Thursday, 27 February 2014

Farming in Southland

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Steve and Heather Wilkins, who farm near Athol in Southland. Their farming business, Wilkins Farming, is large and very diverse, including cropping, diary, sheep, deer, grain handling and a farm shop. It was fascinating to see how all the different enterprises and family members worked together harmoniously. Steve was under considerable pressure as his own Nuffield report, on the “synergy between cropping and diary” was due to be handed in the day after I visited, so thanks for making time for me.

Steve checking some grass seed

The cropping part of the farm involved wheat, barley, various grass seeds and green feed crops for diary support (grazing other farmers stock over winter). Some of the land was irrigated using centre pivots and laterals; VRI was going to be installed in the future, to manage the soil water holding capacity variability. All of the grain produced was sold locally in southland, rather than being trucked to Canterbury in the past, due to the increased demand from the dairy industry. In fact grain now comes down from Canterbury and southland is a net importer of grain, this has increased the value of grain above the world market price, with wheat worth in excess of $400/T (£210/T approx.).  The Wilkins buy in grain from other farmers and process it at their grain mill to sell back to dairy farmers locally. Grass seed formed an important part of the rotation, with ryegrass grown for seed and also crested dogs tail, which is a weed in NZ but exported to the UK for stewardship grass mixes. We have enough problems controlling grass weeds in the UK, without importing them from the other side of the world! Another big part of the rotation is green feed crops of turnips and kale, used to graze around 7000 dairy cattle for the winter, some are their own from the dairy farm and the rest belong to other farmers. Dairy support is proving to be a much more profitable alternative for traditional sheep and cattle farmers in NZ, and is leading to the development of land that was previously unproductive, simply because it is profitable.
Grain processing plant

Winter green feed crop for dairy cattle

Wilkins farming also has a dairy farm with 1400 cows, which is run by a share milker and links well with the cropping, by using grain, grazing green feed crops and helping to introduce some organic matter to the land.
The land that is not suitable to cropping or dairy is used for sheep and deer farming. The lambs are grown on a contract for Waitrose in the UK, and also sold through the farm shop  “The Veg shed”, and via the website Athol Valley Meats. The deer produce venison and velvet from the antlers which are cut off. An annual stag sale is also held on the farm with stags sold either for breeding or to the hunting industry as trophies.
Sheep waiting to be shorn

Deer Velvet

The Veg shed was opened in an old converted woolshed, to enable produce from the farm to be sold directly to the consumer, regaining the link between producer and consumer  is something that Heather is passionate about. Alongside the lamb and venison from the farm many other local and traditional NZ products are offered. The location of the Veg Shed on the main road between Queenstown and Milford sound, which are both popular tourist destinations, is a big benefit.
Inside the Veg shed

My fantastic hosts Heather and Steve


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