Atkinson Organic Sheep & Beef

July 2011
Ian and Heather Atkinson took over management of the family farm from Ians parents in the early 1980s and immediately began farming organically. There were no supports, few guidelines and plenty of disparaging remarks from conventional agribusiness, but they persevered and were certified organic in 1990. Ventures into marketing of organic products took them away from most day-to-day farming for some years, but five years ago they took back the property they had leased and are now farming again fulltime. Their system involves a mix of profit centres including winter grazing of an organic dairy herd, deer, sheep, grazing of dairy heifers and organic crops. They make all their own supplements, some of which are sold to cover harvesting costs. In recent years they have planted mixed native tree species for shelter, harvested an exotic forest and have begun replanting the area in natives.

EBITR comparisons with Beef & Lamb NZ assessed farms have shown that they are at least as profitable as good lamb finishing properties in the same region. This underlines their strongly held belief that conversion to organics does not compromise profitability, even in non-dairy industries where there is little or no support, and that the environmental benefits are a huge bonus.

Heather has also worked for Wairarapa Organics and Organic Aotearoa NZ, supporting local growers and farmers through the process of converting to organics and helping to manage and promote the organics movement.

You can be organic, very environmentally conscious and still be highly profitable. Good environmental outcomes are not a negative for business, and there need be no compromises in terms of profitability.

So say Ian and Heather Atkinson who farm 250 ha at Pirinoa in the Wairarapa. And they should know. They have been using organic methods for more than 25 years and have had to manage their way through many difficulties and unknowns, but the result has been large measures of success in terms of production, marketing, environmental improvement and profit.

Their journey started in 1982 when the couple took over the family farm from Ians parents and almost immediately decided to go organic.

"Ian's father was never very comfortable with high chemical usage and neither of us wanted to be handling chemicals so it was an opportunity to start experimenting. By the mid-80s we were growing crops organically, says Heather.

In 1988 we started certification just because we wanted to see if we could meet the criteria, and we were fully certified within two years, which was quick."

Back then not much was known about organic farming and there were many hurdles to overcome. Whereas conventional farmers had the backing of research and experience there were no recipes for organic management and so the Atkinsons learnt a lot by trial and error.

It can be an expensive way to learn. In those days there wasn't any support structure so we had to follow our instincts. We had cropping and trees as well as animals, so getting the balance between animal numbers and crops was really critical, and we tinkered around with that quite a bit trying to get each one to have the maximum positive impact on the others, says Ian.

We started off with a lot of deer, then we changed to a lot more sheep, and now we have a bit of everything but each system complements the others. For example, we make supplements but we need the dairy grazers to turn those supplements into fertiliser.

Undoubtedly animal health was a big challenge at the beginning, especially with sheep. There were no stud breeders who were not drenching, dipping and vaccinating rams so the Atkinsons bred from the strongest immunity animals in their own flock. They went cold-turkey there were no drenching transitions or other props and it took eight years to make substantial gains in worm resistance, but they did it.

Cropping was also a challenge. Although most of the farm can be cropped the soils are mainly clay based and the area is subject to extended dry periods in summer. Much effort went into weed control and selecting the right crops. Greenfeed crops included choumoellier and swedes for winter feeding and choumoellier and turnips for summer. Sometimes they grew wheat and barley for the organic feed market. This year they have experimented with buckwheat, which is not commonly grown now in the area and certainly not without the use of sprays.

Weve tried new things each year, some were a big flop and some of them worked. Normally we would grow wheat and barley for the organic feed market, says Ian.

We just go through with a tine cultivator after the greenfeed crop and then direct drill it. We operate a system of two false seedbeds so we have two weed strikes. Its a long cultivation phase but it means we can manage the seeded optimally and control about 70% of the weeds. Generally there are two or three weeks between cultivations, and sometimes we level the paddock and that also knocks out the weeds before we drill.

In the 90s the Atkinsons started looking for markets for their BioGro certified meats and teamed up with an organic butcher in Wellington. Trying to meet the market year round led Ian to contact other organic farmers, and eventually he leased out the farm and started a business marketing organic sheep and beef meats. After three years he took back 100ha of the farm, and in 2006 took over the whole property and went back to full-time farming.

Their business has evolved into a series of interdependent profit centres that can be adjusted according to the season and farm gate prices, and still allows for experimentation and innovation.

Current stock

130 dairy heifers on a 12 month grazing contract until May

300 deer including fawns

31 rising two-year-old Angus steers

300 ewes

100 two-tooths

120 ewe hoggets

80 others

In winter they take on 400 organic dairy cows for grazing.

