Making the Most of Water Starborough-Flaxbourne project

April 2008
In 2004 a meeting of farmers in the Starborough-Flaxbourne area, concerned at reducing rainfall, increasing erosion and falling profitability, set up a soil conservation group. The meeting was arranged by NZ Landcare Trust which has supported the local community to put together a project, apply for research funds and obtain the help of a range of specialists who have all contributed to solving some of the problems of dry land farming. Doug Avery is chair of the Starborough Flaxbourne Soil Conservation Group

The Averys property is one of two farms where trials have been held. Prior to the formation of the Conservation Group, Doug had made substantial changes to the amount of lucerne grown way he used it as the productive engine of his business, based on the research findings of Prof. Derrick Moot of Lincoln University. As part of the Project he took that further by introducing high fertility genetics to his flock, matching stock numbers more closely to feed availability, and growing Omaka barley to fill gaps in lucerne growth. The profitability of lamb and beef cattle finishing has improved dramatically and he has been able to survive continual dry years better than many other dry land farmers.

Other measures include:

A summer fallow to conserve moisture is an essential in the successful establishment of barley crops.

Planting saltbush and Tagasaste (tree Lucerne) on slopes in danger of further erosion has stabilised the soil and provides a feed bank for emergency use. Tagasaste also flowers in winter, providing essential food for bumble bees that are needed to pollinate lucerne that is grown for seed.

Fencing off some of the small remaining areas of natural bush vegetation as part of conservation efforts, and in terms of social conservation Doug is establishing a walkway through his property that leads to a high vantage point giving great views across the area to the mountains and out to sea. He points out that unless economic conservation is successful (ie. farms make a profit) farmers will not be able to afford environmental conservation let alone social conservation.

In the lifetime of the project the profitability of the Avery farm doubled a great result given lamb and wool prices and the fact that many other farms in the region have had greatly reduced profits.

The Project winds up in with a field day to be held on May 14 2008. Its findings are applicable to many dry east coast regions of both Islands.

When Prof. Derrick Moot returned to NZ in the mid 90s after working overseas he was surprised at how little lucerne was being grown on dry land farms. He put together a research programme to work out what the problems were and how to resolve them, and in the late 90s took a roadshow to several areas where lucerne was grown.

Many farmers had lucerne on their properties but used it just to make hay or silage. Although lucerne is highly nutritious fodder for lambs it starts growing three to four weeks later in spring than a ryegrass/clover pasture. Farmers reasoned that if lambing were delayed to match lucernes growth pattern lambs would not get to finished weights before the dry season started, says Prof. Moot.

However, the research programme identified some flexibility in grazing management of lucerne. Many farmers believed that they had to wait for the plant to get to 10% flowering before it could be grazed, but we found they could start grazing it two to three weeks earlier.

Prof. Moot put together a revised management package for lucerne, which included the following elements:

A six-week grazing rotation

Grazing the first area can start as soon as the plants reach 10-15cm high. After six weeks it will have regrown to around 50cm

Grazing ewes and lambs together for highest growth rates you dont have to wait until after weaning

Easing off grazing in the Autumn and allowing lucerne to seed. This allows it to recharge its root reserves and improves its persistence.

Grow a greenfeed crop such as barley to flush ewes on and provide winter fodder.

Ryegrass and white clover pastures fit most farming systems, so farmers have learnt to be very good at managing them. Understanding the intricacies of a specialist forage like lucerne actually does take time and farmers do have to adapt their systems and consider change and it is not all plain sailing, says Prof. Moot.

Essentially the message is look after your animals in spring using increased grazing flexibility, and look after the crop in the autumn by letting it seed.

Doug Avery, a sheep farmer at Grassmere in the Starborough-Flaxbourne district, attended one of Prof. Moots 1998 meetings. With rainfall consistently falling below the long-term average of 575mm and pastures burning up he was having great difficulty finishing lambs and was suffering financially. Prof. Moots message struck a chord.

