Pasture First


Pasture firstPasture first

Warwick Lissaman’s first years of farm ownership were during the era when stock genetics and breed were the focus. 

The 1990s mentality was animal genetics first, pasture second. When Warwick returned from a Young Farmer Exchange to the United Kingdom and took on a 50% partnership with his parents, cross-breeding was the rage and high lambing percentage was the goal.


Now the focus on his 400ha Marlborough farm is growing great pastures to provide good nutrition for productive stock.

“The dream of having an award-winning flock or herd of a breed type is not my primary focus today. They are important but not as important as feeding what you have.”

His feeding focus fits well with his role as president of New Zealand’s largest pasture research club, the NZ Grassland Association.

Made up of farmer, scientist and industry members, it’s the main platform for publishing papers on soils, pastures and farm production. 

A lot is expected of pasture science to keep profits flowing while sustaining environmental health. Pasture type and management is at the heart of meeting new nutrient input-output requirements.

Warwick appreciates the art of sire selection but is not too hung-up on retaining genetics. He operates a trading and breeding cattle operation.

He is prepared to buy and sell ewes and buys in cows rather than breed his own replacements. One of his business goals is to have productive animals which can be readily sold when required. 

This is a logical response to farming in a 600mm rainfall area with a high chance of extended dry periods. 

Warwick is a huge advocate for pastoral science that involves farmers and delivers to farmers.


Warwick Lissaman, centre, outlines the potential of eight different clovers on a single sward trial site on his Marlborough farm at a Beef + Lamb New Zealand Farming for Profit field day in November last year.

If he had his chance at Lincoln University again, he would have done agricultural science as a career before taking on the farm.

Warwick studied for a Bachelor in Agriculture and Commerce, with a post-graduate diploma in commerce. At the time, valuation and commerce was the favoured career, not science, he says.

Warwick has taken every chance to get involved with onfarm science.

It began early in the 1990s when he volunteered to monitor his tall fescue growth in winter and spring as part of a Top of the South project. He then put his hand up to be a trial farm for the Wise Use of Nitrogen project, run by Beef + Lamb NZ. 

“It was wonderful to get some onfarm science – it was an awakening for me.

“I had realised our country was short of one thing more than anything else: nitrogen.”

His reputation as a farmer keen to test new pasture species and systems grew.

He joined the NZ Grassland Association committee in 2007 and when Marlborough was chosen as the venue for the 2008 association conference, Warwick was approached to chair the group, organising the event and field days to local properties Bonavaree and Tempello.


Over-drilling of Trifolium Balansa and T. subterranean clovers has worked well on this north-facing hill at Breach Oak.

He was then approached by Professor Derrick Moot and Dick Lucas, of Lincoln University, to head up the Marlborough committee in the Dryland Legumes Technology Transfer project.

This Sustainable Farming Fund project ran for three years, involved many farmers, and saw Warwick test novel legume systems including annual clovers that were new to NZ.

His gland clover paddock was the first grown on a NZ commercial farm. His approach to using Balansa clover, an annual plant in a permanent sward, was a new concept.

Warwick organised a scientist armed with a vacuum cleaner go over the pastures to gauge red-legged earth mite numbers. 

Last year, 75 people took the chance to tour Warwick and wife Lisa’s Breach Oak property when a Farming for Profit field day was organised in spring.

A telling sign of Warwick’s reputation was the level of interest from seed agents who came to learn about novel legumes – a case of the farmer teaching the seed agents.


View permanent pasture like forage crops


The nitrogen-fixing nodes on clover is one reason Warwick Lissaman, left, includes legumes on his nitrogen-short hill country.

Warwick Lissaman doesn’t mind annual clovers in his front lawn.

This Marlborough farmer wants legumes to be the dominant species right across his 400ha property, from the 40ha irrigated block and up the dry hard hills.

“I want to see if it is possible to double my stocking rate by harvesting their potential.”

To do this permanent pastures must be treated like a forage crop, he says. 

“While a single-species grass sward might suit a climate like Westport, it won’t for the rest of us.”

About 120ha of Breach Oak can be cultivated and about 45ha is planted in lucerne, which Warwick describes as the king of legumes. The target is 70ha in lucerne.

This leaves about 300ha for other legume systems. Unfortunately the Breach Oak soil map is, in Warwick’s words, “not pretty”.

The loess silt loams tend to be very wet, then very dry because of their poor drainage characteristics.

Subterranean clover (Sub) is the basis for most of these systems, although Warwick also sees a place for Balansa clover in heavier areas that stay wet.

