Richardson's Organic Farm

May 2012

A large scale organic, goat, sheep and beef operation in Otago

In 2005 Rural Delivery visited the Richardsons. At that time they had 310ha in organics and 1000ha conventional. Today they are 100% organic. Along the way they have delved briefly into international marketing of branded lamb, introduced goats to control gorse, increased the cattle/sheep ratio and tweaked other systems. The marketing effort has taught Allan that it is very difficult to be a marketer and a successful farmer at the same time, and in the last two years he has focused solely on farming with considerably more success. They now have 900 stud sheep including their “Ultimate” flock that is bred for high worm resistance and low maintenance. He welcomes the increased interest in biological farming, which he says is a half-way house on the path towards organics, and is confident that organic farming has a very bright future.

The farm is 1300ha of rolling to steep Otago hill country with reliable rainfall and “good” pasture growth. The property is in two blocks – 500ha on the home block and 813ha nearby – and it has progressively been converted to fully organic, the last area being completed three years ago.

Since Rural Delivery visited in 2005 the most difficult part, says Allan Richardson, has been getting the land ready for conversion, and gorse was the main problem.

“We were already using the best organic fertiliser practice on the conventional areas because we could see the benefits to the soil so that was easy, and we had been working on suitable sheep genetics for several decades, so gorse was really the number one issue,” he says.

“We got in a digger to clear the big areas of gorse and sprayed before we converted, and more recently we have introduced goats. At this stage they are strictly for weed control but our aim is to sell the surplus as meat animals and we are a couple of years away from that.”

Currently the farm runs about 400 does and 200 wethers, primarily Cashmere base although they have tried Boer crosses with limited success. They have a policy of zero interference unless animal health is compromised, and have sourced animals bred in the same region. Cashmeres have performed well but they lack meat conformation and Allan is now trying to source through Meat Goat NZ Cashmere bucks that have been bred for meat.

Since 2005 the number of cattle has increased about 50% to about 300 cows and a sheep/cattle ratio of around 15% helps cut the parasite cycle – cattle graze the top of the pasture where the sheep worm larvae are – but that has created problems with wintering.

“We have clay soils and cattle are wintered mainly in gully blocks. This confines damage to a small area,” says Allan.

“We have stuck mainly with the Angus breed with a bit of crossing with Simmental.”

The two blocks now run about 9000 ewes with 900 being recorded stud animals. There are also about 2200 hoggets and 250 ram lambs. Storms last year meant that the lambing was around the 125% mark but the aim in a typical year is to be close to 140%.

Many years of development have gone into their “Ultimate” breed, which is mainly Perendale and Texel and is a low maintenance sheep with a short tail, bare rear and bare belly.

“We want a low-input, high-performance sheep and we are really excited because these days they don’t get any bearings, they have great meat traits, a good fertility index of around three, getting 180% scanning,” says Allen.

“We have also put emphasis on facial eczema and worm resistance. We used to select ewes from those that had had one lifetime drench but now we are selecting from those that have had no drenches all. We also know that with a short tail they are staying cleaner than sheep with tails, and so with the ability to lift their tail they are actually keeping themselves cleaner.”

“I don’t think there is anyone else in the country that is pushing that hard under commercial conditions, and to have generation after generation of sheep that have performed well without the use of drenches means we have a pretty good resource. It’s really a matter of selling that vision to other people now, and from a welfare point of view the fact that we are not tailing means our customers are probably very happy about that.”

“We are actually putting our Ultimates over all our Perendales now because of the good results we are getting, and we will probably end up with an Ultimate maternal breed using the Texel as a terminal sire, so we’ll have a Perendale stud, Texel stud and the Ultimate stud. We now have enough stock to sell to other breeders and we are selling from Southland to South Auckland to the Chatham Islands.”

Allan follows the Albrecht system for improving soil fertility and one of the issues is that although calcium levels are high, magnesium is low, and finding a ready source of acceptably organic magnesium has been difficult. However, they have just found a source and are looking forward to good results.

Currently the farm is near the end of a three-year trial in which three fertiliser suppliers have each been allocated 45ha of new pasture, 10-year old pasture and native pasture, and given a budget of $150 per ha with the instruction to “give the best fertility you can”. Allan says some differences are showing up and a decision will be made later in the year.

Fertiliser use includes lime, humates, and trace elements, and he has discovered that animals with good worm resistance need copper to “power their immune system”.

“We have had low copper and the increase from 15 kg to 17 kg carcasses required more copper. We have applied it to the soil and it is also in the loose salt and mineral mixes we put in feed troughs for stock so they have access to it when they want it,” says Allan.

