yr bulls. He now aims to carry between 650 and 900 finishing bulls during the year, plus the nurse cow and the OBH herds.

The aim is to get bulls finished before their second winter, and to have most of the stock home-bred or reared, so as to get best quality, fast-growing bulls.

We are typically wintering 700 head, and my aim is to get that closer to 1000, Alec said.

Alec Jack is keen on obtaining quality young stock in an increasingly competitive market, as more farmers turn to beef intensification and finishing. The growth rates, profitability and newly-developed ease of management in dairy bull finishing means that the beef industry is moving away from cow/calf to dairy industry sources. These beef farms dont run their own breeding herds, but come to rely on buying in dairy bull weaners at 100kgs LW and getting them up to 600kgs-plus.

They compete amongst themselves in saleyards for weaners and calves, driving up stock entry prices and reducing margins obtainable.

Alec says Poukawa research has proved that high birth weight bobby bull calves are the fastest growing and best beef finishing animals, but when buying weaners you have no idea how good the calves were.

He has chosen to breed and buy his own dairy-beef bull calves, (as much as he can handle), so that he knows they are good quality (heavy 4 days of age). and have been reared well.

Three methods are used: nurse cows, once-bred heifers and calf rearing. He is keen to form a group of northern farmers who use these methods (and others), swap notes and develop the expertise in young stock rearing. There may be grants available for trial work.

Alec emphasises that he is not going to put forward his management approach as expert, e.g. in nurse cows or OBH, but that he is trying new things and continually looking for a mix which will suit his farm, climate, needs etc. He is a young, well-trained progressive farmer and needs to link up with others in the same situation.

  • He is keen to hear of any variations on these themes and sees the TV programme being a good way to get contact and feedback. The issues in beef finishing at present include:
    Meat companies wanting lighter, more versatile carcases, from which prime cuts can be taken before the balance goes into manufacturing beef. A reduction in the weight limit for overweight carcasses and subsequent schedule penalties will promote a faster turnover of cattle.
  • Less store country, more finishing country, and more farmers who are better able to finish some section of their livestock. Therefore more demand for finishing feedstock/storestock.
  • More Kiwi crossbred cows and more Jersey cows in the dairy industry, which will restrict the availability of high birth-weight Friesian bobby calves. Trend to once-a-day milking will also encourage more Jerseys. The popularity of Friesians for live export to China should help bolster Friesian semen usage in the short term.

Friesian Hereford cows are mated to Simmental bulls and their progeny are doubled up with four-day dairy bull calves, purchased from dairy farms. The two calves are tied together with collars and chains for about three weeks, while the cow accepts and feeds the new calf as her own. The FxH cows are excellent milkers and this system makes the Jacks 80 breeding cows twice as productive. Other nearby farmers are using this nurse cow system with variations such as shelters or even tripling up. Cows are still very useful on the property for controlling kikuyu growth in autumn, to prevent rank, matted pastures during winter and early spring.

However, because of cryptosporidium disease outbreaks among doubled-up calves in recent years, Alec is going to reduce the numbers of cows used as double-up nurses, set-stock after calving those which are used, reduce stress and feed good quality pasture, hay and magnesium supplement. He is also using new pasture rounds to provide uncontaminated feed for cows and calves.

Up to 70 three-way cross heifers from the nurse cow herd (and some FH heifers) are kept and mated at just over one year to calve at two years of age. Alec was using low birth weight EBV (estimated breeding value) Simmental bulls for the heifer matings but recently changed to smaller Angus and Hereford bulls. About two-thirds of the heifers get pregnant in each of 2 cycles, while the rest are finished empty and sent to slaughter. The OBH herd required shepherding at birth, to assist with any difficulties. The use of the Angus bull has helped this birthing issue considerably. When their calves are weaned, the OBH heifers are sent to the works. This system Alec describes as export steers which have replaced themselves before slaughter. The heifers go through a second winter profitably, providing male progeny (half) which can go into the intensive beef finishing system. The heifers are gone before their third winter once-bred only. They must be slaughtered before no more than six permanent incisor teeth have erupted (usually 36 months) so they will grade as heifer beef on both the export and local grading systems.

Alec says it is possible to mate the heifers at 9 months and obtain autumn-born progeny and boost the productivity of the OBH herd further, but because of the cryptosporidium disease issue he won't go that route yet.

Alec took in 200 Friesian bull calves at four days of age last spring for the first time, converting an old shed for some calf housing, mixing milk powder and cleaning equipment with hot water. He used the Poukawa rearing system, which is now popular with all calf rearers, who take four-day calves up to 100kg LW. Calves then went outside on grass with ad-lib meal and reconstituted milk on a daily basis from a 50-teat calfeteria.

This is a lot of work for the six-10 weeks at maximum pressure time on the farm, when finishing cattle need to be shifted every day. Alec is assisted on the farm by his father Ned and employs a farmworker.

Alec is keen to further develop part of his beef finishing platform using a 25ha trial Kiwitech Technosystem and farm mapping using aerial photography, GPS and Resolution software. This produces computerised, ortho-corrected maps on which fence lines, paddock events, water lines, problem areas and targeted fertiliser applications can be recorded and used. NZ Aerial Mapping does the photographing, AgriQuality does the mapping and Ravensdown provides the farm management software and fertiliser advice.

The Techno lanes will go along the lake frontage, where there are no rocks, trees or gullies and the old fencelines can be ripped out. There will be riparian strips retired also, to prevent stock access to the lake and allow for the slow, inevitable lake level rise as the lava rock holes beneath silt up. The Techno will require more water reticulation.

Alec views this 25ha Techno as a trial, to prove the productivity potential, as more Techno development anywhere else on the flats or the hills may require ripping out timber lines and using 2/3-wire electric fences rather than the traditional 8-wire post and batten. That would cut down possible sheep diversification options.

However Alec is planning more uniform 1ha paddocks, and smaller cell sizes, making cattle moving decisions more straightforward.

Irrigation, using the smaller lake's water, may also be an option to boost summer pasture growth.

Apart from fast cattle growth, intensification is also needed to get better control over spring growth to maintain pasture quality through rest of season.

Alec is aiming for maximum profitability at whatever beef productivity/ha level. It is not enough just to push out more beef, if the cost structure is high.