‘I doubled production per hectare over the 64 days of comparison over spring.’

A top-performing pasture mix has been where ryegrass was oversown with Balansa and Sub clover in March. After letting it flower and set seed the paddock delivers nearly 20cm of lush clover late in winter-early spring. 

Warwick has calculated the net advantage from the exercise. Ewe stocking rate lifted by 1.2 ewes/ha and were 1.1 ahead in condition score on exit after lambing.

Lambs grew 59g/head/day faster than the unimproved control and produced another 182kg liveweight/ha.

“I doubled production per hectare over the 64 days of comparison over spring.

“If this benefit was over the whole farm, I’d make another $160,000 of gross farm income and it wouldn’t cost this much to establish.”

He has seen steady increases in lamb growth rates and this all with urea application rates of less than 10 units of nitrogen (N) a hectare and at a stocking rate of 7.4 stock units/ha.

Nitrogen fixation by legumes helps at the rate of 25 units N/kg legume grown. Farmers typically overestimated legume content and therefore compromised yield potential, he says.

Warwick’s ewe breeding and cattle finishing systems are reliant on capturing the benefits of late winter and early spring growth. He has had success broadcasting clover seed from a helipcopter.

He is aware that spraying out steep hill country before over-sowing clovers can be a risk so is an advocate of grazing hard with cattle, then over-sowing.

Rolling in clover

The Lissaman’s farm includes mixes of cocksfoot with legumes and plantain, tall fescue with Sub clover, broome species with clovers, lucerne with grass, and has been tried with mixes of Persian, gland and the tall Arrowleaf clover.

“White cover is the one plant I struggle to make work, Warwick says.

After trying them in a plot, Warwick would also like to experiment more widely with vetch, lotus, bladder clover, crimson clover, sweet clover, Serradella, and the “under development” hybrid white clover-Caucasian clover.


Strategic legume research call


Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana).

Warwick Lissaman would like to see research into legumes address three questions:

       Which legumes survive?

       How can they thrive in the field?

       How can farmers make money out of them?

The president of the NZ Grassland Association and self-confessed advocate for legumes does not miss the irony of having “grass” in his new job title. He particularly sees a role for legumes when it gets too hard to use bag nitrogen on white clover-ryegrass systems.

“When nitrogen is too expensive or inappropriate in the environment we can use other legumes such as lucerne for dryland east coast, lupins for high aluminium dry areas, lotus for high aluminium wetter regions, and annual clovers for dry regions with warmer winters.”

He’d like to see an “ideal legume” map developed across land and soil classes.

He’d also like management packages developed that can help farmers in different locations manage a whole range of legumes for persistence and stock performance.

Warwick believes that science should be guiding decisions on nutrient restrictions. He is particularly critical of regional councils using average farm output figures to set the maximum nutrient run-off allowed.

“We need to understand the plant and its requirements for grazing, reproduction, maintenance fertiliser etcetera, as we have done for Sub clover and lucerne.”

Warwick agrees with comments from Dr Derrick Moot, professor of plant science, Lincoln University, that work needs to be done on how legumes cope with climate change and the environmental impact of increased legume content in pastures.

Moot said the combination of experiments and modelling with tools more appropriate than Overseer needed to be developed.

Warwick believes that science should be guiding decisions on nutrient restrictions. He is particularly critical of regional councils using average farm output figures to set the maximum nutrient run-off allowed.

“An average by definition has a range, so the maximum should be the maximum.

“It should also be remembered that the range of output per unit of input differs over time, farm system and manager, so setting maximums at the average has the double effect of penalising the efficient operators for no net environmental benefit.

“This is ludicrous.”

Warwick sees the role of the Grassland Association as being an advocate for farming systems and a connection between policy makers, scientists, industry and farmers.

It has almost 1000 members, who receive bi-monthly newsletters, proceedings and publications. Although the proceedings used to be subscription only, the association website now has papers freely available and easily searched.

Warwick urges farmers to attend an association conference, to expose themselves to new ideas.

Warwick is also the pastoral delegate on the Marlborough Research Centre Board and is working on securing funding for research into eradicating Chilean needle grass.

Nassella neesiana, as it is also known, is predominately found through the Blind River area between Seddon and Ward, but 170 infected properties have been identified in Marlborough, 14 in North Canterbury, and several in Hawke’s Bay.

“This is an issue of national importance to NZ. We should support the eradication while we have the opportunity. The alternative is not an option if you stop and think about it.

“If we don’t eradicate it from these farms then we will all have it.”