Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell

September 2008
Dairy support is the major income earner on Robin and Jacqueline Blackwells 600-hectare Taranaki farm, Mangaotea, between Stratford and Inglewood.

Ninety percent of stock run on the farm is cattle, mostly over-wintered dairy cows and dairy heifers on 12-month contracts. They also produce hay and silage, used on-farm to carry stock through winter with surplus sold to dairy farmers.

Adding interest as well as income is the annual on-farm Mangaotea farm service bull sale with the Hereford, Angus and Jersey bulls on offer mostly selling to repeat local buyers.

In 2006, the couple won a Taranaki District Council Rural Environment Award for sustainable land management, recognising their conservation of land susceptible to rain and flood damage and intensification of more productive areas.

A key to the propertys success is the flexibility provided by the 120 hectares conserved for hay and silage, winter cow grazing and also providing reserve grazing when needed. The stud, dairy grazing and sheep workloads fall at different times of the year, making an intensive operation manageable for the Blackwells and a fulltime employee.

Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell have lived in the Tariki district for their entire lives, and farmed the 600-hectare Mangaotea for 18 years. This includes 200 hectares leased since June last year, and managed by Jacqueline, with help from Robin when needed.

The property ranges from flat hay country to rolling and easy hill, at between 100 and 300 metres above sea level.

In the last few years, the Blackwells have shifted from meat and wool farming to grazing dairy cows and heifers and growing supplements, to meet demand from the increasingly lucrative dairy industry. However, they still retain an interest in sheep and beef, finding the mixed farming systems complementary.

Ninety percent of stock units carried are cattle, with 1783 cattle and 1270 sheep wintered. The cattle comprised 441 dairy cows over-wintered from 1 June until the last week in July and 1027 rising one-year dairy heifers on a 12-month contract.

Each year purebred bulls are sourced as weaners and yearlings and sold the following year in an on farm sale. Bulls from Mangaoteas Hereford and Angus studs also feature in the sale, mostly sold to Taranaki dairy farmers.

Recent intensification has included improving peat flats, which previously grew around 30% pasture with the remainder in bulrushes and swamps. The land was cultivated and contoured with an excavator to improve drainage, and stumps removed; an ongoing job. The next step is cropping with brassicas for a couple of years then rotation through to permanent pasture or the short-term ryegrass, Tabu.

To avoid damaging these compaction-prone peat soils, the Blackwells avoid grazing with heavy stock including cattle in winter.

Leasing the 200 hectare block would mean gradually tipping the balance of stock on the property back towards beef breeding cattle and sheep.

A key to the propertys success is the flexibility provided by the 120 hectares predominantly managed for hay and silage production but also providing reserve grazing when needed.

Each year around 10 hectares of crops - usually brassicas and kale are grown, providing over-winter grazing for bulls. However, last year the crops (sown in the first week of December) failed due to lack of rain. They were re-drilled and again failed, then planted in ryegrass and oats which to the Blackwells relief grew well, providing good winter feed.

Fodder crops were a challenge throughout Taranaki last summer, says Robin.

The stock classes run at Mangaotea are complementary, with the cattle workload falling in winter when the sheep requiring just a shift every few days. The busy bull-selling season coincides with the time a lot of stock leaves the property in late winter/early spring.

Then, the sheep workload begins with lambing, drafting, drenching, and dagging.

The around two metre annual rainfall is usually reliable, although last spring, summer and autumn were the exception being extremely dry throughout Taranaki.

The Mangaotea farm service bull sale comprises 60 rising one-year and 130 rising-two year bulls, selected from a total of 240 bulls. For 12 years, the bulls have been auctioned on-farm in purpose-built facilities. The bulls sell mostly to the dairying and dairy grazing industries, with Jerseys the biggest seller. The bull sale business is now a significant income earner, says Robin.

Constant handling and rigorous selection ensures a quiet temperament, essential on dairy farms. This years sale will be held on September 18 with the offering to comprise around 50% Jersey, 20% Angus, 20% Hereford and 10% Murray Grey; around 70% two-year-olds and 30% yearlings. Last year the 57 purchasers of 180 bulls were mostly repeat buyers, mainly dairy farmers but some traditional beef producers.

Robin acknowledges that it was Jacqueline who first recognised this opportunity due to the advantages of being able to self-supply quality purebred beef bulls predominantly for the dairy industry.

Jacqueline started off the stud-breeding enterprise in 2003, as an on-farm interest at a time when she was working off-farm. His wifes bull-breeding enterprise so impressed Robin that in 2006 he started breeding stud angus bulls, setting up some friendly red versus black competition. This year both bought stud bulls at the national sale in Feilding.

The emphasis is on lower birthweight/higher growth rate bulls.

Apart from adding income, the stud-breeding venture has been socially worthwhile putting the Blackwells in touch with many interesting and inspiring people in the industry.

