Kirkpatrick's Mixed Farm
A flexible farming system that’s creating opportunities in Gisborne
Andrew and Tracy Kirkpatrick run a mixed cropping, sheep and beef farm, with a feed/lucerne business attached. They have 450ha with 150ha of flats, and the rest hills. Of the flats, most are cropped, with 35ha of lucerne of varying ages from one to six years. Seed maize and seed sweetcorn is cropped for PGG Wrightson.
Following a number of years of droughts and floods, the Kirkpatricks have changed to a very flexible farming system to enable to quickly adapt to changing weather patterns. They raise around 500 calves a year, growing most of them out. They also grow seed maize and seed sweetcorn, and have expanded their lucerne production into a thriving feed business.
Andrew’s family have been farming in the district for 120 years, and for the past 10 years Andrew and Tracy have farmed in a 50:50 partnership with his parents David and Heather. Succession is an important part of their business. The couple have two sons, eight year old Riley and six year old Jake, who go to Ngatapa School.
Nine years ago he and Tracy bought a 300ha farm at Ngatapa to add to the family business. Another block was added three years ago.
Seed maize and sweetcorn are only grown in Gisborne; and they grow lots of different kinds for PGG Wrightson. They also grow a summer crop of chicory for rearing young calves. All the cropping land goes into temporary grass pastures for the winter, which are used for lamb finishing and young bulls.
Because of the frequent droughts, cropping has been unreliable from year to year. This year has been terrible, Andrew says, with only 15mm of rain falling between October and February. The crops were very late, and haven’t ripened as well as they should have. They will only break even on these.
Every year the Kirkpatricks buy in 500 calves from four dairy farms around Whakatane. These are all the calves from each of those farms. They also include a few Jersey bull calves, but most are Friesian.
One of the four farmers has been supplying them calves for 10 years. It’s a good system because they take all of the calves available, not just the best ones. A carrier does two drop-offs a week, and it is a well organised system. “We can negotiate a much better price because we take them all. Some of the farmers buy back the reared calves (for example, the Jersey bulls).
The calves start arriving in mid-July, and are reared through on a 12 week cycle until weaning finishes at the end of October. They have six weeks on milk only, and it’s another six weeks until they are fully weaned.
They use a re-engineered Poukawa once-a-day feeding system for calf-rearing, and try to keep the labour costs as low as possible. Still, Tracy has long days - from around 6am when feeding begins, until 8 or 8.30pm if any calves are ill and need extra care. Tracy is paid for working with the calves, and this is factored into the costs. “We are more realistic about how much we are making from the calves.”
Spring is a pinch time for them, because it’s so busy, and they get extra help from family members (such as Tracy’s mother) who help for a week in the middle of calf rearing.
After weaning in November the calves go onto chicory pastures, staying there until March. Weight gains through summer are normally just under 1kg a day on average. Feeding on chicory pasture appears also to safeguard against facial eczema.
At weaning they sell about 150 calves at 100kg, keeping around 350 to raise through the summer, as well as around 200 bigger bulls kept over from the previous year. This policy is very flexible, so they are able to sell the animals whenever it suits.
Previously they’ve run ewes, but a drought in 2009 ended with them sending 1500 ewes to the works. Last year they bought in and finished 5000 lambs, but this year with the crops later than usual, they might only have 2000 lambs on.
Tracy and Andrew have diversified into a lucerne feed business, and it has become their biggest earner on the farm, apart from their bulls. This separate business is just in its infancy, although Andrew’s father has been growing lucerne on the farm for about 50 years.
Andrew says they decided to specialise in lucerne feed, and have 35ha in production at the moment. “We can take six to seven cuts off the paddocks each year, and we produce 25kg little bales, round bales and round bale silage. If we don’t think we will get a good enough result with the dry hay we will make silage in round bales from the lucerne.”
Last year they upgraded all the machinery, and do all their own tractor work and baling. This gives them control over when things get done. “When people buy our product they like that we are doing the whole job.” They have a good client base, mostly in Gisborne, but as far away as Waikato, and have sold just by word of mouth. They also have an internet page, which has helped them sell much more, but they can’t keep up with the demand.
Bull studs are the main buyers, as are horse studs and local showjumpers, and polo players.
Andrew says, “We kept getting dry summers, and we don’t irrigate our crops or lucerne”. Last year they dug up a plant with a digger to see how deep the lucerne roots grew, and if they grew into the tile drains.
“But they went straight past the tiles and at six feet under ground the roots were still an inch thick. The ground where they were is really heavy and hard, and the roots just grew straight through it. It is amazing how they can grow in the dry.”
In spring a neighbour helps with tractor driving, and Tracy does the bale wrapping. David mows and rakes the lucerne too.
Their three main messages for those in a similar situation to them are:
- The benefits of being flexible to cope with dry periods
- Not to be afraid to try new things (ie., their lucerne business) and,
- It’s a lot of hard work – especially the calf rearing