Techno system boosts profit and pasture quality
A Far North beef farmer makes technology work for him, reports.
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.’’
Dennis O’Callaghan inspects some of his young friesian bulls grazing in a cell system in his intensive beef operation.
Resetting the electric fences of the Technosystem lanes is an easy operation.