The Dillon family have been farming on the Mataura River for a good hundred years. These days Chris Dillon and his wife, Rochelle, live there with their three children and the original 200 hectare farm has grown to 835 hectares.
“We’ve got good fertile river flats and heavier land on the terraces,” says Chris. “ Depending on the soil we rotate a mixture of wheat, barley, peas and some grasses, and we’ve got 300 hinds, a couple of hundred dairy heifers and 1000 or so hoggets in the spring.”
One of the additional properties they bought adjoining their farm in the 2000’s came with some pre-existing deer fences so they decided to add a bit of deer farming to their mix.
“We bought about 100 deer to start with and stuck it out while they industry was down. We’ve bred them up over the years and now they’ve become quite valuable. They’re a small part of the business, and they’re not really part of the rotation, but they add diversity, income at different times of year and help spread the risk” says Chris.
Having a sustainable rotation lies at the heart of Chris’s farming practice, requiring both a short and long term awareness of weeds, disease pressures on the crops, and soil health, combined with what’s happening in the market locally and globally.
“We only include peas every seven years as a preventive measure but we do grow wheat continuously so we’re pushing the limits with that,” he says. “We’ve managed to take the soil past the disease vulnerable second and third year crops but we’re still keeping a close eye on what varieties we grow.”
As Chris explains: “With the rotations it’s not so much this year we’re thinking about but next year, the year after and even the one after that. We’re planning well forward with an eye on where the market is as well as the sustainability of the soil and the crops we’ve got growing.”
Their farming practices have anticipated current environmental pressures and concerns by many years, says Chris. “We’ve been farming with minimum tillage for 15 years, and we look after the soil as much as we can.”
They keep livestock off the heavier soils and don’t put any brassicas in them. They fenced off their waterways back in 2000 because they saw it as good practice and they’ve been keeping a close eye on their nitrogen application for the same reason.
“We only put it on when the plants are actively taking it up, and we know the amount of yield we’re taking off matches the input . We’ve modelled the farm through the Southland Economic Study and it confirmed that we weren’t dropping excess nutrients out the bottom.
“The worry is that new regulations will put a blanket regulation on nitrogen application and not take into account the careful way arable farmers manage it already.” Chris has another thought about what arable farmers could offer the government in their pursuit of zero carbon practises.
“Instead of importing cheap palm forest by-products with all the environmental problems that come along with them we could play a big part by providing ethically sourced, low carbon, home-grown feed for the New Zealand market.”
As far as he’s concerned that would be a good place to start and given the inherent adaptability of the arable farming system Chris would be happy to include this sort of crop in his farm’s rotation whether in the short, medium or longer term..
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