Techno sys­tem boosts profit and pas­ture qual­ity

A Far North beef farmer makes tech­nol­ogy work for him, re­ports.

The Southland Times - - WEATHER -

New tech­nol­ogy and sci­ence has trans­formed a tra­di­tional sheep and beef farm into a high­pro­duc­ing in­ten­sive beef op­er­a­tion.

Six gen­er­a­tions have farmed the O’Cal­laghan farm on the coastal hills look­ing north over Doubt­less Bay.

In 1839 Joseph Matthews and his wife Mary Anne, along with a Mr Puckey, were the first white peo­ple to set­tle in Doubt­less Bay in the Far North. Joseph Matthews was a mis­sion­ary and farmer and the first regis­tered owner of the land.

They prob­a­bly would not recog­nise the land to­day, and might not un­der­stand the lat­est tech­nol­ogy in the in­ten­sive beef op­er­a­tion that has turned the mar­ginal land into a first-class beef-pro­duc­ing farm.

Rachelle O’Cal­laghan, daugh­ter of Win­stone Matthews, is the sixth gen­er­a­tion on the land. She met and mar­ried Den­nis O’Cal­laghan in Tai­hape where she was teach­ing and Den­nis owned his fam­ily farm. They met through their love of horses. Rachelle was keen to buy a horse and Den­nis played polocrosse and had young horses for sale. The love of horses has stayed with them.

‘‘We had never thought about com­ing back up here,’’ says Rachelle. ‘‘It had never en­tered my head. We had al­ways been told it wouldn’t be sold. So when Dad asked if we wanted to buy the farm and move back I was a lit­tle stunned. Be­fore I could even take a breath Den­nis said ‘yes, yes, yes, yes.’ He had ob­vi­ously thought about it.’’

Four years later, when the Tai­hape farm was sold, Den­nis and Rachelle bought half (314 hectares) the Doubt­less Bay prop­erty and moved their young fam­ily north. A cou­ple of years ago they had enough cap­i­tal to buy the other half (296ha) of the farm.

An early in­jury has failed to stop Den­nis from farm­ing his way. He lost his left leg in a tree-felling ac­ci­dent when he was 21. It took some time to get him to hos­pi­tal and in­fec­tion set in. Seven weeks later the leg was am­pu­tated be­low the knee.

The loss of his leg never stopped him from rid­ing his beloved horses, nor has it held him back in his farm­ing.

When the cou­ple took over the farm it was run as a tra­di­tional sheep and beef op­er­a­tion, with 3000 ewes and 200 cows. Now it has 2000 cat­tle and only 82 sheep.

‘‘This block of pad­docks is the most im­por­tant part of the farm,’’ Den­nis says as he speeds up the laneway on a quad bike past graz­ing horses. ‘‘It’s my men­tal health block, where my horses are.’’ Horses have al­ways been a big part of his life.

Af­ter the move north they con­tin­ued farm­ing the tra­di­tional way (cat­tle stocked in big pad­docks) for a cou­ple of years and then looked at ways to min­imise the win­ter pug­ging dam­age. They de­signed a 25ha cell sys­tem and it worked well, min­imis­ing pug­ging and dou­bled their pro­duc­tion.

‘‘Shortly af­ter do­ing this we met a farm­ing cou­ple, Ron and Chrissy Mc­Cloy, who in­tro­duced us to the Techno­graz­ing con­cept. We were so im­pressed. When we came home we put in two sys­tems of 20ha each within ex­ist­ing pad­docks.’’

This worked so well they pulled per­ma­nent fenc­ing out of a 90ha area and built two big Techno sys­tems. They then be­came a mon­i­tor farm with Beef + Lamb NZ.

‘‘This gave us ac­cess to ex­perts who helped us to learn how to run these sys­tems to their full po­ten­tial.’’

Over the next 12 years they de­vel­oped most of the farm into both Techno and cell sys­tems. The Techno cells and lanes, which are all GPS-mea­sured and laid out, al­low Den­nis to ac­cu­rately graze and move the small mobs ev­ery two days.

‘‘We now have 270ha in 10 Techno sys­tems and 306ha in cell sys­tems. Even our breed­ing bulls are run in a cell sys­tem. An old pa site is the only part of the farm grazed the old way. This is where we use our 82 sheep, they al­low us to tread lightly on this his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant area.’’

