A century at the Top of the South

Switching between sheep, forestry and dairy farming over the last 100 years, the Morrison family are now rearing Wagyu cattle on their Rai Valley farm. By Anne Hardie.

Brent (right) swapped sheep and deer for trees and now Hamish is adding another dimension with Wagyu beef.

One of the few things that remains constant in farming is change and in nearly 100 years of farming in the Rai Valley, the Morrison family’s latest change is rearing Wagyu-cross calves on contract.

Seventy Wagyu-cross calves will be reared to a minimum of 95kg for First Light’s $545 per animal contract for other farmers to finish, replacing their previous strategy of taking beef cattle through to finishing on support blocks. The farm begins on the valley floor beside the Rai River and is backed by steep hills characteristic of the area. When Brent Morrison took over the farm from his parents, sheep and deer grazed the hills above the dairy farm and he did not want a bar of them.

Production forestry replaced the sheep and deer and the forestry side of the business has continued to grow on other blocks.

Now he is at the semi-retired stage of farming and two sons are doing the hard graft on the land. Hamish spent years overseas as a surveyor before returning home in 2016 when his mother, Caralyn, became ill and then passed away. He never intended to stay but is now into his second year as a contract milker, has a young family on the farm with his wife, Lee, and was this year’s runner-up in the West Coast-Top of the South Share Farmer of the Year award. While his role is firmly focused on dairying, his brother, Justin, is keen on the drystock and forestry side of the business.

On the dairy farm, Hamish milks 410 Kiwicross cows at the peak and last season they produced 173,000kg milksolids (MS) or 420kg MS/cow on grass, summer turnips and about 300 tonnes of palm kernel bought in to feed constantly through the season. The 160ha milking platform flows over two terraces which gives them options, especially when the river is likely to flood.

One of the goals is to maximise returns from the calves and they have the land to do that, though leased support blocks, like farming, are not always a constant part of the business and can be hard to replace when a short-term contract expires.

In the past they have kept Kiwicross steer calves outside their replacements to finish at 600kg liveweight, but it meant carrying them through to a third winter and they were eating grass that was better off being put into the dairy herd.

Wagyu piqued Hamish’s interest in 2019 and he began experimenting with them through artificial insemination. The resulting R3s were slaughtered in autumn through First Light at an average weight of 290kg and achieved about $7/kg depending on the marble scoring. A couple of the leased support blocks are no longer available and that is another reason for raising beef just to weaning. This year they will rear about 50% of the calves born on the farm and 70 of those will be Wagyu. At mating, the priority is the replacement calves and sexed semen is used to get heifer calves from the top cows in the herd to improve their genetics faster. It includes synchronising the R2 heifers and doing five days of artificial insemination (AI) before the main herd starts. For the remainder of the herd, this coming calving will see the results of a trial mating using semen via AI of Hereford, Charolais, Angus and Wagyu in those cows not producing replacements.

“It’s been a bit of a trial over the last few years to see what comes out – they all have their pros and cons,” Hamish says. “Herefords and Charolais provide easily identified calves when they’re born. There’s a bit more planning involved with the Wagyu as they come out looking just like a Kiwicross calf. So, we have to calve these in a separate mob to the replacement calves. Both the Wagyu and Kiwicross are DNA tested which will pick up any mistakes.”

The Hereford and Charolais are bigger calves and Hamish says buyers prefer them over Angus because their distinctive markings are proof of their beef genetics. Angus was chosen for a shorter gestation period for the tail end of mating so they calve earlier. They also breed a few Jersey bulls to mate the yearling heifers and follow up the herd to catch anything that has not got in calf.

Last mating was also the first time they used Why Wait programme to bring cows cycling in the third week forward to the second week. By bringing these cows forward, they get more days in milk, plus better early submission rates the following spring. The programme requires a single Cyclase (PG) injection to bring cycling cows forward a week to improve the submission rate.

Cows cycling during the week before the planned start of mating that are usually mated in the third week of mating are injected with Cyclase so they cycle during the second week of mating.

“In subsequent years it should improve our submission and in-calf rates, and help to condense our calving pattern,” Hamish says. “It’s a cost but compared with days in milk it’s worth it.”

Come calving, the Wagyu calves are the only beefies at this stage with a certain outcome. The calves will be only grass-fed after weaning to meet the contract requirements and sold on contract through First Light to farmers who will carry them through to their finishing weight.

