White - Hawkes Bay

May 2008
Crops including wheat, barley, sweetcorn, squash and peas are grown on Neil and Gwen Whites 555ha Ludlow Farm, in a seven-year rotation including two years in pasture. Dairy bulls and lambs are bought in towards the end of summer when prices are low, finished through winter, then sold as the market rises in early spring.

The formula has been so successful that in the 27 years since he took on the family farm, its areas been expanded almost fivefold.

Overall, Neil feels hes selling his crops onto a strong market with grain prices having improved dramatically this season on last. However, he may not grow peas again, after a 50% increase in yields across the district and an unusually short harvest period meant 15-208% of his crop was bypassed, significantly reducing returns.

A water storage pond is now being built, to improve an unreliable water supply. The aim is to guarantee crop survival rather than increase yields.

Neil White took on the family farm in 1980. The original block was 120 hectares, gradually expanded with the purchase of small blocks of neighbouring land to 555ha. There were seven transactions, in one-block lots.

The expansion was achieved on the back of a shift from breeding stock to cropping and trading stock, to make the most of the propertys heavy soils, late season and local markets. At any one time, about 70% of the farm is in crops grown on a seven-year rotation; two years of grass followed by wheat, barley, sweetcorn, squash, peas then back into grass.

A good rotation maximises use of ground, provides several income streams, virtually eliminates disease and keeps workers employed year-round.

All but 40ha of the farm is flat and even gentler slopes of the hills are planted in crops.

Cropping prospects are a hell of a lot better than sheep and beef, says Neil, whose shift in focus was based on both economics and personal interest.

Grain has been grown at Ludlow for 60-70 years.

The Whites have a 400 tonne contract with PGG Wrightson to grow barley and a 200 tonne contract to grow wheat; all for feed for dairy farms. Another 120 tonnes of wheat is grown on contract for a Taupo pheasant farm.

Grain prices have always been a bit ahead of the South Island, due to strong local demand for feed barley and wheat and a limited supply. This years seen prices lift significantly, from $265/tonne to $365-400. Internationally, the catalysts been demand from the bio-fuels industry. Locally, dairy farmers have been competing to buy grain as a supplement, due to drought.

In recent years, hay and straw made from crop residues has become increasingly valuable as feed.

Its quite a big revenue earner, especially this year with dairy farmers screaming out for barley straw which they machine-mix with other ingredients to make a balanced supplement.

Some straw also goes to a mushroom farm in Havelock.

I havent burned a paddock of stubble for years.

Sixty four hectares of sweetcorn is being grown this year, for processing at McCains Foods (NZ) Limiteds Hastings plant.

This is some of the latest sweetcorn harvested for McCains, Hawkes Bay, being planted on around December 10 and harvested in late March.

Because the crops planted so late, its a challenge keeping the paddock in good order until planting. The approach thats Neils found works is to either cultivate or work up paddocks two months ahead of planting, then leave them fallow to conserve much-needed moisture so seed will germinate.

Once water storage has been built, Neil plans to make better use of this ground by putting it into short rotation grasses before corn.

A real attraction of sweetcorn for the Whites is McCains contract system, based on potential yields rather than area. If a crop exceeds the contracted amount, both the grower and company contribute money to a pool so that at the end of the year everyone can be paid for the tonnes contracted.

Last years 53 hectare process pea crop may have been the Whites last, unless the contract system is improved.

Unlike sweetcorn, peas are contracted on area rather than yield, Neil explains. When yields go up and the factory gets behind, and crops get over-ripe so are bypassed. This happened last season, with the districts around 6.5 tonne/hectare process pea crop average soaring to around nine tonnes. A hot, dry November pushed the harvest forward and closed it up, from a week down to five days. The Whites had about 15-208% of their pea crop by-passed and severely discounted, says Neil.

Neil suggests that pea contracts, like sweetcorn, should be based on potential yields.

McCains acknowledges that their pea payment system was stretched by over-supply and a contracted harvest. The company is open to discussion on any changes, during the off-season. Changes had been made and would be announced to growers at a May meeting.

