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A farm conversion that bucks the trend

A farm conversion that bucks the trend
Ratanui Farm’s annual on-farm bull sale in September will see around 50 Hereford bulls go under the hammer.

Charlie and Helen Lea, of Cambridge, have bucked the trend by purchasing a neighbouring dairy farm and converting it to sheep, beef and cropping.

The couple have brought the 73ha farm into their system and use 24ha of it for growing maize and annual grass, which they will sell to the dairy sector, adding yet another facet to their very diverse farming operation.

With the addition of the new land the Leas now farm a 300ha cropping, cattle and sheep breeding and finishing farm called Ratanui, lambing over 1000 coopworth ewes, calving 180 hereford cows plus 80 weaner bulls and 80 weaner heifers.

They have been busy pulling out barberry hedges and fencing since purchasing the farm next door to bring the land into their system. Over the next three years they will complete their fencing and riparian planting programme along waterways.

The Leas have already planted and fenced 16ha of natives – or over 40,000 – as well as many poplar poles on steep and erosion prone areas. Indigenous forest areas have been predominantly fenced off with some buffer planting.

The remaining unfenced areas are for livestock shade and shelter. Their sustainable approach to farming saw them take out the title of supreme winners of the 2017 Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

First time entrants, they won six of the 10 category awards on offer including awards for soil management, harvesting, innovation, integrated management, water protection and farm stewardship.

They feel this has helped get their name out there, particularly for their on farm plant nursery and business Cambrilea Weedspraying, which offers weed spraying services.

They have planting contracts with various clients and also assist farmers with their own spraying (Cambrilea uses a spot spraying method using hand guns which only necessitates using 10% of the chemicals compared with aerial or broadcast operations) and riparian planting programmes including getting rid of weeds to selecting and providing suitable self-sustaining native plant species, preparing the ground, doing the actual planting and overseeing establishment.

Their choice of plant species is focused largely around plants that also supply feed for bees flowering ten months of the year.

Charlie says this is a win-win situation as farmers benefit from riparian planting that improves streamside ecology and the health of waterways, helping with flood control as well as the aesthetic appearance of buffer zones around waterways and wetlands plus providing shade for livestock.

Farmers can also potentially attract the honey industry to winter over hives on their farms resulting in a little extra cash flow or carbon credits.

Their business plants on contract over 100,000 natives annually, of which 50,00060,000 are grown by their nursery. Helen says she enjoyed being a Ballance Farm Environment Award judge last year.

Charlie, Helen and the farm have also been involved with field trips and seminars helping to pass on their knowledge as well as learning from others.

Their coopworth flock is high fertility and facial eczema-tolerant. They fatten lambs and beef and supply service bulls to the dairy industry via an annual on farm bull sale in late September.

This year they will offer around 50 yearling hereford bulls at 460 kilograms average live weight for mating to dairy cows.

As they have a closed breeding herd this is a good selling point with the industry concerns around Mycoplasma Bovis.

A farm conversion that bucks the trend

Cambridge farmers Charlie and Helen Lea with children Chelsea, Sophie and Georgia.

As beef prices are good it can help farmers create additional income: “Putting a hereford over friesian creates a white faced calf which can be reared creating additional value rather than producing a bobby calf,” says Helen.

As their children are now all at school, Helen is venturing back into her career as a landscape architect taking on some freelance projects.

Chelsea, 11, Sophie, 8 and Georgia, 5 also helped to plant a tree in paddocks when the new farm was taken over providing shade for the stock as well as carrying on the family tradition of being good custodians of the land.

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