Cape Foulwind Flipping Amazing!

September 2005
A huge Landcorp property in a remote and exposed location with poor soil and modest production is being transformed into highly productive land capable of profitable dairying and deer production. A key element in the process is flipping over the soil profile with excavators, then pouring on the lime and fertilisers. About 1600ha has been done so far, three dairying units established and a young stock unit is under way. Although the whole process is expensive over $10,000/ha it more than trebles the carrying capacity of the land, and at current export prices it is economic. The intention over time is to renovate most of the property this way.

The Property, near Westport, is 5000ha of mainly Pakahi soil with up to three iron pans that prevent vertical drainage through the soil profile. Consequently the soil is wet and pugs easily.

Currently the property is running 3000 dairy cows (a mixture of Jersey, Friesian and crosses) plus young stock, 9500 red deer with elk and wapiti cross bulls, 2000 Perendale ewes and replacements, and 400 Angus cows.

The wet soil has in the past limited pasture production and was more suited to light stock. The Lands & Survey Department started development in the late 60s by oversowing and initially running large mobs of cattle. On some land they developed small dairy units and settled young farmers on them. However, the Department farmed most of the land running mainly sheep, plus a few deer and beef cattle at about 6 su/ha.

Paul Hateley started on the property as a fencer in the early 70s, and has risen through the ranks to property manager.

When Landcorp was formed, a scoping survey in the 90s recommended focusing on dairying and deer. Unlike some other Landcorp properties, no DDT had ever been used in the area, and an economic analysis showed promising internal rates of return.

Flipping was the key to achieving greater productivity. A local farmer, Alan King, pioneered a method of digging over the soil profile to break through the iron pans, bury the peaty surface slush, stumps and rocks, and bring clean sand to the surface. At the same time the surface is humped and hollowed to provide better runoff for the heavy rains experienced there at times. Flipping can be done at any time of year but August to March is best to avoid erosion of the sand by heavy rains.

Once the soil dries tractors and spreaders can be used to topdress, cultivate and sow seed. The sandy peaty top is highly acid and contains few nutrients so heavy applications of lime and fertilisers are necessary typically 3 - 5t/ha of lime, 2t/ha of dolomite plus 1t/ha of Pakahi-starter mix (a serpentine super, potash and sulphur mix with some trace elements). At sowing another 300 kg/ha of Crop 15 is applied to meet the N requirement.

Four years ago flipping was started using, at times, up to a dozen excavators, some of which were specially imported with wide tracks so that they would not sink into the wet ground. So far, some 1600ha have been flipped, and more is being done but at a much slower rate.

Three dairy units have been established, each around 400ha and running a herd of 1000, and a fourth unit to run young stock is now under way. As well as pasture work these have required new fences, races, water supply and culverts. Access to a community water supply and plenty of sand for races and shed surrounds have kept the all-up cost to around $10,000/ha. Extra houses have been built for new staff.

Sheep and beef cattle numbers have been cut right back, and deer increased. Despite the initial lack of organic matter, pasture growth after three years is vigorous and increasing. Carrying capacity on the renovated land has trebled. Dairy production is around 7- 800 kg of milk solids per hectare, close to 400 kg of solids per cow.

Despite the good performance the venture is economic largely because the Westland dairy company has recently announced an increase in payout, and their share price is only at $1.50. At Fonterra prices it would be a different story.

Drying out the ground has led to a severe infestation of Porina caterpillars and manuka beetle grubs, particularly in the second year. There are no biological controls available yet (Landcare are working on it) but John Collie says the bird population is building up and hopes that natural predators and pathogens will increase so that in years to come it will be less of an issue.