Blackwell Stud and Dairy Grazing
Robin and Jackie Blackwell are award winning dairy support focused farmers and bull breeders, who are passionate about their business and their Taranaki farm environment.
The Blackwell's farm has been in the family since the 1960s. The original block was 80ha and that has been increased over the years to a property that is now 590 effective. The farm takes its name from the Mangaotea Stream, which runs through the property.
We visited the Blackwells first in 2008. At that stage their 600 hectare farm business was roughly 90% cattle, mostly over-wintered dairy cows and dairy heifers on 12-month contracts.
The Blackwells were producing hay and silage, to carry stock through winter – with surplus sold to dairy farmers.
The couple were also were running an on-farm bull sale with the Hereford, Angus, Jersey and Murray Grey bulls on offer mostly selling to repeat local buyers. Their most recent sale was in September 15, 2016. Robin says that beef bulls are increasingly popular among dairy farmers looking for a saleable calf. Robin says the Hereford, Angus and Murray Grey bulls were particularly popular.
In 2006, the couple won a Taranaki District Council Rural Environment Award for sustainable land management, recognising their conservation of land susceptible to rain and flood damage and intensification of more productive areas.
In 2014 the property again won a host of awards in the Ballance Farm Awards including; Beef & Lamb NZ Livestock Award, Donaghys Farm Stewardship Award and Taranaki Regional Council Sustainability Award and Hill Laboratories Harvest Award trophies.
The farm has a total area of 658ha (590ha effective) and runs close to 11,500 stock units at winter peak.
Some time ago the Blackwells shifted from meat and wool farming to grazing dairy cows and heifers and growing supplements, to meet demand from the increasingly lucrative dairy industry.
Since we last visited there’s been a downturn in the dairy sector. The couple says there have been some client changes with some, mostly sharemilkers, dropping out. But they say there’s still strong demand and they have gone from 12 clients to 15.
Managing expectations can be tricky. Robin says you can’t miraculously turn a poor animal into a magnificent one, for an animal to reach it’s full genetic potential it has to start from day one (birth) through to weaning. He says the 6 month to 9 month period is critical to maintain adequate growth through winter, especially with weather challenges, then be ready to take off in spring for mating, through to going home.
Ninety percent of stock units carried are cattle, with 1760 cattle and 800 sheep wintered.
The cattle comprised 220 dairy cows wintered from 1 June until the last week in July and 980 rising one-year dairy heifers on a 12-month contract, 200 registered breeding cows, 60 registered beef heifers, 160 Rising 1yr bulls, 140 Rising 2yr bulls.
The Blackwells say when the first started servicing the dairy sector, what struck them was that it was a lot more client-focused than a traditional sheep and beef farm business.
“A lot of sheep and beef farmers are actually not dealing with clients as such, they’re dealing with their freezing companies, sale yards, whatever. Its pretty hands on in dealing with the dairy industry. You’ve got a large number of clients and they like to be informed of what’s happening and you have to satisfy their targets.”
Robin says good communication is key. “Generally my clients come and inspect their stock, once a year. Information wise we just keep them informed if there’s any problems, otherwise we just go along and do the job.”
Dairy heifers are run on a May to May contract. Around 200 weaner heifers arrive in mid December/January and are run through to May.
Grazing is charged at a base weekly rate, with a target of doubling weights.
Dairy grazing heifers are run in mobs of 100-120, with a first winter rotation of 80 days followed by 40 days .Hay is fed out over winter.
Because the farm is de-stocking with bulls in October and November, the pressure comes off the supplementary feed blocks which gives the Blackwells plenty of feed reserves.
Paddocks growing supplements are shut up from mid April, to be ready for winter cow grazing from early June.
The Blackwells have about 15 grazing clients, one who has been with them since they bought the property in 1991.
Each year purebred bulls are sourced as weaners and yearlings and sold the following year in an on-farm sale. Bulls from Mangaotea’s Hereford, Angus and Murray Grey studs also feature in the sale, and are mostly sold to Taranaki dairy farmers.
The bulls are auctioned on-farm in multi purpose built facilities. The bulls sell mostly to the dairying and dairy grazing industries, with Jerseys the biggest seller. The bull sale business is now a significant income earner, says Robin.
The couple says they’re very strong on traceability. They like to have all the information to back up the bulls they sell.
Constant handling and rigorous selection ensures a quiet temperament, essential on dairy farms.
The emphasis is on moderate birthweight/higher growth rate bulls – for ease of calving and a good product for rearers and finishers.
The last bull leaves Mangaotea in late November – which allows the next phase in the property’s calendar to proceed.
Prior to tackling the diary grazing the Blackwells were 50:50 sheep and cattle.
In 2008 Robin and Jacqui were running roughly 1000 ewes on the property plus replacements – all lambs are fattened for the works. At that stage they were looking to lift sheep numbers and increase breeding cow numbers, however the sheep numbers have decreased and breeding cow numbers have climbed rapidly, all for self-supply for the annual bull sale.
The flock is Romney base with Southdown used as terminal sire over the entire mob. Replacement ewes are bought in as two-tooths. Lambing this year was 130%.
The Blackwells also have a Southdown Sheep Stud from which they breed their own terminal sires and sell rams into Taranaki, Manawatu and Wairarapa.
Flexibility and Timing
A key to the property’s success is the flexibility provided by the 120 hectares conserved for hay and silage, winter cow grazing and also providing reserve grazing when needed. The stud, dairy grazing and sheep workloads fall at different times of the year.
The stock classes run at Mangaotea are also complementary, with the cattle workload increasing in winter when the sheep require just a shift every few days. The busy bull-selling season and calving coincides when a lot of winter grazing stock leaves the property in late winter/early spring.
Riparian Management and Covenants
Fencing and planting the stream began in the 1990s. They’re also fencing and planting minor tributaries to keep stock out of waterways.
Robin said riparian fencing and planting was part of any development both because it protected the environment and made wintering cattle much easier.
They’ve also placed two 1.5ha peat swamp areas under a Queen Elizabeth II covenant and are planning to establish covenants on other areas of the farm.