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Canny couple navigate the ups and downs of farm ownership

Kim Stewart Oct 10
Canny couple navigate the ups and downs of farm ownership
Tawa Farms owners Chris Haworth and Chris Stevens.

The complementary skills and entrepreneurial vision of Tawa Farms owners Chris Haworth and his wife, Chris Stevens, have enabled the couple to purchase three dairy farms during the past 25 years.

Chris Stevens says her husband’s financial management skills as a rural banker has been a big asset as the couple navigated the ups and downs in the dairy industry, particularly during the leaner years.

Two of the farms are located north of Lake Rotorua at Kaharoa; Tawa Ridge was bought in 1992, and Highview in 2001, while Okororie further west was added to the portfolio in 2008. Tawa Ridge is the original home farm, but the couple moved to Highview following its purchase.

In hindsight the timing of the purchase of Okororie was not ideal, Chris Stevens says. “We paid a lot for it and then there was a crash.”

However Chris Haworth’s full-time income as a rural banker and astute financial management helped sustain the farms through the tough periods and he was able to resign from this work March this year.

While Okororie had its economic challenges, the couple are still pleased they bought it.

“The lesson was sticking to the basics that we always had, which was running a low-cost operation.” One of Okororie’s assets was an in-shed feeding system and its benefits soon became obvious.

“We found that was quite helpful during the droughts we were having at that time. We’ve changed our systems and put in-shed feeders in all of the farms.”

“We got much better production and still managed to keep our costs low.” Nine staff are employed, which was essential in Chris Stevens being able to cope with the workload.

Her role involves dealing with staff, rosters, calf rearing, keeping track of stock records including selecting sires for breeding and identifying cull cows, while Chris covers financial management, overall farm management, projects and development.

His presence full-time on the farm is really appreciated, as is the support of the staff during the past 25 years.

“It’s been fantastic for me to have him home because it certainly helps. There’s a lot of things happening all the time that he’s dealing with now that I would have had to deal with in the past.” “We’ve had great staff. That also makes a lot of difference.”

Despite having scale over the three farms to potentially justify the purchase of harvesting machinery, the use of contractors which reduces labour units, overall capital outlay and maintenance costs for equipment has been a key in running a low cost business.

Paddocks are direct drilled for pasture renewal, avoiding damage that can be caused by cultivation in the higher altitude, high rainfall areas where Tawa Ridge and Highview are situated.

Herd improvement through gene marking has been a focus on Tawa Ridge and Highview during the past six years. This is achieved by taking a sample of ear tissue to DNA profile every cow.

“When the cows calve, you ear punch all the calves and then they can identify absolutely who the dam was and who the sire was.”

Chris says regardless of how good people are at checking the cows, there is still a margin of error due to mismothering.

This could result in in-breeding and cows under performing.

“We’ve been pleased with the gene marking because you haven’t got concerns you are mating the wrong animal. We’ve been able to be confident in who are the top animals and who are the bottom animals with low genetic value; we put them in calf to beef breeds.”

It also means buyers can have confidence in the traits and bloodline of any stock purchased.

About 100 four day old calves have been sold each season to Fonterra, which sends them to China, for $500 each. “That was quite a good income stream.”

“Chris is always looking to get the maximum return from the beef side of our business and we get about 70c per kilogram of milk solids (equivalent) extra through the sale of cull cows, the sale of calves. That helps when the payout is low.”

“There’s a good market for Friesian bull calves and Fresian/Hereford calves with a white face.”