Case study: Highlands Station, Rotorua

Fords 26 June 2015

We're republishing this case study of BFEA 2015 national winners, John and Catherine Ford, of Rotorua - the first North Island farmers to take the top prize in the prestigious competition.

Volcanic action "cleared" much of the forest, shaped the land and continues to influence how Highlands Station near Rotorua is farmed.

Today, John and Catherine Ford and their farming team of Daniel Hodson, Bronwyn Edwards, Kevin Kelly, Colin Mead and George Bulled farm the land, but it was John's father, Allen who began its development in 1931.

"Dad began by grazing part of the land in 1931 and in 1932 paid £800 for about 2500 acres as a ballot block," says John.

The Tarawera eruption of 1886 had flattened much of the bush. When Allen bought the farm most of it was covered in fern and scrub, which he burnt, cleared and gradually turned into pasture. Even today holes left by rotting tree stumps are a hazard for stock, dogs and farm staff.

"We once employed a college student, who spent all his August holidays filling up holes in just one paddock," says John.

The eruption also coated the hills with ash, and heavy rains which followed created distinctive "rills" like large vertical corrugations, down the faces of the hills.

Allen left most of the surviving bush standing but extracted rimu, using bullocks, to pay for farm development.

Today 320 hectares of bush are protected under QEII National Trust, regional council and private covenants and 18km of fencing has been constructed to keep stock out. The Mount Tarawera eruption may have had the most dramatic and recent impact on the land, but its volcanic history goes back much further.

Rotomahana mud is up to two metres deep in places. The Kaharoa ash is drier but lacking in minerals, and underneath is Taupo pumice.

The mud soils are high in phosphate and to reduce phosphate loss John has constructed up to 200 detention dams throughout the farm, which slow the run-off and collect sediments.

On August 20, 2014, the dams were thoroughly tested by the biggest rainfall in 10 years. They held the water in the upper catchments and in places no water flowed out, showing how effective the dams are in retaining water and reducing sediment loss.

The farm is in the catchments of Lakes Tarawera and Rotokakahi (Green Lake). Catherine and John, who purchased the farm from John's siblings in 1995, take this into account within their farm management practices.

This has included a move away from cows to raising beef bulls and steers, and breeding ewes.

Properly managed, says John, the bulls have less impact on the land and nitrogen leaching. The young stock arrives in November and is sold after 15 months. Many farmers are turning away from raising bulls to taking on dairy grazers because bulls are perceived as hard work.

"However, if you manage them and understand their nature, they're not; and the financial rewards are greater."

Highlands Station bulls – Catherine likens them to unruly teenagers – are managed by keeping them in relatively small groups, giving them room to get away from each other and feeding them well.

Sheep perform well at Highlands Station too. Romney genetics have been introduced to improve facial eczema resistance and robustness.

No supplements are fed out or made on- farm. Stock numbers are carefully linked to the available pasture and John doesn't hesitate to reduce numbers if a drought is looming.

Highland Station's meat and wool production put it among the top five per cent of New Zealand drystock farms. Despite its steep nature, there's no erosion on the hills thanks to careful grazing management.

In all, the farm covers 1240ha, of which 992ha are effective. Managing a property of this size takes planning and requires good infrastructure.

This includes 17km of tracks to maintain strategically placed yards, the use of solar- powered electric fencing in remote parts of the farm and a water wheel which pumps water to tanks from where it is gravity fed to troughs.

The Highlands Station staff are actively involved in the farm's management and decision-making with each responsible for a different part of the farm and mobs of stock, creating a healthy competition to reach target growth rates.

"The success of Highlands Station is due to our staff," says Catherine. "We are the owners and take the financial risk but our staff produce the results which make it viable.

"At least the last 10 per cent or more of stock production and performance comes from staff decisions and knowledge."

Ballance Farm Environment Awards

In March 2015, the Fords were named supreme winners of the 2015 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards. They also won the Ballance Agri-Nutrients soil management award and the Beef + Lamb New Zealand livestock award.

Judges noted:

  • a strong family history of commitment to agriculture
  • excellent understanding of water dynamics, both above and below the ground
  • effective and outstanding staff management programme
  • appropriate use and management of land, based on its capabilities and catchment

On 25 June, the Fords were named 2015 national winners at a reception in parliament. Read more... 

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