McCain's field manager, Mike Flynn, explains that efforts to sell the bypassed crop by a third party which trades the companys waste-streams, have been successful due to drought in the district upping demand for dried peas as a high protein stock feed. Money made on these sales would be used to top up payments for bypassed crops.

Retaining bypassed peas as seed was not an option, as forward contracts with seed suppliers must be honoured.

Peas are a good crop for farmers in this district, rotated with pasture due for renewal and crops like sweetcorn or potatoes, while fixing nitrogen, says Mike.

Two new pea processing companies had set up in Hawkes Bay last season, and also had too many peas for their capacity.

Neil regards squash as a high risk-high return crop, keenly sought by competing exporters. He grows 45 hectares of both dry and sweet squash for two companies, which export about 90% fresh to Japan and 10% to Korea.

Yields are 13-14 tonnes/hectare.

Squash need good horticultural ground; the richer the soil the better, says Neil. Soil is tested before planting then fertiliser including NPK (15-10-10) and trace elements such as manganese (which tends to be short in the district) are applied. As quality rather than quality is sought, urea is never used.

Urea can compromise squashs keeping ability. If they reach Japan rotten, the grower is charged $250/tonne for dumping rather than paid.

Despite the good returns, there are some disadvantages to squash including the tendency of pack outs to alter depending on whether markets are over or under-supplied.

Neil enjoys growing grass-seed but getting hold of contracts is difficult with the industry Canterbury-dominated. This year hes planted seven hectares of fescue, 22ha of Italian ryegrass and also 11ha of chicory for seed.

The increasingly dry climate has made growing grass-seed more difficult. In the old days, grass for seed was planted in January but nowadays Neil holds off until the end of February when rains are more reliable.

Hes disappointed that the depressed sheep meat industry has seen less demand for chicory; a top notch feed preferred by all livestock but difficult to grow.

People cant be bothered putting the trouble into something thats hard to establish with returns so low, so go for cheaper grasses instead.

Chicory continues to be planted in the pasture mix fed to the Whites bulls, which have to be watched or theyll graze it out. However, the growth rates achieved were well worth the trouble.

Neils livestock finishing enterprise aims to take advantage of marketplace highs and lows. He buys in stock in late summer, when East Coast stock prices are generally low with feed in short supply. They are grazed through winter then sold onto a strong early spring market.

Winter grasses are direct-drilled straight into cropping paddocks, with any residue straw acting as a mulch soon trampled into the soil.

Ludlows now fully loaded with 350 rising two year and 250 rising one-year bulls. The first should go to the works in June, to be killed out at around 300kg on hook the hook.

Bull paddocks are divided into eight cells, in what Neil describes as a cross between a techno-system and break-feeding. Each cell block lasts a month, with the bulls rotated every Monday afternoon and Friday morning with weekends off.

Five thousand or so lambs are normally bought in late summer and taken through to July/August. In February, 1400 lambs were purchased on the off-chance of rain which would at least double their $25-$26 price.

Were finding its staying dry for longer and buying lambs too early is a risk.

Neils always sworn black and blue he would never put in a large-scale irrigation scheme, preferring to work in with the districts climate. However, hes noticing that rainfall has become less reliable, making the business of growing high risk/high return crops like squash a lot more stressful.

There is some irrigation on the farm, with water drawn from a bore and applied through a travelling irrigator. However, because the underground water comes from shale rather than shingle, yields are low so large volumes cant be drawn at a time. Plus, the supply is unreliable.

To guarantee a crop if seasonal rains fail, he is building a storage pond to ensure waters available when needed. Promoting yields wont be part of the picture.

You spend a lot of money when you put in a hectare of squash. Youre taking a big risk, if you dont get rain at critical times and the crop cant be saved.

Neil and Gwen employ two fulltime staff, one specialising in stock and the other in machinery. Casuals are brought in for specific jobs like weeding squash.

The Whites most of the own machinery needed on the farm, including a harvester. The one exception is a hay baler, so contractors do this job.