Doug began to change his management of the lucerne areas and had considerable success in finishing lambs. He also started to increase the area planted in lucerne. In about 2002 he and Derrick Moot met again, and Doug was able to fine tune his grazing management further.

The Starborough-Flaxbourne district is one of the driest in the country. Westerly winds plus grazing on hilly country can result in bare land and erosion. In the early 2000s farmers were becoming increasingly concerned by the impact of continual drought and soil loss, and the impact on profitability, farm families and the community. In 2004 the NZ Landcare Trust, organized a public meeting on these issues in Seddon. As a result the Starborough-Flaxbourne Soil Conservation Group was formed to seek funding for farm-based trials.

The Trust is a non-profit organisation set up in 1996 to facilitate sustainable land management and biodiversity enhancement in New Zealand. It works with landcare groups, recreational interests, iwi, farming groups and community environmental groups to achieve action on the ground.

With the Trusts help, the Group obtained funding from the Sustainable Farming Fund and secured the involvement of the Marlborough Research Council and the Marlborough District Council, plus specialists in farm business modelling, pasture plants for dry-land farming, soil science, climate change, landscape and social issues.

Over the past three years much has been learnt, and the Project is drawing to a close. A field day will be held in May, and the Trust hopes to secure funding for other extension activities to publicise the findings, which are applicable to many of the east coast areas of both Islands.

Doug Avery is the chair of the Conservation Group, and his farm is one of two on which trials were held. The farm is 1100ha, largely dry hill country but with 200ha of fertile flats. Since his grandfather started farming there in 1919 there has always been around 50ha of lucerne that has been conserved as hay and cropped for seed. Since 1998 Doug has increased the lucerne area to 300ha and plans to plant more.

Currently the property is stocked with 2500 ewes, 650 hoggets, 150 breeding cows, 30 heifers and 30 steers.

As a result of Project trials and advice received he has made a number of changes to management strategies including lucerne grazing, forage crop type and establishment, sheep breeding policy, matching of stock numbers more closely to feed availability, planting of ridges and steep areas in fodder trees, retiring of other areas, and establishing a walkway to a high point on the farm.

Lambing starts on 25th July but lucerne cant be grazed until the third week in August, so there is a feed gap. Omaka barley has proved to be excellent for flushing ewe hoggets prior to mating, and providing winter feed for ewes and through lambing to tailing at three weeks. The key to establishing the crop is a summer fallow the area to be sown is sprayed out in late spring. Says Doug:

Soil moisture is quite good in spring but as we progress towards summer the grass pumps the soil dry, and one of the things that we have learnt is that the earlier we spray those areas out with glyphosate the higher the amount of moisture we can conserve in the soil. We direct drill barley around the 15th of February, and even in the hottest summer there is enough moisture to get the seeds going. It is essentially borrowing some of the spring moisture and taking it through to the autumn.

The initial growth is always reasonably poor, but as the autumn rains come and the nights get cooler it comes away and we are can often pre-tup flush the hoggets in the middle of March on beautiful cereal barley. We start building the ewes up around mid-February on peas and baleage. Mating is on 1st March for the ewes and 1st April for the hoggets and that gives us our first lambs on the 25th of July.

This season Doug had 80 ha in summer fallow.

The flock originally comprised Corriedale-Polled Dorset ewes, but Doug has recently Rissington Highlander rams to increase fertility.

We have turned our back on wool. Our vision is that we are now lamb farm, which is not trendy at present, but we have confidence in the long-term future of it. I want to reduce the flock by at least 500 in the next few years and increase its fertility. The Highlander is a Romney Finn Texel cross and a very high fertility sheep and as the Finn genetics slowly goes through our flock we are starting to get more lambs with fewer sheep.

At the moment we either sell, or have come back into the breeding flock, 135 to 140% of lambs, up from 128% in 2005. Our vision is to lift it closer to 160 and I believe that we will achieve that with the breeding program we have in place.

