Following the figures as performance is fine-tuned is the order of the day for Allen Coster. Mike Bland reports.

Bay of Plenty farmer Allen Coster likes to measure every aspect of farm production.

He’s a spreadsheet junkie, using a range of computer software to fine-tune performance on Mataiwhetu Station, a small (by station standards) but productive, sheep, beef and dairy grazing unit on the eastern flanks of the Kaimai Ranges.

Stock policy on the 240-hectare hill-country farm has been constantly tweaked over the last 12 years, with the most significant change being the introduction of dairy grazing in May 2008.

Dairy heifers are still an important part of the mix, but in recent years numbers have been reduced to accommodate more ewes and beef cattle.

Mataiwhetu was originally managed by Allen’s parents, Jim, who passed away three years ago, and Robyn, who still lives on the farm. The Costers bought the farm in the mid-1950s and developed it into a tidy and productive traditional sheep and beef unit.

Today, Allen owns 65ha of land along with all the sheep and beef cattle on the property, leasing the balance of the farm from a family-owned company.

The decision to switch to dairy support came while the farm was the Meat & Wool New Zealand (now Beef+Lamb NZ) Monitor Farm for the Bay of Plenty region.

The programme started in 2006 and an analysis by the Monitor Farm community group showed that, at the time, replacing beef cattle with dairy heifer grazing would generate an extra $48,000 a year.

Mataiwhetu’s rolling contour and central location made it a prime candidate for dairy support. Situated about 15km west of Tauranga, the attractive farm rises from 120 to 260m above sea level, with an annual rainfall of 1850mm. Contour is mainly medium hill and the soil type is a free-draining Waihi Ash that can dry out quickly in summer. About 215ha is grazeable, with the balance in native bush, pines and waterways.

While the cashflow generated by heifer grazing was attractive, there were other reasons for making the change. Former supreme winners of the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards, the Costers were becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of large beef cattle on the farm’s fragile soils.

In the first year of the Monitor Farm programme, the farm, which then totalled 258ha effective, wintered around 1500 ewes, 478 ewe hoggets, 127 R2 steers and 81 R1 steers. Sheep were achieving excellent performance, with lambing regularly exceeding 150%, and the beef policy focussed on buying in R2 steers and finishing them at 2.5 years old.

But mediocre sheep returns at the time and the high labour requirement of sheep in comparison to other stock classes were major concerns for Allen, a former shearer, who calculated sheep required about 525 hours more labour/year (based on 2000 sheep) than other stock classes. This equated to 16 minutes of extra work for each sheep on the farm – most of it spent dipping, dagging, drenching, drafting lambs for market or doing lambing beats. At a labour rate of $32/hour, Allen calculated each sheep wintered cost an extra $8.50 in extra work.

That year, ewe numbers were pruned from 1500 to 1000 and most of the older beef cattle were sold, with just a small trading component retained.

About 250 dairy grazers were taken on, generating a return of about $420/head in the first season.

Allen says the replacement of a large proportion of the R2 steers with dairy heifers reduced pugging damage.

At its peak the farm grazed more than 300 heifers for several clients, but in recent years heifer numbers have dropped, with ewe and trading cattle numbers increasing again.

Sheep stage a comeback

This year Mataiwhetu is grazing 180 heifers for a single client. Ewe numbers have risen to almost 1200, with 84 R2 beef steers wintered.

Allen, who runs the farm with the help of employee Paul Anselmi, says the changes were made in response to improved sheep and beef returns.

“Even with low wool prices, sheep are still the biggest earner, making about $167 per stock unit.”

At an average price of $135/lamb, he says the sheep generate 24 cents/kg drymatter (DM) eaten, once the interest on capital and the extra labour cost per sheep ($8.50/head) have been deducted. The trading cattle make 24c/kg DM (with interest on capital deducted) and the heifers earn 20.5c/kg DM.

Lamb prices would have to fall to $6.37/kg for the heifers to break even with the sheep, and Allen says dairy heifer grazing charges would have to rise to $11.69/head (May to May) to generate a similar return to the breeding ewes.

Chasing the elusive 170%

This year the farm is wintering 870 mixed-age ewes and 314 ewe replacements. The Finn-cross ewes are mated to Coopworth rams from the Nikau Coopworth Stud in north Waikato.

“The reason for using Coopworths is because we wanted to lift worm resistance and facial eczema tolerance,” Allen says.

