Pastures new

Modern farmers enjoy many technological benefits their predecessors could only dream about. But although these innovations might have helped younger farmers work more efficiently, the days of multiple families living sustainably off one block of dirt have gone. Many young farmers faced with taking over the reins from farming parents are turning to off-farm careers to help fund succession planning.

Carl McDonald works by day as an accountant for farming syndication company, MyFarm, based in Feilding.

But when the 40-hour professional week is done, Carl doesn’t get to throw his feet up and unwind. He spends his evenings and weekends running a 60ha farm on the outskirts of Marton, helping his parents on their hill country farm or spending time with partner Ingrid and nine-month-old son Harry.

Having grown up on the family farm, Carl always knew farming was in his blood. Parents Ross and Anne McDonald farm about 540ha of medium hill country in the lush Rangitikei hills north of Marton.

Carl got the farming bug at an early age so it was no surprise he went to Massey University to study for a business degree (including agribusiness) before qualifying as a chartered accountant. He worked at firms in Palmerston North and Wellington for a couple of years, building experience before looking further afield.

Like many young Kiwis, Carl was bitten by the travel bug in his early 20s and set off on the big OE. He worked on contract for a number of corporates in the UK, including a stint at Tesco, enjoying the challenge working for such a massive supermarket chain provided. After two years his working holiday ran out so he applied for his highly skilled visa to allow him to stay and keep working.

In 2006 he met Ingrid, originally from Adelaide, during a night out in London. She was working for Goldman Sachs as a banker and the couple worked hard in their jobs but travelled as much as possible. Trips from London included northern Africa, Scandinavia, Europe and Asia. One of Carl’s more colourful trips was by push bike through Finland after a van he was travelling in broke down. Sustained by dried Reindeer meat, Carl spent the next two weeks cycling through the back blocks of Finland camping in forest beside the road.

Heading home

While in the UK, Carl kept a careful eye on job opportunities in NZ. He knew accounting positions in his local area didn’t come up very often, especially those with a rural flavour. He spotted an ad for a position working for MyFarm and applied straight away in 2011. So he was stoked to be offered the job which would provide him with valuable income to help him realise his farming dreams.

With a job lined up, Carl packed his bags and said goodbye to Ingrid in the UK. She stayed on to finish her role as a banker and also to save some more pounds. Although the family farm would have been the ideal place for them to live, the lack of a second house meant the family had to explore other options. Not long after his return from the UK, Carl and Ingrid bought a 60ha flat farm on the outskirts of Marton which had a modern house. Having a run-off block was a sound investment for the McDonald family to enable more of the hill country progeny to be finished on the flats.

With a new farm under his belt and a house for Ingrid to move to, Carl threw himself into his new job. His role with MyFarm is varied and encompasses all aspects of business accounting. The company deals with range of investors from professional fund managers to retired farmers so an important aspect of Carl’s job is to ensure quality financial information is provided while educating them on the intricacies of pastoral farming in NZ. But it is this variety and challenge that motivates Carl and he realises he is fortunate to have such a unique accounting position so close to home. The company has gone from strength to strength in the past 10 years and now employs more than 30 people from its Feilding base.

One of the spin-offs of his role with MyFarm is the chance to work closely with some forward-thinking, innovative farming minds.

To maximise potential investments MyFarm promotes development of properties which includes investigating new forage mixes and technologies around hill country cropping. Carl recognised the impressive results with the herb mixes and plans to replicate that success on the family farms. Carl’s parents live on and run the hill country farm, a small part of which is cultivatable. They have planted chicory and plantain crops to finish stock on in the last few years and Carl has been pleased with the results.

Winning a free paddock

The 60ha finishing block had been used bull grazing by the previous owners and Carl felt the pasture was coming to the end of its life when they bought the farm. So he planned to regrass the block in stages using finishing crops as well to fatten the lambs from the hill country farm.

At the start of this year he stumbled across a competition to win a new paddock run by the Pasture Renewal Charitable Trust (PRCT). It was offering three Kiwi farmers the chance to win $8000 each towards pasture renewal. Carl jumped at the chance, filled in the forms and was over the moon when notified of his win.

Any successful pasture renewal programme needs good planning so Carl conducted a visual analysis of all the paddocks on the farm with local Farmlands manager Trevor Williamson and Agriseeds Bruce Patterson. The paddocks were ranked on a scale from one to three with level one showing high native grasses and weed content, level two showing older grasses with some signs of other grass species direct drilled in the past and some clover present and level three recently renovated paddocks with newer grass varieties and a higher clover content. After this analysis Carl decided the paddocks with the lowest scores would be first to be renewed.

Because he wanted to stretch the prize as far as possible, Carl used the money to pay for seed and fertiliser and stumped up with the spraying and direct drilling costs himself. The drought that gripped most of the North Island prevented him from sowing any seed until the rains came at the end of March. After a successful spray he planted Italian ryegrass Tabu, hybrid ryegrass Shogun and Goliath rape for cattle grazing in winter to be followed by plantain and clover in the spring. Weeds and slugs were carefully monitored and any necessary control applied proactively rather than reactively.

The only real challenge he faced was learning how to graze new tetraploid grasses properly. The flow-on effect of the drought forced him to graze the new pasture a bit harder than he would have liked but he had no option and it has since recovered to show no ill effects. He is pleased with the results from all the forages and is looking forward to incorporating the plantain mixes in the future to further boost productivity.

When Young Country visited the farm in early October the paddocks were a lush hue of vibrant green colour stretching off towards the smoky blue haze of the Ruahine Ranges. Ewes and lambs used to grazing hard hills to the north were gorging themselves on the ankle-deep goodness of the new grass. Carl was very thankful for the opportunity the win a new paddock competition gave him. Not only has he achieved much more than he was planning this year in terms of cultivation, he has learnt plenty from the process.

Carl McDonald’s tips for successful pasture renewal:

       Plan well in advance what paddocks you are going to do;

       Assess soil fertility well in advance;

       Ask for advice from local seed merchants and rural suppliers as to what forages are best suited;

       Don’t graze new pastures too soon or too hard.

Pastures New

The Pasture Renewal Charitable Trust (PRCT) is an organisation funded by 14 agribusiness companies. In 2011 it commissioned an analysis of the value of pasture to the New Zealand economy. The study, by Business and Economic Research Ltd (BERL) found pasture renewal levels in sheep and beef farming were just 2.03% of farm area, compared with 6.63% of dairy farms.

BERL predicted drystock farmgate returns could increase by between $35 million and $106 million if sheep and beef farms reached 8% annual pasture renewal.

Speaking to Country Wide magazine earlier this year, PRCT project manager Nicola Holmes said the win a free paddock competition aimed to encourage farmers to address the difference between the best-producing paddock on the farm and the worst, to boost overall farm productivity.