We have a low regard for single bearing sheep here and that is a kind of interesting twist because in the late 90s a lot of farmers here found themselves forced to sell their multiple birth ewes because they couldn't feed them and they hung onto singles, but the long-term consequences of that are very bad indeed in that you require a lot more feet on your property to generate the same number of lambs. A well-fed twinner is far more profitable than a single.

Growth rates of lambs on lucerne are very high around 390g per day compared with the NZ average of about 175g and that makes it possible to get 90% of lambs finished and away before the summer dry. Similarly, 18 month cattle can be finished on lucerne before summer. Omaka barley, peas and some hay are used at other critical times when lucerne is not growing or is being left to go to seed.

We have come to realise that we are actually operating a 10 month farming system. We have December and January to enjoy Marlborough at its finest hot sunny weather with the minimum number of stock here. That is great for the environment because it avoids the grazing and treading damage to the hills, says Doug.

Two successful species have been identified tagasaste (tree lucerne) and saltbush to help conserve dry faces, provide shade and shelter, create a micro-environment for other species to establish or exist on dry faces, and provide a feed bank.

Tagasaste: Sheep absolutely love it and it has a very high feed value, but the primary focus is to provide winter food for the lucerne pollinator bumble bee Bombus terrestris when they emerge from winter hibernation in July. In this area there is nothing for them to eat, but Tagasaste bursts into flower at that time for 6-8 weeks, so we have planted quite an area of it over the last couple of years on dry faces. We don't intend grazing them much, but in time as they re-seed we might use them as fodder banks too.

Saltbushes In the Starborough-Flaxbourne Project we planted saltbushes on a few sites. On this farm they have established really well and we are now creating fodder banks on some of those impoverished hills. The bushes are now big, they create shade effects, they slow the wind, and they create micro-environments for much improved species to exist on some of those faces.

They are expensive to establish by planting, but they will last forever and what we are doing there is rebuilding the soil where over a century of indifferent farm management has removed a lot of it. This year to try to reduce the cost of establishment I ripped a hill and hand spread seed. The result is nowhere near as good as planting, but I am sure that we can refine it get a much better result.

Southeastern Marlborough has only about 2% of its original vegetation left, and Doug points out that it is difficult to recreate what was once there because of very dry conditions and also because farmers generally cannot afford the cost. However, through the Project and the work of the Marlborough District Council there is greater awareness of the value of the remnants.

In last few years I have taken part in the significant natural areas programme with the Marlborough District Council and the government, and they have given us some assistance to fence some of these areas off and plant them.

We fenced off an area off 4ha cabbage trees, flax and toi-toi and we have planted kahikatea and totara, but with the extreme dry we have had this last year they have been really struggling. Another block is 10 ha and I hope that we will be able to do more as time, money and organisation allow.

Doug regrets the growing distance between town and country, and sees that developing social assets as important in healing that rift and creating more understanding. He has almost completed construction of a walkway to a vantage point on the farm from which there are panoramic views right across Cook Strait over the vineyard areas.

In the last few years I have come to realise that it is quite special. We have had quite a lot of people doing the walk as private individuals and they always come back very enthusiastic -- it's one of those walks that's probably better to do in winter when the mountains aren't so appealing and at this time of the year it is rather hot up there.

One of the most disturbing things that has happened in the last 10 years of my life is the social dislocation between rural and urban people, and the response from some farmers has been shut the gate and put on the biggest padlock to keep them out. My response is completely the opposite, I want to open my gate and want them to come and see a working farm, understand the challenges and the delights of rural New Zealand.

All of us in the Starborough Flaxbourne Soil Conservation Group are quite passionate and excited about the potential of this area. Gone are the days of worry and despair and trying to make unreasonable demands on this land in this climate. Our energy is now directed to trying to learn the rules and lessons so that we can sit with nature and take what is fair, and manage the land in a way that is sustainable in the long term.

A field day will be held on Dougs property on Wednesday 14th May, the main findings will be published for farmers, and a report is to be given at the Grasslands Conference in October.