Landcorp Weka Farm

September 2011

A massive property is developed by land "flipping" for dairy, deer, sheep and beef farming

A massive 7000 ha property near Lake Brunner on the West Coast is undergoing continued and significant development. In eight years they’ve taken scrub covered swamp blocks and turned them into productive dairy, beef and deer land.

The farm is owned by Landcorp. The total area is 7043 ha but around 5500 of that is effective.

There are currently five dairy farms, three deer farms, plus beef and dairy support blocks.

When the current stage of development is finished in 2012. there will be close to 5200 dairy cows being milked with a target of 350kg milksolids/cow. The total goal for the 2013/14 season is 1.8 million kg milksolids.

There is a capital development project taking place at the moment – bringing into production around 600 ha in the next 3- 4 years.

There are five dairy farms – Souters, Kotuku, Bell Hill, Ruru and Blairs – dairy’s contribution to the complex’s income will be around $11.6m/year.

Peter says the strengths of the complex of properties are regular rainfall, the economies of scale that come with such a big size and a diversity of land type.

Rain can also be a weakness especially around spring when feed supply and stock get a hammering if big rains come. Another challenge is attracting and retaining labour to what is quite an isolated area. Weeds are an issue right through the conversion.

Much of the development has been humping and hollowing on swampy paddocks.

Landcorp has become very good at converting marginal land to some of the best-looking dairying land on the Coast. The work has been taken on by 30t diggers which have literally tipped the land upside down, burying the upper soil layers and turning them into rows of rolling humps and hollows.

The undulating, gravel-based land initially looks like it would be good for little other than a scavenging crop. But a good dose of fertiliser, well-seeded pasture and careful grazing with drystock for at least one season results in a pasture that dairy cows like.

The capital fertiliser, required on what is essentially the bare bones of a new soil, is considerable with 2t/ha of lime and 2t/ha of dolomite. That’s followed by phosphate, sulphur super and potash. Two dressings of urea of potash are applied once pasture has struck.

From then on, relatively high rates of nitrogen (N) of up to 300 units/ha must be applied each year until topsoil deepens and organic matter builds up.

Peter Aitken is proud of what the team in the Weka operation have achieved over the past eight years, with around 2200ha turned over and developed into dairying, as well as another 480ha for drystock.

Landcorp is showing what can be achieved on the Coast. Before conversion, the land was valued at around $1500/ha. The cost of humping and hollowing was around $12,000/ha with total development costs coming in at $19,000/ha.

At ongoing average conservative dairy payouts, the development stacks up.

This farm or “unit” is roughly 4500ha. It has 133 ha in forestry and is around 3200 effective.

There’s around 200 ha targeted here for development.

One of the challenges is that TB is endemic in the area. Currently the block has 3000 breeding hinds, 300 odd yearling deer, 700 dairy calves, nearly 1000 dairy heifers, and another 900 in dairy support and beef cattle. In the next five years, Peter wants to lift deer breeding numbers and put a big focus on deer finishing.

The aim is to lift to 3500 by end of development. Hinds will stay on breeding country only.

Policy of red stags will change, and a terminal influence will be introduced at a 100% ratio to make finishing earlier. All weaners after development stage will be retained and finished to a target of 58kg.

To dramatically lift deer numbers they have large scale development in mind – they will also drop diary finishers and the beef cattle currently on the block.

Like many other Landcorp farm dairies, the 60-bail rotary is also fitted with MilkHub, an integrated in-line sensor system that not only helps detect mastitis but also measures milk flow. It incorporates walk-over weighing, automatic drafting and the ability to adjust feeding in the dairy to individual cow requirements. It also sets alerts for specific cows using the electronic identification ear tags and in-shed tag reader.

The effluent system incorporates a wedge sump and mechanical solids separator as well as 30 days’ liquid effluent storage in a large, 150mm thick concrete-lined pond complete with stirrer.

Environmental stewardship is given high priority on the Landcorp farms, including the Weka complex. Streams are fenced and planting is continuing. There are 20km of creeks, meaning 40km of planting to cover both banks.

Now that the dairy farms are up and running the focus is on lifting production. They use a feed budgeting programme to help allocate paddocks and identify any surpluses or shortages early.

“We’ve got what I believe are some of the best set up farms on the Coast here and now it’s time to see what they can really do”.

The Weka complex has numerous native bush areas, creeks, wetlands and moss

swamps on the property, therefore environmental issues play a big part in the planning and implementation of any development programmes. Landcorp has established a “Land Development Standard” that is adhered to when carrying out land development, most prevalent when humping and hollowing on Weka. In conjunction with the development standards, monitoring is carried out on creeks and waterways as the development is carried out to assess the effect if any on the development work. As the development work is done creeks are left with up to 20 metre riparian strips and all bush and wetlands left as is and fenced out.

On all units areas of bush with significant creeks are fenced out and where practical as development continues, other creeks and waterways will be fenced out. The property has a number of areas with covenants protecting native bush in particular (kanuka, rata/kamahi forest, kahikatea, and mixed hardwood/podocarp). There are other areas on the property that are fenced out and not grazed as they are wetlands and native bush that provide no grazing value and stock would damage them if grazed. Nutrient inputs and levels are monitored on an annual basis. It is always the intent to only undertake sustainable, semi intensive farming practices and those that will have least impact on the environment, particularly on the waterways.

Weka’s management are looking at more dairy heifer grazing and wintering – they’ve also given thought to the possibility of tourism.

At a practical level there is apparently still land that could be humped and hollowed.

They’ve also looked at getting a machinery syndicate underway.

There is a public perception that intensification of agricultural activity on the West Coast is leading to increased nutrient runoff. The New Zealand Landcare Trust is very aware of this potential problem and is currently co-ordinating community groups to become involved in an integrated approach to catchment management. However, there is a significant role for practical science to provide information that will avoid any public confusion by clarifying the extent of nutrient runoff from West Coast farmland, and to provide practical solutions to farmers for minimising runoff.

The high rainfall, unusual soils and the extent to which “humping and hollowing” farming practices occur on the West Coast provide for a unique situation. Land management practices from other parts of the country cannot easily be transferred to the West Coast situation. Humping and hollowing is still advocated as having “vast potential for the West Coast” (Westland Dairy Co-operative Pamphlet), and there may be methods of mitigating nutrient runoff that are specific to this type of land conversion. With projected increases for further land conversion using this technique, there is a need to provide community groups and the farming community with factual information and tools to deal with nutrients from West Coast farms.

It is necessary to continually improve the environmental performance of farms to meet international and domestic expectations and obligations. This project will significantly contribute to meeting these expectations and will therefore benefit the farming community and the farming industry, particularly the dairy industry. Agricultural impacts on water quality are a prominent issue throughout New Zealand, and the West Coast is no exception. The Lake Brunner catchment in particular, has come under the scrutiny of the Ministry for the Environment and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Farmers in the catchment have made significant improvements, and this project will further enable them, dairy farmers throughout the West Coast, and Westland Milk Products to meet environmental performance expectations.

This project will :

1. determine the effects of humping & hollowing land management on nutrient runoff;

2. provide practical solutions for mitigating nutrient runoff;

3. interact with farmers to assess the social and economic costs and benefits of humping & hollowing land conversions;

4. allow for informal interviews to gain good understanding so that solutions are practical.