Nelson and Fiona Hancox at Kowai Downs

November 2012

Nelson and Fiona Hancox are high profile achievers in the sheep industry

Nelson and Fiona Hancox run a very successful and deceptively simple sheep and beef business at Tapanui, and have collected a clutch of titles including winning the NZ Ewe Hogget competition in 2010.

Nelson and Fiona have a long-term vision to carry on sheep and beef farming, and since starting out farming in 1984 have expanded their business to now run three farms and they produce 30,000 lambs a year. They have won many awards including being runner up to the Clutha Sheep Farmers of the Year in 1999, and winning it in 2000; in 2005 they were Lincoln Foundation Rabobank Farmers of the Year; the same year they became local monitor farmers for their second farm Wohelo, and then they won the 2010 NZ Ewe Hogget Competition, after taking out the crossbred section prize. On their third farm, Mt Allen, which is managed by Julian Kelly, they won a prize for ewe hoggets in mobs of more than 1600 ewe lambs.

Both Nelson and Fiona, who are from farming families, are committed to the sheep and beef industry.

Nelson started farming on his own account in 1984 after doing a Dip Ag at Lincoln. Then he bought a farm in Northern Southland, with the help of his parents, and began farming.

The 1980’s were very tough years in farming and he learnt some fairly hard lessons about interest rates and how to survive downturns.

“We were really lucky to have had very good family support from both our sets of parents.”

They have built their business to now owning three farms: the home farm Kowai Downs at Tapanui, Wohelo at Moa Flat, and Mt Allen at Parkhill, Heriot.

Kowai Downs means no natural water, and Wohelo is a made-up name of the first two letters of the words work, health and love.

Part of the driver for their enthusiasm for farming sheep comes from going on a tour to the UK and Europe in 2005 which was part of their Lincoln Foundation Rabobank prize package.

Nelson says everyone was downsizing their ewe flocks at the time. “I said if everyone is doing that, there has to be really good potential to stay in it and grow our business, and that is what we have done.”

The couple have worked with their families on succession planning, and it has been a well thought out process since they began farming in 1984.

Neither of Nelson or Fiona’s fathers came from farming backgrounds, but both were astute businesspeople who ran their farms as businesses rather than as lifestyles. They both had a major influence on Nelson and Fiona’s business.

Fiona’s “amazing” father Colin Richardson, who died last year, was a town boy who had been helped by the Patterson family in the Maniatoto. They helped finance Colin into his first farm as a 24 year old, and he built his business to 13 farms over 30 years, running 35,000 stock units. At the same time he helped many other young people into farms, some with share-farming, and mentoring.

They spent nine years on their first farm at Balfour in Northern Southland, moving from there back to their home base at Tapanui in 1993.

The home block has been added to over the years and is now 550ha.

Their sheep objectives are to have an easy care, reasonably non-shepherded ewe flock lambing itself with low labour. “I keep the systems very simple really.”

They don’t make any hay, or balage or silage, and their ewes eat either grass or brassica crops.

This saves a huge amount of time in both summer and winter, and makes their systems easier and safer, particularly in winter.

Their philosophy is to develop the land by first brassica cropping and then regrassing. The crops are used to help finish lambs in autumn, and provide a huge tonnage of dry matter for mid to late winter.

Altogether across the three farms they mate 20,000 ewes and 2400 of the 5500 hoggets are also mated. Scanning levels are around 170-172%, and lambing ranges from 142-147%.

The three farms are run separately, with separate managers including Julian Kelly at Mt Allen and Paul Slack at Wohelo. Running the farms separately enables the strengths and weaknesses of each farm to be identified, and a close eye kept on achievements.

The monitor farm programme has rubbed off on the whole business, with feed budgeting particularly in autumn, and lots of comparisons across the three about lamb weights and kg of meat produced per ha.

Across the three farms about 200ha of pasture is regrassed into permanent ryegrasses and white clover a year.

Brassicas are an important component of their feed supply, with about 70% swedes, 15% kale and 15% soft turnips grown.

About 30ha of tussockland is sprayed out each autumn, worked in early winter and then fallowed for sowing in November. The rest of the pasture renovation is carried out in spring.

Each farm has its own strengths: the home farm is generally summer safe and reasonably frost free, which keeps pasture quality high.

Mt Allen is 780ha, and is good for stock health, with deep gullies offering lots of natural shelter. “We are fencing appropriately so that the stock can always get into the deep gullies.”

Wohelo is 1360ha, and is at a higher altitude. “It does hang on well in a dry summer but is prone to snow.”

Sheep are overwhelmingly the species of choice, with 100% sheep on the home farm at the moment (sometimes they have 3% cattle), Mt Allen 88% and Wohelo 82% sheep.

“In the last 20 years sheep have been more profitable than cattle unless you are bull farming on good ground.”

The small component of cattle is to keep the pastures in order and to have a wee bit of slack in the system to allow destocking if necessary.

Nelson and Fiona source rams from all over the country for their Romdale type ewe operation, including Romneys from Richard Slee’s Waiarakai stud at Nightcaps, from David Hildreth in Hawke’s Bay, while Perendales come from Donald Robbie at Otapawa in Wairarapa, and Dennis Bell in Hawke’s Bay. Texel South Suffolk rams come from Fraser Allan at Balfour.

All their stock is supplied to Silver Fern Farms. “We have had a great run with them.”

The lamb target is an 18kg average, with all the lambs being finished at 17-19kg weights across the scales.

Nelson says they don’t do anything fancy, but they are consistently, year in and year out, achieving lambings of around 145-150% at home and on their Wohelo hill block.

In 2005 they put the Inverdale gene through the Wohelo flock, which resulted in a significant lambing lift.

Across the properties this consistent lambing, good lamb weights, strong genetics and the regrassing programme are all factors contributing to their success.

Grassland farming is really important to us, Nelson says. “It’s what New Zealanders do really well. If we can grow legume ryegrass based pastures without using a lot of nitrogen, and grow healthy animals on it, it is great.”

He says the Grasslands Association’s research is a really important part of NZ and worldwide agriculture.

That’s why they are both enthusiastic members of the Association, and Nelson is the chairman of the local organizing committee for the next Grasslands conference to be held in Gore from November 6-8.

The conference, which is expected to attract 300-400 people, is a great showcase for Eastern Southland and West Otago, he says.

There will be a good cross-section of properties to visit, including dairy, deer and sheep and beef farms. The theme of the conference is the opportunities of changing land use.