“The good thing is they do a fixed price so you know what you’re working on and have a contract so you know you can get rid of them.”

Brent says that without a contract, keeping beef-cross calves is too much of a gamble.

“You can’t afford to get them to 100kg and then have a drought start and you can’t get rid of them. That’s why Wagyu are good because you have a contract.”

He says there are few calf rearers around now for four-day-old calves which means more heading off as bobbies. They have not been killing bobby calves on the farm, but he says Fonterra’s new rule to send all bobby calves to a value stream will mean more pressure on meat works and he expects there will be problems finding space in some regions.

“There are real concerns. The main thing Fonterra is trying to avoid is euthanising calves on farms which we haven’t done for a long time, but the concern is how much of that has been going on? There might be another 10,000 calves to kill and freezing works are struggling with staff these days.”

Drying off the cows on balage.

Heifer calves are kept on the farm beside the milking platform through to the beginning of May when they head to a local grazier. The family has a long-term agreement with the grazier and Brent says a lot of trust has been built up over the years which is invaluable. “He’s a total specialist and does a better job than we would do. We don’t want to let him go.”

Adding technology to meet dairy challenges

One of the challenges for Hamish as a contract milker is the dairy. He is a younger generation dairy farmer, keen on getting involved in technology, but the dairy is a 30-aside herringbone with no automation in the wrong place on the farm.

It sits just along the gravel road from the remains of the original dairy where his grandparents milked a small herd which is now a photogenic relic of the past. Neighbouring blocks have been merged into the farm since then and Brent says the cows now have to cross the road and walk further to get milked.

“We’re in a situation where we fairly desperately need a new cow shed in a new location. That would also free up the old cow shed and yard to use as a feed pad.”

A lower forecast payout this season means it is not going to happen in the short term, but something needs to be done to free up staff. Hamish employs three staff, mainly because the dairy needs two people at milking. It means the farm has quite high labour costs and two staff in the dairy does not make good use of their time. His plan is to turn the dairy into a one-person milking operation in the short term by adding automatic cup removers which will also improve efficiency and also an automatic teat sprayer.

At this stage, because two people are needed for milking but are often surplus through the season, Hamish is using rosters and milking regimes to find a balance for everyone.

“I’m trying to balance it with a good roster for five days on and two off. I let one staff go with the local contractor from October to January to help with balage and hay. One of my staff is from Thailand so I let her go back home for a while and we milk 10in7 from Christmas or New Year. That has been really good for cows and staff.”

The herd begins on twice-a-day milking, then switches to 10 milkings in seven days around Christmas or New Year depending on the season. Ten milkings in seven days means the milking times remain the same each day of the week, unlike 3in2. Hamish and the team milk twice-a-day three times through the week and once-a-day the other four days. Weekend milkings are both once-a-day which makes it easier for staff and rosters.

Down the track, Hamish wants to be able to gather cow information with collars, but he is happy to sit back and wait for the next generation of technology before making any investment and the dairy issue has to be addressed first.

In the meantime, milking is a time-consuming affair and cow health or heats rely largely on observation.

Cows are fed palm kernel in covered troughs as they exit the dairy and this year they plan to cut back from 300t for the season to 200t as part of the cost-cutting measures to match the lower forecast payout. Transporting the palm kernel from Canterbury is a big chunk of the feed’s cost at $502/t delivered.

Palm kernel is the only imported feed and reducing it is also part of the plan to be self-sufficient so they are not desperately trying to buy feed when everyone else needs it as well. Each year they make about 600t of grass silage on a 40ha support block and another 15ha block which is then fed through summer and autumn.

A second cut in January produces about 200 bales of hay and balage each. They own the 15ha block at Opouri where they also graze their R2 heifers through winter before returning them to the milking platform.

Support blocks in the hills and valleys around Rai Valley and Marlborough Sounds come with a few extra challenges, not least the two-metre – or more recently 3m – rainfall. In the days after the August flood last year, 800mm of rain fell in four days. At the time they had 75 rising two-year-old steers on a block that was inaccessible by road because of slips caused by the flooding.

Brent had purposefully left a tractor and feed trailer at the block, expecting problems. But they still spent hours chainsawing felled trees on a 15km forestry track to get to them. In the days following the flood, two people and two vehicles had to make the trek to feed the cattle in case one vehicle became stuck in the mud and trees.