Hillier country at Mangaotea is reserved for sheep and summering of bulls.

With sheep meat and wool incomes not too flash in recent years, sheep have tended to slip into the background, says Robin. However, he enjoys his flock of Romney ewes, breeding his own replacements and mating terminals with Suffolk, Dorset and Southdown rams.

All lambs were fattened to 17.5kg last season despite the dry, the first sold off their mothers pre Christmas and the last killed in May, in fortnightly drafts.

While sheep havent been the most profitable branch of the business in the last few years, they play their part in the big picture, suiting the steeper country where they run and providing the opportunity to rotate grazing with calves which become susceptible to worm burdens when too many are run.

The lease block represents a policy change, towards again building beef cow and ewe flock numbers.

Mangaotea lambs are killed at Silver Fern Farms Waitotara Plant. Robin supports the proposal for rural service company PGG-Wrightson invest $220 million in Silver Fern Farms to become a 50% shareholder, saying that the industry is lacking direction and restructure would bring in some fresh ideas.

One hundred and twenty hectares of flat easy contoured land is conserved for making supplements in January/February, using a local contractor Moratti's, from Inglewood. Most of the hay and silage is sold to dairy farmers in the region.

Drought throughout Taranaki last summer/autumn created massive demand for supplements and short supply. Where the Blackwells would normally have cut 180 bales of hay per hectare, this year they were down to around 140/hectare so held onto most of what they made themselves to feed stock over winter. Even so, the number of cows wintered was down by 100-120.

Dairy grazing provides the biggest cashflow at Mangaotea, with the Blackwells meeting rising demand from Taranaki dairy farmers to shift milking herds off-farm through winter and raise young stock off-farm, so they can milk more cows in the season. Improving economics of dairying have provided the income to pay for grazing, giving a boost to sheep and beef farmers as sheep meat and wool experience a downturn.

Dairy heifers are run at Mangaotea on a May to May contract, plus about 300 weaner heifers arrive in mid December/January and are run through to May then put onto the 12-month contract. Grazing is charged at a base weekly rate, with a target of doubling weights which we usually manage, says Robin. This year was no exception, despite the dry.

Milking cows are wintered from June 1 until the last week of July.

Dairy grazing heifers are run in mobs of 100-120, with a first winter rotation of 80 days followed by 40 days then we just see how it goes. Hay is fed out over winter.

The beauty of the system is that because we de-stock with bulls in September, that takes pressure off the supplementary feed blocks giving us feed reserves and the space to move. Others, with only grazing country, can get stuck.

Paddocks growing supplements are shut up from mid April, to be ready for winter cow grazing from early June. Cows spend seven weeks on these paddocks, which are then spelled for a month to provide extra grazing for the heifers or beef cows if needed.

The Blackwells have about 12 grazing clients, one who have been with them since they bought the property.

The property receives an annual dressing of about 400kg of 20% potash superphospate/hectare while the hay country gets another 250kg of 50% potash super, to compensate for nutrient loss when supplements are harvested and removed. Around 35 tonnes of urea is also applied, pre winter and early spring.

The around 10 hectares a year planted in brassicas is fertilised as required.

Over the last six or seven years 600 to 800 plants per year have been planted along Mangaotea Stream which flows through the property, for riparian protection and stock safety. Sourced from the Taranaki District Council at cost price, the plants are a mixed bag of natives appropriate for the area (including flaxes sourced on the property) and exotics, including poplar poles.

To ensure flow is not impeded in flood, plantings are often fenced on one side of the stream only and are arranged in clusters rather than continuous lines. Low-growing species are planted close to the waters edge, and one bank is often left clear to allow access for machinery to remove silt or debris blockages if necessary.

The streamside plantings are now complete and the Blackwells have moved on to planting around dams and in other swampy areas.

Last year a block of kahikatea was fenced off and placed in a conservation covenant with the QEII National Trust. Three or four other areas of natives have also been tagged for protection, as time permits. These include kahikatea along with tawa and other native forest species.

Most gullies on the farm have been left in native bush, which has been positive for preventing soil erosion, says Robin. Two areas of erosion-prone hill are being retired, one being planted this winter in a mix of species including cryptomeria and deciduous cedars. Robin and Jacqueline decided that rather than grow timber trees, which dont seem to attract much interest from loggers in the district, they would aim for species which would beautify the farm and may even earn carbon credits.

The Taranaki Regional Council is highly regarded in the area for its soil conservation initiatives and incentives, says Robin.

In 1998 he took up the opportunity offered by the Council to have a farm map and plan drawn up including paddock measurements prepared, free of charge. This provided a breakdown of the property by soil class and land type, and included no obligation recommendations for managing storm and flood-prone areas.

Subsequent contact with land management officer, Jason Loveridge, had been very helpful and constructive.

Taranaki does not usually suffer drought, but last summer was the exception. Fortunately, this has been followed by a warm and wet winter with good growth, says Robin.