Otakanini Topu Maori Inc

June 2013
South Kaipara Head farming business Otakanini Topu's goal is to become more profitable, but not at the expense of land or water quality, and with due care for important ancestral sites - all part of their sustainable farming plan.

Otakanini Topu is a 2750ha property just north of Helensville, running sheep and beef and 600ha of forestry. There are 600ha of mangroves and mudflats, and 1550ha of effective pastures. The farm runs from Muriwai Beach to the Kaipara Harbour, and most of the land drains towards the harbour. It's almost 9km from coast to harbour. The lightest land is the sand hill country to the west, which runs up to 190m asl.

Manager Ray Monk who has a Diploma in Agribusiness Management from AgITO, started work on the farm in the drought of 2008/9. He had been working as a farm manager in the King Country, a role which he began at age 22.

Since he started work at Otakanini Topu, the farm has seen many changes.

At first he needed to know what base resources he was working with, so for the first 12 months he gathered information and called in a range of specialists to help. The farm's soils were tested and profiled, then mapped for land use capability and soil degradation. Fertiliser specialist Doug Edmeades of AgKnowledge developed a fertiliser programme to suit the new regime.

The stock policy has changed from store to finishing. An animal health programme was developed when, as a result of drench tests, drench resistance was found.

It was too expensive to sell the 6000 ewes and buy in 6000 to replace them, so they went slowly, selling 2000 ewes a year and buying in 1500 replacements. The replacements are five and six year facial eczema resistant ewes which are kept for a year and mated to Auckland Romney Development Group rams which are also facial eczema resistant.

Now only 1500 of the older ewes remain and they are mated to terminal sires. The best ram lambs from the terminal sires are kept and run over the maternal hoggets.

The farm runs 600 Angus cows including heifers, and now all their progeny is finished on the farm, either in a specialist bull unit (all the bull calves are left entire) or a heifer finishing unit. They have moved from selling all the progeny as yearlings on the store market to selling at 18 to 20 months.

Ray's focus has been to ensure the farm is geared up to cope with environmental impacts. One of those is the problem of sand blow - the hills were moving with the wind when he first started as a result of grazing by heavy cattle. He was worried leaving problems like this would simply make them very difficult to solve in another 20 or 30 years.

So now sheep are run on the light sandy country, rather than the heavy cattle. This land makes up 570ha of the property, while another 720ha can cope with heavier animals, and 260ha is for finishing.

Development is a balancing act: they want to increase the production on the farm, but need more water and better pastures in order to do so. And they didn't want to borrow to do this work. The last couple of good years have given them a buffer in order to continue development.

December to April is a tough time on the farm for finishing lambs, so they need crops to do this. They are now increasing the area of summer crops for the lambs from 40 to 80ha. "We target paddocks we can make more money out of. At present we spend pretty much nothing on the sand paddocks except for the water. Most of the capital development is on the front country where we can generate more income."

They were asked to join the integrated Kaipara Harbour Management Group, people who are interested in looking after the water quality and health of the Kaipara Harbour.

This group has several flagship farms around the harbour, and Otakanini is part of that group, which meets for field days and works on mitigating problems. At first the Rodney District Council was involved, now the Auckland Council is.

A farm plan was drawn up including farm policies, environmental issues and cultural and heritage sites.

For instance the water system which they have been installing has been done in conjunction with Malcolm Patterson to ensure they don't put pipes through any pa sites or sites of cultural significance - of which there are many on the farm.

They've debated how best to look after these sites, and Ray explains they have come to a compromise of grazing them with sheep but excluding cattle, whose hooves can damage the earthworks.

The farm is also fencing off waterways and works in with Trees for Survival to plant areas along the wetlands with native trees.

The Council has also been helping with grants for this work.

It's on-going work Ray explains. "We want to eventually fence off all the waterways that lead to the harbour." But first they must provide alternative water supplies for stock, and they are currently on stage two of a a five-stage water reticulation project.

Part of their forestry area of 600ha was harvested two years ago, and they are just organising contracts for thinning work now. All the pines are on sand country and are part of Woodhill Forest which was quite recently returned to the owners.

Ray says their staff are a crucial part of the business, and all the staff are shareholders. Some have been working on the farm for 30 years. "They've made it easy for me," he says.

They've just employed a cadet, and are developing a relationship with Taratahi.

The farm is also open for horse treks and orienteering, with a fee to use the farm going to the local community.