They have also consciously reduced ryegrass levels and increased the clover and herb content of pastures.

“Clover and herbs is where you get fattening from, and now we sow only 8-10 kg ryegrass instead of the 20-25 kg that we used to use, and it’s giving us a good base,” says Allan.

“We’ve discovered that a good young pasture is just as good and in some years better than the some forages. Plantain is important, Yarrow, Timothy, about 10 kg of white and red clovers along with 10 kg ryegrass.”

An important development since 2005 was the setting up of a marketing group to sell lamb to the United States market under the Avalon brand.

“The development of the Avalon brand was always with the idea of exporting so when the opportunity came in the US we flew over there, had a look and got a group of farmers together,” says Allan.

“We were in there for two years before the dollar went against us and we had to pull out of that market. Creating the Avalon brand was the first goal and exporting was the ultimate goal, but we discovered that you can’t be a marketer and a successful farmer. I spent virtually 10 years developing the Avalon brand and getting into the US but lost focus on the farm, and farming is our core business. I had this vision that I wanted to achieve and in some ways we did achieve it but the costs were too high.”

“In the two years since we moved out of the US market I have put my focus back into farming and I’m actually enjoying it. We now supply Silver Fern Farms under a three-year contract for the organic lamb and a yearly contract for the beef.”

With the goal of becoming fully organic having been achieved, the focus is now on ramping up performance to match what the top conventional farmers are achieving both in production and certainly in quality.

“Doing most things without chemical input is a real challenge for us. In the past few years we have been a long way behind the top producers and I think it comes back to losing that focus but we are catching up very quickly. I think the top organic producers will match and may even exceed conventional farmers in the future,” says Allan.

“The prospects for organic farming have never been better. The infrastructure is in place and there is far better support now, and more importantly you’ve got companies like Silver Fern with their three-year contracts, so you are hedged for three years. Compared with when we started off, everything is in our favour.”

“There has been a reduction in demand through Europe and the States, but I think that all organic food is taking a bit of a hit and we’ve got to accept that. The other thing is that organics has been rising at 20 to 30% per year since the mid to late 90’s and all of a sudden it goes down to 5 or 10% and people say that the market is collapsing, but it isn’t. Organic food is 3- 4% of the world’s market now and rising, so this is just a speed bump.”

Says Allen: “I think that one of the most exciting things that has happened to farming is the emergence in the last two or three years of biological farming. That is the best thing that has happened to New Zealand farming because it is actually giving people a pathway to travel down to a lower input farm while still maintaining their production and actually discovering that the wheels don’t fall off if you stop using superphosphate. They see that by looking after soils and using different fertilisers you can maintain production and people very quickly get to that half-way stage where they see that going fully organic is a real option.”

“Biological farming still uses targeted chemical inputs for weed and pest control but you are minimising those. You can’t go from a conventional system to an organic system overnight, it takes time and by doing it biologically you can do it without impacting on your bottom line and improving things gradually. I think that most farming will be biological heading towards organics in the future, and I think that would be a smart move. It makes sense from a farmer’s point of view, and it makes sense from the consumer’s point of view that the food we are producing has less chemicals in it. It also makes us less reliant on fossil fuels and it is better for the environment, sustainability, carbon, it’s a win-win all round. The only people that won’t do so well out of it are the multinationals.”

Farm staff can be a big issue, says Allan. “They come from conventional background and it is hard for them to change, get skilled up and take on the vision. But the skills they learn here they are not going to learn from anyone else and it is going to increase their overall skillbase big-time.”

Allan started off last year with much higher farm gate prices than conventional farmers but during the year conventional prices rose about 30% and Allan’s returns remained the same because of being locked into three-year contracts. However, returns for ewes he sold almost doubled.

“The profitability of conventional farming relative to organic farming has risen considerably so as not to there is not the 30 or 40% difference that there was. The top conventional guys on this land are probably ahead because of their performance and extra product that they are selling,” he says.

“I think basically that there has still been growth in the organic industry because people aren’t looking at it from purely a financial point of view. The best farmers go into organics for a variety of reasons not just the money. Now with biological farming becoming more popular it is giving people an easier pathway to get to organics.”

“The thing that gives me the most pride is actually performing at this level of production organically without being propped up by the things that many other farmers need to reach that level. It’s harder farming organically but there’s a lot more satisfaction in doing it well than using the easy options that are available. I am passionate about it and I wouldn’t go back to being a conventional farmer.”