Flett Family Farming

April 2017

The Flett family farm is home to four generations of Fletts and is a testament to the innovative and questioning spirit of the generations.

The Flett family farm is home to four generations of Fletts and is a testament to the innovative and questioning spirit of the generations. The 720 hectare farm milks summer and winter and runs a barn composting system. 

They don’t use soluble fertilizers, urea and weed sprays, but Robert doesn’t consider himself a “greenie”, although their approach could be described as “biological”. Robert says the systems used on their farm are about efficiency, economics and looking after the stock and the soil, by working with Mother Nature. 

The Flett family has a history of pioneering and innovative thinking. Robert’s grandfather arrived from the Orkney Islands in 1902. He and Robert’s great uncle bought their first block of land, using horse teams to break it in. The farm name “Nistaben” is Orcadian for “house down the end of the lane”.

Robert’s father (Jim) and uncle took over the family farm in 1954. Jim retired in 2000, handing over the reins to Robert, who’d been working alongside him. 

Jim (with some hard work) convinced his father in the early 1940s to use a “new fangled invention” – the electric fence, and he was one of the first to employ contract milkers in Southland in 1976. 

For a long time Jim has been at the forefront of championing the dairy industry in the South. He was former chairman of the Otautau Dairy Company and a key driver of a move that brought six smaller Southland dairy companies together to form the Southland Dairy Co-operative (SDC). 

Jim’s late son Murray was a founding director at Fonterra. 

Today Robert and his wife Jane farm 670 hectares, with a further 50 leased to their eldest son Luke, who raises young stock there and also works on their farm. 

The farm continues a strong family tradition. The staff includes daughter Brooke who manages the milking shed. Daughter Jessica raises the calves with help from cousin Katie (when she’s home from university). Their youngest son Sam is presently working on the farm but looking for further experiences away from home, with a view to eventually coming back to the family property. Robert’s parents, Jim and Betty continue to reside in the original homestead on the farm.

Robert says working with family isn’t always, “…a bed of roses – you can’t throw things out and start again…” but he also says, “…when I see the next generation and my wee grandkids, then I know it’s all worth it”. 

The Flett farm milks around 850 cows in summer and 550 in winter. They began winter milking in 2000. Robert always thought stopping milking in May was wasteful and was looking for a way to utilize the farm capital year round. 

They presently have 160 spring calves and usually around 110 autumn calves. 

Robert reckons you can winter a cow cheaper when she’s in milk and to do this they built a cow barn. The cow barn was constructed in 2011. It is 112 metres long by 40 metres wide and 18 metres high. It is set up so the cows pass through it, as they move to and from the milking shed. A concrete pad runs through the centre where they feed out silage. 

The barn is a multi-purpose one, housing stock in winter and on the shoulders of the season. It is also a giant composting ‘factory’ and effluent collection point for the farm. Robert has high hopes the compost will be his retirement fund – he’s looking for a new income stream that doesn’t involve increasing the herd size. 

The main ‘living area of the barn’ is not concreted. The bedding area is referred to as the “bed-pack” a mixture of composting effluent solids and, at times, sawdust. The effluent is laid down on a base of crushed rock and lime.

Waste from the concrete transit area is scraped up with a bobcat once or twice a day. The effluent, along with the dairy shed waste, is separated and the solid effluent is added to the bed-pack in the barn. 

About 3/4 of the effluent produced is spread on the bed pack. Robert says instead of having a large effluent storage pond for the barn, the pack forms part of the storage. 

They don’t use any soluble fertilisers or sprays on their pasture. Instead they apply a product from Soil Health and their own compost to cropping fields. They have also used seaweed fertilisers from AgriSea and fish fertilisers from United Fisheries.

Weed control has also been managed alternatively. For example ragwort had been an issue on the farm, “we could grow ragwort as good as a kale crop”, Robert says. 

Ragwort seed lasts in the ground for years and effective sprays are injurious to clover.  The Fletts tried all sorts of methods - not one of them cheap or effective.  But now, over the entire farm, the few scotch thistles outnumber ragwort. Robert says the only thing they did was mulch the ragwort.  Good control was achieved in the first season and, 6 years on; ragwort is reluctant to grow even under fence lines (where they can't mulch). 

Steve Ellison at Soil Health suggests weeds “tell a story” by indicating what is missing in the soil. And mulching further assures pasture health. 

Robert says, “Maybe a miracle happened! We are that confident that our soil will struggle to grow ragwort – you’re welcome to throw some seed about.  If it grows, it would indicate something is not right or is needed.  We're not interested to know what’s needed - we'll just mulch it back in.  If it still grows, we'll keep mulching.  If it doesn't grow, job done!  Same applies to thistles.” 

“In the eyes of the industry, we don't have the prettiest of pastures but we'd like people to understand that’s not the end of the world.  In fact it does open up the question of what we are all doing.  We will have grazing intervals between 4 - 9 weeks depending on the stage of the season. This means we can carry a lot of feed on the farm at any one time. It does add pressure to grazing management when grass is going to seed but that’s the beauty of a mulcher.  Our higher pasture covers tend to hold moisture at the base in the summer and we’ve noticed our pastures repair themselves quicker than in the past and this could be to do with them taking the rain better.

Somehow we manage to grow a respectable amount of grass with mulching and 200kg/ha Soil Health product, but it does help to be farming in Southland where it will rain at some stage.” 

Robert’s biological practice on the farm is driven by economics and a belief in harnessing the power of Mother Nature. Robert reckons, “too much of a good thing is bound to go wrong” and started to question the amount of fertilizer going onto farms.  He sees questioning as an important part of their farm practice – rather than following the herd. He worries about who is leading whom in the farming industry and seeks out knowledge from a variety of sources including looking to pre-war farming books to see what chemical free methodologies they were using. 

It was when looking for help to improve his composting system and the resulting compost being produced that Robert teamed up with Steve Ellison at Soil Health. It’s become an important relationship where the men can trial their ideas. Initially Robert needed to achieve higher temperatures to better break down the effluent.

At the start they were adding sawdust from a local mill but after a couple of years they found the sawdust was upsetting the carbon ratio. Now microbes and fungi are added to improve the compost’s efficacy in the field. Microbes work as catalysts to better mobilise soil take-up of phosphorous. Additional enzymes knock out pathogens. A sea-based compost from Soil Health is also added. That compost is made from aquaculture waste (from mussel and oyster farms). Steve say’s the organic sea matter provides for faster breakdown of the compost into depleted soils. The result is a richer, “super compost”. 

Heat released as the dung and urine is composted keeps the cows warm in winter. The respiration of the ‘cooking’ compost also keeps the bed-pack dry. 

Other results from the barn and composting system are improved herd health. “We can also gauge how well the barn’s working on cow health, cell count, mastitis and uterine infection – the numbers are good”, says Robert. 

Robert continues to work with Steve to refine the compost. It is presently being trialed on some local farms, as they continue to experiment with the ‘recipe’. Robert envisages it as an end ingredient in a ‘super fertilizer’. They’re working to get the compost to a point where 100kg is on par with a tonne of standard compost.