Come summer, it is typically dry and a crop of summer turnips has proven pretty reliable over the years. Last year the 10ha crop produced 12t/ha to compensate for the land that is unirrigated.

Fifty hectares is irrigated using long lateral sprinklers from two wells that have reached their maximum take for the resource consent. Last summer it was only used for a week because of the persistently wet season. Another 50ha is irrigated with effluent using K-line, with a little overlap between the two.

Through summer the family is addressing heat stress in the cows by fencing off the corners of paddocks and planting a mixture of poplar, liquid amber and silver birch for shade. The species have aesthetic appeal as well.

Aiming for carbon neutral

Blocks of pines add another income stream for the farm, but other species will provide options for the next few generations.

Brent has long been keen on his trees which is why he quit sheep and deer so he could plant the hills. His father, Denny, had already begun planting in the 1960s and Brent ramped it up, with his son, Justin, now a keen forester.

Pinus radiata make up the bulk of the plantings and will provide the shorter-term harvesting option. Douglas fir, 30ha of lusitanica and acacia melanoxylon (Tasmanian Blackwood) have a slightly longer rotation. Then there are 12ha of Redwoods, a handful of deodar cedars and a smattering of totara that are carefully managed for future generations who will have the option of harvesting them maybe 200 to 300 years down the track.

In all, the farming operation now has about 145ha of forestry which includes the recently acquired 30ha block of pines. Apart from the commercial plots, Brent has planted a 12ha hillside purely for aesthetics with a mix of redwoods, Douglas fir, larch, liquid amber and oaks. Beneath them he has planted 100 rhododendrons that will add a touch of colour in spring when the farm is wet and dreary.

Financially, it is all about the pines, for the foreseeable future anyway. Last year the family harvested 11ha of pines and Brent says it really took a year of planning to have everything in place, ready to go when the log price was right. It enabled them to grab an opportunity when there was a slight lift in prices and they averaged $110 to $120/t before prices slipped to about $80/t. As long as the price is higher than $100/t they can make reasonable money from the trees. Having the option of ports in Nelson and Marlborough as well as mills is a bonus because it gives them options.

Apart from timber, the forestry earns the farm carbon credits and the family is considering putting more land into carbon credits. Brent says it is a politically driven system that is aimed at changing land use by a Government that does not recognise what is already planted on farms.

A changing environment

Farming would be so much easier with the help of a crystal ball. But there is no such clarity for the Morrison family of Rai Valley who have seen their annual rainfall increase by a metre in the past couple of years and are wondering whether they should be investing in a herd home. If only they could view the next 10 years to see if the past two years will be the norm.

Rain seems to surpass forecasts nowadays, Brent says. They might forecast heavy rain, but the skies deliver above and beyond any estimations. The farm has always had one or two floods a year over the lower terrace against the Rai River, with water flowing over about 30% of the 160ha milking platform. But there is more rain now pounding the catchment and careering down the valley floor on its way to the Marlborough Sounds at Havelock.

Last August the farm was drenched with 800mm over four days while a nearby valley recorded 1.4m and that all has to go downhill, into the valley and out to sea. It gouged great gaps out of the riverbank, making the river flats more vulnerable for future flooding and dug holes in the paddocks big enough to lose a tractor. Those river-flat paddocks no longer have two-wire electric fences – they are down to one wire to catch less debris and make it easier to retrieve and erect them again after the floodwaters have receded.

Floods take their toll on fertility as all-farm soil testing is showing them. Brent says the last tests showed the flood-prone lower terrace were considerably lower in fertility. While part of that is the actual floods leaching fertility, it is also a symptom of time and simply getting fertiliser on the paddocks, whether it is base fertiliser and lime, or the nitrogen mixes they apply themselves.

The Morrisons have carried out a couple of all-farm soil tests and plan to repeat it every three years to find out which paddocks need topping up. Brent says the tests not only show them what each paddock needs, but whether they have got it right after testing. Some paddocks that were low the first time, needed even more fertiliser than they thought they needed to bring them up to optimums.

It is a balancing act between getting fertility levels right for pasture growth and keeping fertiliser on the paddocks and out of the river.