When putting cropped areas back into permanent pasture they sow a mix of 13 or 14 different species, some deep rooting that tap into subsoil moisture and also bring up trace elements.

This is common on organic farms and we have been doing it for years. We change the mix each time just a little, each species is helpful, some are better in the summer and some in the winter, says Ian.

Some herbal leys don't produce much in the winter so we have to be careful because that is our busy time we carry more than 20 SU/ha and we could run ourselves short if we don't have a good mix.

Low cadmium RPR is put on annually, also lime at 1 tonne/ha, which is low for the region.

We have found over the years that a little and often is best. If we go over that amount it can shut down trace elements and minerals, says Ian.

We also use biodynamic preparations to condition the soil. In the last few years we have been really focused on building soil biology because we believe that is the fundamental building block of the farm, so we are trying to enhance that.

Every year we block off an area of the farm in a sort of sabbatical fallow and allow the grass to grow long. The breakdown of this material builds up the organic matter in the soil.

8ha buckwheat

10ha greenfeed (chou+turnips for the deer in summer and chou+swedes for the dairy cows in winter)

10ha lucerne

500 bales of hay and 500 of baleage each year, 400 of which are sold to cover the harvesting costs

Summers are very dry here and lucerne gives us a lot of feed. We get big cuts of baleage off it and we graze it after that through the summer, and then in winter the grass comes through so we graze it all year round, says Ian.

That is quite different to the conventional people who would see the grass coming through it as a negative, but we believe it makes better baleage with a mix of pasture species and lucerne.

Over the years the organic management system has built up soil organic matter levels, which confer a greater water holding capacity and extend the shoulders of the growing season. The Atkinsons capitalise on this by taking on stock in summer and winter and easing back in the other seasons to let the farm recover.

Wet winters on clay mean the soil is prone to pugging and so the stock are intensively managed. Each class of stock is behind an electric fence, and they can have up to nine electric fences to shift every day and twice a day if it is wet. Cattle spend most of their time on crop paddocks and so help build fertility that can be exploited with another crop.

In May around 200 dairy heifers arrive on a 14 month contract, and until the end of June the heifers from the previous year are still on the property. Also in June, 200 dairy cows arrive for wintering over. Those stock consume about 10 bales of baleage or hay per day. There are also the ewes and deer to take care of.

By the end of July all the dairy stock have gone except for the heifers that arrived in May.

Lambing starts 1 September as does ground preparation for crops. The fawns are weaned in September, not in March as is done on conventional farms. In September and October the rising two-year-old deer are sent away, and crops are sown. Supplements are made in November and December.

Fawning and velveting are in December. Through January and February there is a lot of focus on lamb health getting them through to about the end of February.

When it gets dry, supplements are fed to the dairy heifers, and the hinds and fawns have baleage and some green feed. Once the lambs are finished and away the farm is lightly stocked until May. The 40 ha of hills carries 100 adult cows through the summer months and then ewe hoggets in the winter. The area acts as a relief valve but is not grazed hard in essence, twice a year grazing.

Mixed native tree species have been planted for shelter over the past six years. Around 7 ha of exotic pine plantation have recently been harvested and that area is being replanted in native trees. In the past year the Atkinsons have reinvested around $40,000 in tree planting and fencing, effectively adding to the 12 ha of regenerating native bush that is in a Queen Elizabeth II covenant and helping create a wildlife corridor through the property.

In the early days the Atkinsons enterprise was frowned upon by the agribusiness establishment, which thought they could never be profitable without conventional fertilisers and farm chemicals. Times have changed, and organic farming is now seen as a valid management option although a risky one. Fonterra has seen the growth in overseas markets for organic dairy products and is now actively encouraging farmers to convert, but there is virtually no support for sheep and beef farmers like the Atkinsons.

In spite of all that, the couple has demonstrated that their organic business is profitable and sustainable. Recently they worked with their accountant to prepare EBITR figures (Earnings Before Interest, Tax and Rent) to give a basis for assessing their profitability in relation to other farms in the area. Comparisons with Beef & Lamb NZ EBITR data showed that their performance is better than the top 20% of finishing farms in the area, and certainly better than the Supreme Winner of the Greater Wellington Farm Environment Awards.

Not surprisingly the Atkinsons are staunch advocates for organic farming, and Heather has spent the past five years in various roles supporting organic farmers through the conversion process and promoting the industry. As she says:

We want to encourage others to use organics and put environmental matters right up front. Good environmental outcomes are not negative on farming business and you make no compromises in terms of profitability.

And the Atkinsons have credibility. Theyve been there, done that, and can now afford several T-shirts.