Rabbit management, advisory board part of station’s business plan
Any conversation with farmers, or about farming, in Central Otago will get onto the subject of rabbits sooner or later. The recent foray into wiping them out with calicivirus seems largely unsuccessful, and some farmers are reverting to 1080.
On Mt Pisa Station near Cromwell, they are taking a different, but well-worn tack. “We’ve invested a large amount of money in rabbits,” says Shane MacMillan.
“We’re one of the more rabbit prone bits of the country but have done no poisoning since 2013-14. We’ve put in 40 kilometres of rabbit fences, and employ a full time rabbiter. He works for us for three weeks, then at Cloudy Peaks for three weeks, then back here. The biggest threat is on the boundaries, so he checks those fences. Now when I’m out on the farm, I’d be lucky to see two rabbits a day.”
Shane, who manages the farm that has been in his family’s care since 1924, says this is just one of a number of innovations at Mt Pisa.
Another that he credits with improving the business is the advisory board. With five members, only one being a farmer, plus Shane and his parents, Murray and Jackie, it meets at least twice a year.
“It deals with everything including succession, development and investment. It’s been instrumental in getting us where we are.”
Changes have taken place around the 4600 hectare property. Through tenure review, DoC is now their neighbour on the flattish tops of the Pisa Range.
Along much of the highway frontage, vineyards and cherry orchards have been developed. On their own flat to rolling country before it rises steeply up the range, a different pasture renewal programme is in place. “Years ago, they’d clear the briar with a bulldozer then grass it all and move on to another area.
In the last seven years, Dad has cleared hundreds of hectares of that land, and new land, with our bulldozer. He loves it. Every year about 150ha of ryecorn goes in at the start of January.
Over two or three years it builds up fertility and cleans the weeds. We don’t cultivate – we spray everything out then direct drill. We spread the sowing over six weeks so it doesn’t all come in at once.
Ryecorn grows like a weed, and is extremely valuable. Prior to winter, it is grazed up to four times. In Spring, we spray it out for moisture retention.
“Then it goes into lucerne or lucerne/cocksfoot. It’s valuable. We’ve got over 300ha. It’s the first to come out of the ground here. It relies on air temperature not ground temperature so when the days warm up it’s away. A lot of the twin ewes are lambed on it.”
Mt Pisa is Merino country. They buy 12 to 16 rams from Nine Mile Stud each year. Estimated Breeding Values guide their selection.
The type looked for is a general purpose, polled Merino that will grow a lot of wool and produce good sized lambs to get to the works early, and be good replacements for themselves.
The ewe flock scanned 145% to the ram. The type of country and sometimes severe southerly storms they get in Spring mean lamb losses can be high on the hill.
Reducing the hill block sizes, fencing off dark sides and higher altitudes, and being able to set stock less intensively are all improving their weaning percentages.
Twin ewes get the warmer more sheltered country. Supplementary hay and balage are fed as seasons dictate.
The flock has 5500 ewes, and 3800 hoggets are carried through. Two thousand hoggets are ewes of which they retain 1400 as replacements.
Dorset Down rams are put over 1100 culled Merino ewes, their lambs being sold as stores at weaning in mid January along with 600 Merino lambs, also sold as stores.
The beef side of the business has Hereford cows, apart from a few crosses left over from earlier times. “They are real doers in this country,” Shane says.
“They are good to handle , and all their calves sell better at sales. We are always working on improving genetic selection of bulls. We used to buy Hereford replacement bulls with a low birthweight in mind. It’s hard to find a balance between low birthweight and high growth rate.
“We now use a low birthweight Angus bull over our heifers. We are feeding our cattle better at more crucial times as we develop country, for example a month prior to calving.
We use bigger mobs to clean up the ryecorn prior to spraying out. They are a useful tool” They run 150 breeding cows, 40 R2s, 36 R1s and six bulls. Hereford bulls come from Geoff Brown’s stud just up the road.
At the Omakau sale in April, 120 to 130 calves are sold, averaging just under $1000 over the last two years. Around 30 calves are kept as replacements. Murray MacMillan has been on Mt Pisa for 50 years now.
Shane has been managing it for seven. When the MacMillan’s century of farming the property comes round in just six years time, there will be some great tales of changes and development to tell.
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