Pattullo Beef Finishing

May 2018

Meeting the environmental and economic challenges of farming hill country in Hawke's Bay

A flexible system of finishing beef bulls in 1ha cells on pasture alone has been designed to match the strengths and weaknesses of Hawkes Bay hill country and to be profitable and sustainable. Robert and Helen Pattullo won last year’s East Coast Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award for their environmentally friendly approach to cattle management and soil conservation in the sensitive Ahuriri catchment.

The Pattullo farm is 817ha (effective) of mainly rolling to steep hill country at Puketapu, inland from Napier. In the mid 1980s when Robert and Helen Pattullo became involved in its management the farm was dominated by sheep – 6000 breeding ewes, along with a beef cow breeding herd to tidy up after the sheep. Several years of droughts led to serious financial challenges, and Robert says that they simply had to change.

“The system I developed was not a revolution, but an evolution. We started with reticulating water. Originally there were just a few paddocks around the house and the rest was streams and dams that let us down in summer. So we planned to reticulate the whole farm and started with a few of the easier areas,” he says.

“We bought thousands of pigtail standards and broke up areas with string electric wire, and that worked well. Then from the mid-80s to the mid-90s the stock policy evolved – the sheep and a lot of the breeding cows went and we just changed into a bull-finishing system.”

 “Over time we extended the reticulated water system and squared up the cells because a lot of them were in a wagon wheel configuration around a central trough and that created all sorts of problems. Instead we put in 200 L concrete troughs that two cells would share and replaced the string with wire etc. We have adapted fairly standard subdivision, water and stocking management to our hilly contour and that’s what makes it a little bit unconventional. Stock trading and finishing have been very successful in providing us with flexibility to match cattle numbers to pasture supply in a challenging climate and that has assisted us to maintain profitability.”

The total farm area of 935ha comprises about one third rolling, a third medium hills and a third steep hill country. The Pattullos run 1150 mainly Friesian R2 bulls purchased in April/May each year at around 450 kg liveweight. These are wintered in the1 ha cells on pasture only – no cropping, no supplements fed and only a very small amount of nitrogen is used in the spring to get the grass under way for calving cows – a small herd of 90 mixed aged beef cows.

Drafting out the bulls for slaughter starts around the second week of November they are all off the property by mid February. The farm “rests over the summer and replenishes itself” and grows feed for the next lot of bulls. The only stock held over summer is a herd of 90 mixed age beef cows that are used to tidy up rank growth. The weaner heifers the herd produces are sold in March and weaner bulls are retained and fed into the bull finishing system. Robert buys in-calf cows as necessary for replacements.

The system he has developed is flexible and suits the summer-dry climate of the East Coast. Robert has used the Farmax computer modeling system for 12 years and now has plenty of data that help him to predict pasture growth and so guide purchase and sale of bulls. “Farmax gives us a very good idea of the pasture covers we need before we start buying, and the amount of pasture growth that we can expect through the autumn – at times we need to be patient and wait before purchasing cattle. It also helps determine the number of stock we should put on. Similarly in the spring there is a fine balance between animal liveweight and growth rates, projections of pasture growth and when to start to quitting stock,” he says. “We have seen a change in the seasons in recent years – we used to buy most cattle in April and start the first rotation on 1 May but now we are buying the majority in May. The date we start quitting stock has also changed from about the third week in October to the second week in November.”

Management of the bulls requires regular monitoring of liveweights and pasture covers. It also takes into account that the stock come from a range of backgrounds and their health status is unknown. “When the bulls arrive on the property in Autumn we give them a combination oral drench, injectable copper and selenium, a five-in-one vaccine dose and a pour-on lice control product. In mid-August we redo the copper and selenium, five-in-one and possibly drench the bottom hundred bulls,” says Robert.

“Everything is bought on weight and we do a bit of sorting stock to weight ranges although we don't like to mix mobs too much because that can unsettle them. Every month we do a monitor weighing of about 150 bulls across a range of weights and areas around the farm, and we put those weights into Farmax. And then in August we blanket weigh all mobs again so that when we start thinking about sending bulls off to the works we know the weights of the mobs and so we know where we need to start.”

“In November we start weighing and sending off anything over 620 kg, so the first mob would probably average 645 kg. In December we do the same with average weights probably 635 kg this season, and we should stay above 620 kg in January after that you have to come down to 600 kg and so you could average 620 at that stage. Usually at the end there are some poor performers that might be 580 or 590 kg.”

In a small sensitive area like the Ahuriri catchment their wintering heavy cattle on hill country could be seen as potentially damaging to the environment, but the Pattullos have been conscious of their responsibilities and have worked to minimise any risk. “Ten years ago I got a HB Regional Council Environmental Plan done because I didn't want anyone saying that we were contributing to a real problem further down in the catchment. The plan told us that 80% of our soils were suited to cattle grazing at the intensity that we do – about 1.5 bulls per hectare. Our land is a series of ridges running West/East and so they have north and south facing faces. We avoid pugging by transferring stock to the drier sides which have more hardened pasture species. It also gets the stock out of the weather and they are more settled,” says Robert.

“We are also fencing off waterways and wetlands and we have retired riparian strips in about 40 different areas of the farm. That's another advantage of the cattle system – we can control them with a single wire. We have also had some assistance from the HB Regional Council with fencing and planting of native species, but there is an enormous amount still to do and there are areas on some of the steep country that are problematic for cattle and we might just extend the forestry that we are doing.”

The farm currently has 70ha of pines of various ages, poplar poles have been planted in places and kanuka has been left to grow on some hillsides that are prone to erosion.

Recognition of the excellence of their management of livestock and soils in a sensitive catchment won the Pattullos the East Coast Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award last year. Despite the large amount of environmental effort they have already put in the Pattullos are not resting on their laurels. Robert is conscious that with many tourists and cyclists passing by each day their management must keep evolving. “There is a whole heap of new pressures that weren't obvious 30 years ago – environmental sustainability, consumer perceptions, forestry and carbon, and tourism especially in this area. We are not doing nearly enough with the two legged animal,” he says.

“The next generation will need to be thinking what needs to be done going forward. It is a dynamic business and I guess I've always said that to the best of our ability we have just used the resources we've had to do what needed to be done.”