After university and a spell in Australia, Mark Booth has come home to the Central Otago family farming operation. Terry Brosnahan reports. Photo: John Cosgrove

ark Booth came to sheep farming later than most but is quickly making up for lost time.

Armed with a degree which was good for designing new fridges, but not farming, he started working full-time on the family farm five years ago.

The 610-hectare sheep and beef farm is at Moa Flat in Central Otago.

Mark, 31, works in well with his dad Fred Booth. Fred is reasonably well-known in southern parts as he is the owner of the 82ha at Waimumu near Gore where the Southern Field Day Highlander vs Crusader rugby match is held every two years.

Mark gives his job title as anything from gofer to farm manager. As he has been out of sheep and beef farming for some time, he’s filling in gaps with courses through the Primary ITO covering topics such as livestock feeding level 3. He is working towards a diploma of agricultural business management and finance.

“I needed to learn anything and everything because I have been away so long.”

Fred’s passed on his wisdom but Mark’s hungry for more.

“Dad’s old school and never done a feed budget – he works it out in his head.”

Both feed and finance budgeting are weakness Mark is working on.

Last year he was also a participant on Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Future

Farmer programme which opened his eyes to the information available about all aspects of farming and the potential of superior genetics.

Mark grew up on the farm and after graduating from Otago University in 2009 with a Batchelor of Consumer and Applied Science he lived in Wellington for eight months trying unsuccessfully to find a job.

His brother Adam talked him into going to Australia to work on a cereal cropping farm, where Mark ended up driving tractors in Western Australia. He worked on a 15,000ha farm at Nungarin in the wheatbelt, 300km east of Perth, halfway to Kalgoorlie.

Initially he flew between the two countries for the seasonal work, then lived in Perth for three years farming and doing other various jobs. After five years it was time to come home. Near the end of his Aussie stint he had been flying home again for seasonal work on the farm.

“I decided I liked sheep and beef farming and enjoyed the lifestyle.”

Mark is the second youngest of eight children and has three brothers. Fred, 81, was married twice. Only Mark and a sister are involved in farming. He lives with his partner Tracey Grant in town, Ettrick, 2.5km away.

Last year be bought store lambs off Fred and fattened them on the Waimumu block. The grazing was free but he paid for everything else. One of the goals he wrote down on the Future Farmer programme was to lease the two family farms within five years. The goal has come early as they work through the detail of Mark taking on the lease this year.

The Booths are running 2300 Romney ewes, 550 hoggets and 50 breeding cows. They also buy in and fatten calves. The lambing percentage is 127% across everything.

Longevity is good in the flock as ewes average seven years.

An animal is only as good as its teeth. Their ewes’ teeth wear well because they are not eating winter crops. The older ewes are put to a Dorset Down ram and two-tooth ewes are put to an easy-lambing Southdown ram.

It is a low-cost operation though they have never quantified it. They use contractors but do a lot of work themselves with a little help from family and friends.

About 70ha of the home farm is flat of which 9ha is lucerne made for baleage. Usually they get two cuts followed by two grazings. No other supplements are needed. Another 12ha grows turnips and chou mainly for cattle, but last year it fed lambs and calves.

Mark is always keen to be involved in the community, played rugby and is a member of the local fire brigade. He was secretary of the Teviot Valley Young Farmers Club for two years.

“Now I’m a supporter helping the new secretary, helping with fundraising and events and get rewarded with the odd beer or two.”

He is also secretary of the local Millers Flat Rodeo Club. Even though he has never participated in the sport, friends coaxed him into going to a meeting and given his YFC experience, was asked to take on the job.      

Land beats houses

Fred bought the 82ha at Waimumu in 1989 as insurance against a major drought which was crippling the Moa Flat farm.

“I was on my way to buy two houses as off-farm investment, but changed my mind.”

At the time it was still a cropping area “with grain as far as the eye could see”, but that was about to change.

He had tried to buy a bigger block but Tasman Agriculture was buying up all the available land for dairy farming.

Fred had only been to the farm once before in the early 1980s to visit the Southern Field Days which he has continued with. His plan was to keep it for a few years until the home farm recovered as it was a “wet hole”, but it turned out to be a great investment. They have used it to finish lambs and calves, improve two-tooth ewes and the ewe hoggets are wintered there.

“It worked well as we don’t have to feed sheep in the winter.”

Ewe lambs go down there about a week after shearing and stay for 12 months. There were 1200 lambs, 550 hoggets, 65 mixed R1 and R2 calves on the block in early January. Normally lambs are finished to 40kg weights.

They spray off a paddock each year and put it straight back into grass.

When field days hosted the inaugural Crusaders and Highlanders pre-season rugby game in February 2016, Fred generously gave them land to develop a playing field. Locals say Fred initially thought it meant just fencing off the area to keep stock and the crowd back. It meant forgoing a significant piece of land while the field was developed.

After the field was sown in the autumn of 2015 it poured with rain for days. They couldn’t get back on it until October and were racing against the clock.

A contractor drilling the rest of the paddock for pasture got sick of going around the future rugby field and just drove through it. It was probably the first time the rugby players encountered a field with plantain in it.

The world is Fred’s oyster

Fred is looking forward to retirement-as long as he has enough money for oysters.

He loves them and used to buy them by the sack-full.

Before PPCS owned its own meat plants it toll killed and Fred used to go to Bluff to watch his lambs killed. He would return with a sack of oysters. As the lambs were drafted by Southland Farmers, through PPCS and killed at Alliance, Fred ended with shares in all three.

Fred doesn’t like computers nor knows how to use one. He does like to travel and went on a wool study tour of China in 2012. There he learned why the farmgate wool price was poor and unlikely to recover.

“They won’t pay a cent more than they have to.”

Fred took over the farm from his father in 1969.

At the time the Government had stacks of money and gave every farmer who qualified $1000 each to invest in their farm, he says. As Fred had just taken over he didn’t qualify and a lot of farmers he knew invested in boats and caravans.

Love affair

The Booths have a soft spot for the Subaru Brumby.

They own five for farm use and Fred swears by them as they are cheaper and safer than side-by-sides or ATVs, and better.

“They go anywhere and you don’t get wet.”

The last he bought at an auction in Millers Flat. It had no clutch so he told the local cop to clear the area as he would drive it up over the flower bed and down the road to the garage. Fred roared off but unfortunately as he approached a single lane bridge a car was coming towards him and he had to stop.