He buys two rams a year, selecting good dual-purpose rams with high SiL indexes.

“We get great growth rates out of our lambs and in a typical season we finish all the male and surplus females at about 17.5kg carcaseweight (CW). But the late drought this year meant we had to kill them at lighter weights and sell 100 ewe lambs as replacements.”

Despite finishing lambs at an average of 16kg CW this year, the farm still averaged about $135/lamb.

Even though sheep numbers have fluctuated over the years, the Coster family has always taken great pride in the performance of their flock.

Mixed-age ewes lambed at 164% (ewes to ram) in 2018/19, 4% below the farm’s record achieved three years ago.

“The target is to hit the elusive 170% and if we get good conditions this spring, we might reach that this year,” Allen says.

Ewe hoggets lambed at 115% this season.

Sitting near the top of the Kaimai Ranges, the farm is quite exposed, and cold, wet weather in spring can be tough on newborn lambs. But lamb survivability is gradually improving, thanks to strategies which include iodine injections pre-tup and the use of cover combs when the ewes are shorn two months before lambing. This has helped increase birth weights of multiple lambs by about 2kg.

Allen says the mix of livestock is a good fit for the farm and pasture quality has also improved, thanks in part to an ongoing subdivision programme aimed at getting average paddock size down to 2ha. The reduction in the number of large cattle wintered has freed up feed for the ewes and enabled an earlier lambing date.

“In the last few years we’ve put the ram out on March 10, but this year we delayed that until April 1 because we didn’t have the cover to flush the ewes due to the drought.”

Teaser rams go out 10 days before the breeding rams at a rate of one teaser per 400 ewes.

“The aim is to get ewe ovulation rates to a peak just as the breeding rams go out. For us, that peak ovulation time is typically the first week of April.”

Lambing usually starts on August 10 and Allen says the goal is to get 80% of lambs away before the end of January.

Heifers still have a place

This year 100 heifer calves came onto the farm in January, with the older heifers grazed from May 1.

Calves are grazed at a cost of $7/head and the R1’s at $10/head, with the owner responsible for all health costs.

Heifers are shifted according to a spreadsheet ‘paddock time-plan’.

“The beauty of the plan is that we always know where the heifers are going to go next. It also allows for some flexibility if we have to shift them earlier because of wet weather.”

Allen says the heifers get preferential treatment over the beef cattle, and they gain about .65kg/day over the winter months.

“If everything goes well, the heifers should put on about 260kg LW in a year and go home at good mating weights at 22 months of age.”

Allen says higher sheep and beef prices played a big part in the end result. But heifer grazing is still a steady performer, providing good cashflow and reducing the farm’s exposure to market risk.

A good water supply is crucial for heifer grazing and the farm’s water system has been upgraded to get a consistent supply to every paddock. This includes the recent installation of a solar-powered pump system that can shift 2100 litres per hour from a reticulation pond on the property. Two water wheel-driven pumps also help supplement this system during peak load times.

R2 steers are typically purchased in May or June. “Generally speaking, it’s easier to get them at a better price at this time of year,” Allen says.

He looks for lighter well-framed 18-month steers that can grow out quickly. They are killed in December or January at around 360kg CW, adding about 250kg LW, or 1.4kg LW/day in six months.

The farm will generate an estimated cash farm surplus of $750/ha this season. Allen says farm expenses are kept as low as possible, but council rates of about $70/ha are a major bugbear.

“Our rates are possibly the highest rates in the country and sometimes it feels like all we get for this is an electric street light at the start of our wagon track.”

Allen says the region has seen a compound annual growth in land values of about 10%, which puts a lot of pressure on commercial farmers to consider other options, such as subdivision.

He has continued the environmental work started by his parents. Last year another 1.5ha was planted in natives, and a smaller gully was fenced and retired. Mataiwhetu was supreme winner of 2007 BoP Ballance Farm Environment Awards and claimed a ‘People in Agriculture’ category award in 2017.

Allen is also involved with a Sustainable Farming Fund Project designed to quantify the benefits of deferred grazing on hill-country sheep and beef farms (coming up in Country-Wide, September Crops & Forage Special).


  • Mataiwhetu Station
  • Lower Kaimai, Bay of Plenty
  • 240ha total, 215ha effective
  • Running sheep, beef and dairy grazers
  • Wintering 14 stock units/ha