The Rai River is part of the Te Hoiere/Pelorus Catchment Restoration Project involving the Marlborough District Council, Department of Conservation, Ngati Kuia and the wider community. The area has been chosen as an exemplar catchment by the Government, with funding directed toward measuring and improving problems identified.

For landowners, there have been numerous benefits. Apart from in-depth water monitoring when waterways enter and leave the property to get better information, there has been considerable assistance to beef up riparian planting.

The Morrisons have been planting alongside waterways for years, but last year they got another 7000 native plants in the ground with help from the project. The farm paid for the plants and the project paid contractors to get them planted and carry out weed management for two years to help get them established.

“You pay for the plants, but don’t have to look after them. That is a massive job and important to do it at the right time. Planting the tree is the easy part – keeping them alive is a lot harder.”

Most of the planting has been up gullies on higher ground and fences have been moved further away from the waterway to between five and 10m in some places in a bid to improve water quality at a higher level in the catchment.

Collaboration within the catchment group has resulted in numerous batches of dung beetles being distributed around farms in the area. The Morrisons have had two deliveries of different dung beetle species released on to the farm at a cost of $3000. It will take the next decade for numbers to build, but Brent is happy to know they are burrowing beneath piles of dung to aerate the soil and do their bit for the environment. He is hoping they will head below ground or fly somewhere safe when paddocks disappear beneath floodwaters.

Winter cropping is not a problem environmentally on the farm because Brent despises it with a passion and has refused to use it in the winter feed budget.

“I’m quite anti-cropping, apart from summer turnips. It’s all work and mess.”

Instead, they stick with winter grass and hay to feed the cows that remain at home or go out to grazing. About 100 cows usually head to a friend’s Seddon property for winter, depending on the season and if there’s enough feed there. Two hundred cows – or 300 if none have gone to Seddon – are walked 10km up the valley toward Tennyson Inlet where they winter with another grazier. On May 1, the in-calf heifers come home for a winter on grass and hay, settling into the farm before they begin their first milking season.

Ongoing succession planning

Next year, the Morrison family will have farmed their piece of land in the Rai Valley for 100 years. It has expanded many times over the decades as neighbouring blocks became available and each generation made their stamp on the land. An ageing dairy slowly eroding into the landscape and a faded barn-red woolshed that has not seen a sheep for a few decades, are part of the family’s story.

Which is why the farm is important to the family and part of the challenge when it comes to succession. Brent and Caralyn had four sons who were all told to leave the farm after they finished school and ‘do what they wanted to do’.

Hamish gained a degree in surveying and headed off overseas to work with oil and gas projects. Justin became a fitter and welder, Dale a builder who has been working in mining in Western Australia and Adam works in human resources in London. When Caralyn became unwell, Hamish headed home, helped on the farm for a few months and never left. He found he enjoyed the work and it was the ideal fit for a young family with his wife, Lee.

This is their second year contract milking on the family farm with the agreement based on a fixed price per kilogram of milksolids. Meanwhile, Justin, has found his niche with the beef and forestry aspects of the business and takes charge of the runoffs. For several years, Brent has been enlisting the help of a professional for succession planning and once a year there is a family meeting with all four sons, either personally or via Skype.

“I’m quite passionate about keeping the farm in the family because we’ve been here 100 years next year. But the longer you go on, the more difficult it gets because more people are involved. The easiest succession plan is to sell everything and give them equal shares.

“I’ve deliberately expanded forestry and runoffs because it gives us options. It gives me ways of dividing it up without stuffing it up. It’s a considerable challenge and that’s why you need those professionals.”

The forestry is another income stream for the business, but it also provides the means to pay lump sums of debt which in turn will make it easier to divide the assets, if not equally, at least fairly.

“The toughest thing is to be fair, which doesn’t mean equal. There has to be some give and take.”

When the business bought the latest 30ha of forestry, all four sons were asked for their thoughts on the purchase and how they thought it fit with the succession plan.

Brent has bought himself a house in Nelson where he may eventually retire, but he is not going anywhere soon and will not require much more capital himself. He says a good relationship with his bank manager has been crucial for the family’s succession plan as well. For the past 20 years he has had the same bank manager, which he recognises as fortunate, which means decisions can be made quickly – which is often necessary with land purchases such as the 30ha of forestry.

Whether it is the bank manager, independent professional or different members of the family, he says communication is the key to making the relationships and the succession plan work.