The cat­tle are all run in small mobs of 18 to 30, de­pend­ing on their age, and each mob is given 15 cells that are cut in half with tem­po­rary fenc­ing in the win­ter. They are shifted ev­ery two days in a 60-day ro­ta­tion.

‘‘We have learnt so much over the years but still have so much more to learn about how to get the best out of these sys­tems. I am al­ways look­ing at good grass-based dairy farm­ers for ideas.’’

He has a the­ory that cat­tle can recog­nise only 30 other cat­tle and keep­ing them in these smaller mobs means there is lit­tle fight­ing. In larger mobs they are al­ways in­tro­duc­ing them­selves. Shift­ing them ev­ery cou­ple of days min­imises pug­ging and keeps the cat­tle in­ter­ested in feed­ing rather than mov­ing around or fight­ing.

‘‘We do friesian bulls be­cause bulls grow 10 per cent bet­ter than steers and 20 per cent bet­ter than heifers [based on car­cass weight] be­cause of their testos­terone. The dis­ad­van­tage with bulls is they will dig holes if they are left in the cells for longer than two days.’’

They shift half of their 2000 cat­tle ev­ery morn­ing us­ing mod­i­fied ATVs to run over pow­ered elec­tric fences, re­tract and re­po­si­tion wires. It is sim­ple and fast. An adap­tion on the front of the bike al­lows it to drive over elec­tric fences. At the lane or cell, the fence line is un­clipped, dropped to the ground and the cat­tle then step or jump over it. Once they are into the next area the fence is wound up and reat­tached. The fence is never turned off so the bulls main­tain re­spect for the wire. O’Cal­laghan and his staff have learnt to han­dle the live fence with ease.

‘‘With 25-30 cat­tle in each lane it min­imises tram­pling or pug­ging and the rye­grass is not stressed be­cause it is only grazed for two days. We have a 60-day ro­ta­tion in win­ter and the sys­tem means two peo­ple can man­age stock move­ments with min­i­mum ef­fort.’’

Techno­graz­ing has also helped to im­prove pas­ture qual­ity and fer­til­ity. This was done with­out re­place­ment pas­ture species.

‘‘We tried cul­ti­vat­ing, re­grass­ing but none of the new species re­ally worked here. The kikuyu grass works well as long as it is kept short and we often top the pad­docks be­hind the cat­tle to en­sure it is cleaned up and re­grows bet­ter. We have found that the farm con­verts to a rye­grass-clover pas­ture in the win­ter-spring and then back to kikuyu in the sum­mer-au­tumn with this graz­ing pres­sure.

‘‘For me, un­der­stand­ing the soils and their char­ac­ter­is­tics was the first step to farm­ing sus­tain­ably on this land.’’

In 2016 Rachelle and Den­nis were awarded the North­land Bal­lance Farm En­vi­ron­ment Award. Judges said they had im­pres­sive pro­duc­tion matched by ex­cep­tional fi­nan­cial per­for­mance achieved by an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges faced by the farm.

‘‘I’m a great be­liever in sci­ence,’’ Den­nis says. ‘‘If it’s not sci­en­tif­i­cally proven I’m not pre­pared to waste my money on what might work for some­one else. I want the ac­cu­rate data.

‘‘Ni­tro­gen is not a prob­lem on this land. Phos­phate is. So we have fenced all our wa­ter­ways off and planted around the nat­u­ral wa­ter­ways.

‘‘We don’t want phos­phate get­ting into our wa­ter­ways and end­ing up in Doubt­less Bay. This is a great tourist area and the last thing we need is any run-off get­ting into the bay and af­fect­ing the fish life. If you look at the wa­ter run­ning into the river, which is one of our bound­aries, the wa­ter run­ning off our land is much cleaner than the river, so we are ac­tu­ally clean­ing the river up as it runs past us.’’

PHOTO: FRITHA TAGG/STUFF

Den­nis O’Cal­laghan in­spects some of his young friesian bulls graz­ing in a cell sys­tem in his in­ten­sive beef op­er­a­tion.

PHOTO: FRITHA TAGG/STUFF

Re­set­ting the elec­tric fences of the Tech­nosys­tem lanes is an easy op­er­a­tion.

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