Creating a ‘natural balance’ a lifetime of endeavour
Derek Chamberlain has been back on the farm he grew up on 25 kilometres north of Tuatapere for 30 odd years. His wife Bronnie has been with him for 26 of them. Derek’s grandfather bought the original 4000 acres (1600 hectare) farm in 1944.
“We used to be traditional sheep farmers,” says Derek, “then we spent a few years grazing dairy heifers, buying and selling blocks and juggling dairy investments while we worked through our generation’s succession. The core farm was always viable as a unit but not so much if it had to be split up.
We’re farming 2300 hectares now.” Years of redeveloping and “tidying up” the farm has put them ahead of their time when they decided that anywhere they couldn’t grow or graze something sustainably, they might as well plant a tree. 25 years later they’ve got blocks of gums and pines ready to harvest, although they’re in no rush.
“We’ve got about 150 hectares all together,” says Bronnie. “We don’t want to be constantly harvesting big swathes but we still want to have that balance so that we can cut down a few blocks and replant every couple of years.”
In addition, if it’s land too hard to graze or cultivate, or too tricky for a logging truck to access, they retire it to allow the native bush to regenerate as well as adding some riparian and exotic plantings of their own, with 170ha completed so far.
“Some of it’s been left for 10 or 12 years and already the beech trees are a good size. Pittosporums, manuka, tussocks, fl axes, whatever was on the land already plus what we plant,” says Bronnie.
“We’ve got a good trapping programme in our area too, so bird numbers are increasing without the possums and stoats. We really want to create a great natural balance on the property, and it looks good too. 100 beehives have also been added to the equation this spring, so looking forward to seeing some results from this when the flowering starts.”
With the succession settled the Chamberlain’s were ready to own their own stock again and decided to change the dynamic of the way income was coming into their farm. Their core business for the last two years has been fattening bulls for the works. They buy in 2800 bull calves a year weighing around 100kg – 105kg and take them through to around 260kg- 270kg.
The Fresian bulls are all sourced from local agents and they keep strict records of all the calves coming onto the farm. “We put them all through NAIT which gives us a true record of what we’ve got on the farm,” says Bronnie, “which really helps when things happen like M. Bovis.
It was also an advantage that we weren’t raising any dairy stock and we were able to highlight any cattle of concern quickly – luckily our concerns were always unfounded.” Whether it’s sheep, dairy cows or bulls the key to it all is pasture management.
Staying on top of what the grass is doing in every corner of the farm is an essential part of running their business. With an average rainfall of 1200mm and heavy animals grazing the pasture, strict measures are used to avoid pugging the ground. “They’re moved daily so they’re not walking around looking for food.
We’re physically trying to have that grass in front of them all the time. They’re here to grow, they’re not here to look at the view,” Bronnie says with a laugh. The farm is split into blocks mapped out into rotations. Until recently keeping track of exactly what the grass was doing in each paddock was a job that took two solid days every fortnight.
Now the pasture monitoring is done by satellite with a system call SPACE provided through LIC. “It’s used by a lot of dairy farmers,” Bronnie explains, “but because what we’re doing is physically growing grass to fatten animals, it works well for us too.”
Taking advantage of farm technology like this and Farm IQ, to provide live data which can be accessed from anywhere, is part and parcel of the Chamber-lain’s farming approach as they settle into this latest phase and work out what they might do next.
“At the moment we’re just consolidating,” says Derek,“and I guess the next move will depend a bit on what the kids want to do. We’d like to get into the position where we can look at other things off farm and look at other opportunities again,” adds Bronnie, “but for now it’s nice to take a breather and just enjoy farming for a few years.”
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