Biodiversity and productivity go hand in hand on award-winning farm | Beef + Lamb New Zealand

Biodiversity and productivity go hand in hand on award-winning farm

As productivity and profitability has lifted on Mark and Jane Schwass’ North Canterbury farm, so too has their investment in amenity and shelter planting. The couple won the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Livestock Award at this year’s Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards. This two part-series looks at what drives this award-winning business.
Thursday, 24 May 2018

A 1.3 ha stand of natives in a far corner of Mark and Jane Schwass’ North Canterbury farm acts as a milestone in their farm’s development.

This stand was planted in 2005, five years after Mark, Jane and their four young children, Monica, Eleanor, Jonathan and Louise had bought Kaiora Downs, a 956 ha hill country property to the west of Culverden.

Faced with hill-country choked with Hawthorn, matagouri, gorse and broom and old insul-timber fences that were anything but stock-proof, their priorities were initially around weed control and fencing.

They had a left a smaller farm in Ward (they were Beef + Lamb New Zealand Monitor farmers and the programme highlighted that their farm was becoming uneconomic) and Jane says when they bought Kairoa Downs they couldn’t afford any stock.

But they did inherit a dairy grazing agreement and a mutual friend brokered a share-farming arrangement with a farming enterprise where Mark and Jane ran their Hereford Angus cross breeding cows and kept half of the calves.

Mark says they took over the farm in June 2000 and immediately had 1500 dairy cattle to look after, most of which left the farm the following month, leaving them with just a few R1 heifers. So the beef cattle share-farming arrangement was the perfect fit for the couple.

Initially all their capital was spent on helicopters and contractors to control gorse and broom (such was the extent of the weed problem). They then had to replace around 30 km of fences as well as carrying out further sub-division.

It wasn’t until five years after they took ownership of Kaiora Downs that they looked to embark on a planting programme to complement the strides they were making in lifting farm productivity.
While there were a lot of light-eliminating trees around their homestead when they bought the property, it had no significant trees or plantings. This, says Jane, reflected the traditional, extensive farming practices of the previous owners. Before they bought it, Kaiora Downs had only had three owners since 1907 and the third owners were dairy farmers who only owned it for three years and used it as a run-off.

This meant that once the weeds were cleared, the family were left with a clean slate upon which to make their mark.

They initially used an Environment Canterbury grant to fence off and plant the steep 1.3 ha site – and enlisted the services of local environmental consultant Jamie McFadden to select the species.

Mark says he initially envisaged planting a stand of beech, but Jamie talked them into a mix of natives, including cabbage trees, flaxes and toi-toi.

For Jamie, it was one of the most difficult sites he had had to work with, but over three years, Jamie, two of his staff and the Schwass family planted the area out.

This was to mark the start of a long relationship with Jamie, who continues to advise and provide the plants for the many subsequent plant projects. But it was also the start of what became a family affair – planting natives and exotics for amenity value and stock shelter – including 30-50 poplar poles every year – and for filtering water.

The family fence the area, Jamie selects and places the plants, drills a hole with a post-hole borer and the family follow along doing the planting.

Jane says Jamie select plants to match the site, and he sources and propagates seed from hill country North Canterbury to ensure they can handle the local conditions.

During establishment, he carries out a “release” spraying in spring, to remove the weeds which will compete with the plants for moisture, particularly in North Canterbury’s notoriously dry summers.
They have not had problems with rabbits or possums eating plants, although the occasional errant lamb can do a bit of damage to small plants.

Jane and Mark say that they have always strived to be good custodians of the land, but as they both work on the farm full-time, the tress and plants also make their work environment a very pleasurable one. They enjoy seeing the plants grow, the birdlife they house and livestock make use the trees and plants for shade and shelter.

Apart from the drought, the amount of planting they are doing is gaining momentum, in line with the farm’s increasing productivity and profitability.

As Mark says, you need to be in the black before you can be green.

While they were doing the initial weed clearance, they did retain areas of manuka and matagouri. As well as providing valuable shade and shelter, particularly when it snows, they are now working with local farmer and apiarist Dan Shand to generate an income off the Manuka in the form of honey.

Last year Jane formalised their environment and natural resource management by completing a Beef + Lamb New Zealand Farm Environment Plan (FEP) workshop. She came away with a plan which she describes as a working document to help inform their management decisions as well as meeting the requirements of their irrigation company.