Measuring a regenerative farming approach for sheep and beef at Atkins Ranch.
In July 2022, a two-year farmer extension and engagement-focused project was begun to build on the growing awareness of both the challenges and opportunities surrounding regenerative agriculture verification across the sheep and beef sector.
The project is supported by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI’s) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (SFFFF) along with industry partner Lean Meats Ltd (t/a Atkins Ranch) an export-focused lamb producer group. Atkins Ranch is leading the project.
It has been a long-held ambition of producers to secure premiums for farmers by attracting high-value contracts for export markets. Alongside this is a growing consumer awareness among those able and willing to pay those premium prices of the story behind the production of their food, and the role of regenerative farming practices play in that. There are acknowledged challenges and opportunities in identifying and verifying these practices. Atkins Ranch and the Savory Institute Producer Group are combining forces to assist lamb producers with this and help promote and support regenerative production of lamb meat and by-products.
Pat Maher is chief executive of Atkins Ranch (the trading name of Lean Meats), a group of lamb producers supplying several retailers across the United States, including the Whole Foods Market chain. Atkins Ranch has always had the ambition of promoting food that has been produced ethically, and with a minimal environmental footprint. The messages of non-GMO, animal welfare certification, and 100% grass fed lamb fits well in the niche consumer market that will pay a premium for these qualities in the food they buy.
Savory Global describe themselves as a decentralised global network of regenerative change-makers. It was co-founded by American Allan Savory and is growing networks of farmers, facilitators, and educators around the world. The focus is on the holistic management of food and fibre production, and in generating accreditation for producers working within its programme. The institute has developed ‘Land to Market’, claimed to be the world’s first outcomes-based verification assurance verification programme. The programme incorporates science and measurement to back up the verification process.
Based in Central Hawke’s Bay, Horizon Farming is a values-driven, progressive pastoral agribusiness governed by a board of directors, of which two are members of the Holdsworth family, who own the company. It is a business that aims to achieve the delicate balance between people, land, and profit. Eight farms across the region, from Havelock North to Woodville, carry around 90,000 stock units. Livestock is mostly sheep and cattle, with a small percentage of deer on 8,800 effective ha of leased (52%) and owned (48%) properties. The business engages 27 full time employees and several casual staff. Stuart Ellingham is Horizon’s managing director and is also on the Horizon Farming board. The company has strong relationships with its meat and wool handlers, processors, marketers, and exporters: Ovation, Alliance, NZ Merino, WNZLP and Atkins Ranch.
Longrange Station lies about half an hour’s drive from Waipukurau in Central Hawkes Bay and is one of Horizon Farming’s sheep and cattle properties. At 3,215ha (2,834ha effective) the intensive summer breeding and finishing property is managed in 2022 by Ryan Foley and six other staff. Like all the properties in the Horizon portfolio, as well as producing livestock, at Longrange there is a commitment to environmental stewardship.
There are six QEII covenanted blocks on the station, totalling over 62ha. There are three wetland areas covering 15ha, and 20ha of riparian planting that has been carried out along the banks of the Haotokitoki Stream, with further riparian fencing planned.
Much of this work was carried out with the support of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. Currently a three-year project is underway to retire 180ha back to natives, with help from the One Billion Trees initiative. Along with planting, weed and pest eradication control is an ongoing part of the station’s activities.
Stuart says there is continual refining and improvement of systems at Longrange and other properties within the Horizon Farming group. Some of these improvements include no-tillage, careful and reduced application of agri-chemicals, and programmes around increasing biodiversity. “It’s about utilising the strengths of each individual property – the driver for us is doing the right thing by the land”, he says.
For Stuart, holistic management covers not just the farmland and livestock but the environment they sit within, as well as the people who live and work on the land. He says the benefits of encouraging a strong and stable work culture and social connections impact positively on all aspects of the business. This holistic approach will ensure the ongoing viability of high-quality and profitable food production - and the environment out of which it is produced.
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