Vollebregt Environment Winners

July 2015

Preserving the history of Pihautea Station

Leo and Rebecca Vollebregt were the Greater Wellington supreme winners of the 2015 Ballance Farm Environment Awards, also winners of the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, the LIC Dairy Farm Award and the PGG Wrightson Land and Life Award. They have a herd of 580 cows on a 289ha historic farm, formerly part of Pihautea station, aspects of which are being restored. They milk once-a-day and achieve over 1300kg/ha milksolids per season, which combined with low farm working expenses puts them among the most profitable dairy farmers nationwide. The Vollebregts emphasise the family partnership aspects of farming along with care for the environment and strong community involvement and leadership.

Leo Vollebregt is part of a family of Dutch immigrants who made their way to NZ in the 1950’s through dairying. He was the 1987 Skellerup Young Farmer of the Year and went sharemilking before making their first farm purchase of 67ha in 1984 in the Pahautea district of Wairarapa, southeast of Featherston, near Martinborough. That has now grown to 289ha in total, with169ha (154ha effective) on the milking platform and 118ha in four drystock support blocks nearby.

The home farm is part of Charles Bidwill’s Pihautea station, one of the first sheep and beef farms in NZ. The site contains 150-year-old trees such as oak and elm, and historic outbuildings, now restored by the Vollebregts into a tack room and lookout tower. In 1997 they built a new house on the site of an earlier Bidwill house that burnt down nearly 100 years ago. They could have felled the trees for more pasture and not spent the money on building restoration, but that was not an option. The farm is very well located on the west bank of the Ruamahanga River, contains flat and productive soils and some native bush and two lagoons, plus the historical aspects.

The Vollebregts employ former herd manager Emma Moffitt as a contract milker, and she employs two staff members.

Leo has oversight of the dairy farm, the support blocks and the young stock, and he is also chairman of the Wairarapa Water Users Group, while Rebecca works off-farm as a nurse. They have six children aged between 17 and 26.

The crossbred herd of 600 cows is on once-a-day milking, split into two herds, starting the first milking at 5.15am, then breakfast before the second milking between 8 and 10am. The farm dairy is a 40-a-side herringbone. Farm work is normally finished by 5pm.

Once-a-day (OAD) was introduced eight years ago when the property size and herd increased and staff welfare and workload were of most concern. Milk production fell initially by up to 15%, but then cow numbers increased and the farm is now a high producing one (1361kg ms/ha in 2013-14 on a stocking rate of 4 cows/ha).

OAD also contributes to lower farm working expenses, which in 2013-14 were $3.08/kg versus gross farm income of $7.36/kg. That season total milk production was 203,432kg. This season farm working expenses will be comparable and profitability (balance date March 31) similar to the previous financial year because of the higher carry-over payments from Fonterra. The new financial year that begun on April 1 will be much more challenging financially, Leo said.

Over 200 female calves are reared each year and 125 selected to continue on as herd replacement heifers.

The whole milking platform of 154ha effective is capable of irrigating with K-line pod arrays using water from two bores delivered to hydrants in the paddocks. As well 20% of the farm (34ha) can be irrigated with effluent water that comes from a new lined storage pond, installed as part of a new effluent system two years ago. The system puts on 5mm a day over half of the farm and 3.6mm over the rest. Each paddock would average around 10 irrigation passes during the summer. The effluent system was professionally designed to apply low water rates and provide effluent storage for the at-risk times, of up to 1000 cubic metres. Last summer Ruamahunga River low flows meant a cut in water consent rates by half, effectively 12hrs a day of irrigation rather than 24.

An Overseer nitrogen management budget modelled in 2014 showed nitrogen inputs of 220kg/ha/year per year by way of fertiliser (450kg/ha of urea, about 70t on farm). Nitrogen also came on farm by way of imported feed supplements (24kg/ha/year). About 100kg/ha/year left the farm either as milk or meat. The model indicated 32% nitrogen conversion efficiency and a nitrogen leaching risk of 25kg/ha/year, versus the Fonterra ward average of 34kg/ha/yr.

“Sustainability for this farm means looking after the soil, continuing to have access to good water, good livestock management, good people involved, all leading to high profitability,” says Leo.

The Vollebregts say their farm aims are :

  • Good income for all
  • High profit through good production
  • Healthy stock and good pastures
  • Efficient conversion of low cost feed to lots of milk and meat
  • High per ha production
  • Good shade and shelter
  • An attractive farm
  • Good staffing levels
  • Spend what is necessary – no more, no less – good return
  • Everyone to enjoy living and working on the farm