The Martin family have farmed their Richwyn properties since the 1880s. Russell Priest describes how the present generation operates. Photos: Brad Hanson.

Creating a farming business based on taking pressure off both man and beast has resulted in a more relaxed and enjoyable work environment for Sheldon (52) and Nicola (50) Martin. The better bottom line has enabled them to pursue other interests.

They have been farming 600 hectares (585ha effective) around the small settlement of Rangiwahia in the northern Manawatu since 2001. The Martins run a successful sheep and cattle breeding and finishing business (Richwyn Farm Limited). One of the strengths is its excellent balance of contour.

“Any stock we sell spends time on the flats before being sold, even our dry ewes,” Sheldon says.

Hoggets set stocked on hills with snow-clad Ruahine Ranges in the background.

At 550 metres above sea level and within a stone’s throw of the normally snow-clad Ruahine Ranges, the township of Rangiwahia has been traditionally accustomed to at least three snow falls a winter and a rainfall of 1300mm.

“The heaviest snowfall we’ve had since we’ve lived here was about 0.6m around the house which lay on the ground for nine days,” Sheldon says.

From its 120ha of Kiwitea silt loam flats and its 465ha of predominantly compacted sandstone and mudstone-based hills the Martins’ business generates a return on capital of 3.9% (mean 1.4%). This ranks it in the top quintile of Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s 2018-2019 Sheep and Beef farm survey for class 4 North Island Hill Country in the Manawatu-Taranaki region.

The Martins’ lambing was 143% (mean 134%), average lamb price $137 (mean $127), total expenditure of $759/ha (mean $879/ha) in spite of high debt servicing interest of $213/ha (mean $139/ha). The farm profit before tax was $479.42/ha (mean $291.15/ha), the economic farm surplus $425.04/ha (mean $188.88/ha) and earnings before interest, tax, rent and managerial wage of $692.27/ha (mean $458.82).

Teamwork is another of the business’ strengths. Sheldon and Nicola are a great team, working together particularly when there’s stock work to do (Nicola has her own huntaway and eye dog) and complementing one another when there’s administration and tractor work to complete. Beef + Lamb’s survey shows working owners on Richwyn contribute 1.7 labour units (mean 1.14).

Handyman Peter Mangold is available seven days a week for as many hours as required. They also employ a student over the summer, an experience they always enjoy.

“Peter’s the tool man,” Sheldon says, “and repairs anything that needs fixing as well as helping us out with dagging and drenching.”

Couple fight fires

With the local fire station nearby the community-minded Martins are both on call if required. Sheldon has been a volunteer fireman for 36 years (as was his father before him) being the chief fire officer for the past 20 years. Nicola has been a fireman for nine years.

Sheldon and Nicola have two children, Sophie (25) a physiotherapist, and Fraser (23) who is the mechanic for the Hopkins Farming Group.

The Martins’ use dicalcic superphosphate fertiliser (dicalcic), set stocking, focus on feed quality, direct drilling and then retire unproductive land from grazing.

Even though dicalic is expensive the Martins swear by it. Beef + Lamb’s survey shows the Martins’ expenditure on fertiliser is $102/ha (mean $141/ha) and $12/su (mean $15.69/su).

Many people would be horrified at their pasture covers at times, he says, particularly over the winter. However their cows thrive wintering on the hills set stocked among the ewes in spite of there being little roughage.

“We haven’t soil tested for 20 years since we’ve been using dicalcic so I’m guessing our P levels are not very high.”

Sheldon says there’s no point in having high P levels if you can’t maintain the quality of the grass grown.

Unlike the ash-based Kiwitea silt loam soils the sandstone and mudstone based hill soils have an insatiable appetite for sulphur.

This is applied annually in the autumn mixed with Hatuma Dicalcic 8S at 300kg/ha.

Sheldon says the mudstone based soils can carry at least 1 su/ha more than the sandstone-based soils.

When the last soil tests were taken the Olsen phosphate levels were 12-15 on the hills and 20 on the flats.

Stock do need a helping hand at times to keep on top of the growth with flat paddocks often being topped twice over the spring/summer period to maintain quality pasture for finishing lambs.

The Martins are strong advocates of set-stocking but use a form of rotational grazing (shuffle grazing) before and during mating in the late summer/autumn.

Going out of rotational grazing has enabled them to drop our stocking rate which is not high anyway (9-9.5 su/ha) and adopt set stocking for most of the year. This has taken pressure off both them and the animals and lifted their performance.

When Sheldon’s father was farming Richwyn the stocking rate was 12su/ha.

Richwyn’s MA ewes come off the hills at the back of the farm (where they have been set stocked since shearing in early January) in late February for dipping and sorting into their three mating mobs. These comprise 1700 A flock ewes (including 720 2ths) mated to Romney rams to generate replacements, 1100 B flock and 240 five year ewes mated to Suftex rams.

“Any ewes from the A flock that are light when we’re sorting mobs for mating go into the B flock.”

Mobs are shuffle-grazed

Two tooth and B flock ewes get a pre-mating drench but seldom do the A flock ewes. The B flock ewes get drenched because of the higher proportion of lighter ewes in the mob.

This year the five-year ewes were mated on March 5 and sold running with the ram in May for $200 a head (subsequently scanned 180%).

Mobs are shuffle-grazed for three-four weeks before the rams go out on April 15 and while the rams are out for two cycles.

“If it’s dry when we start shuffling them they may take a bit of a pinch however once the rains come the grass responds which gives them a boost. It hasn’t failed us yet, touch wood.”

Set-stocking resumes after rams are removed in mid-May with ewes being spread out on the hills at 7/ha until coming in for scanning in mid-July. They are vaccinated with 5-in-1 and given drench capsules in mid-August. About 10% of the heavier conditioned ewes are not capsuled as the Martins practise refugia.

Ewes generally scan about 170% (without identifying triplets) delivering about 4000 lambs. Light conditioned ewes are removed at this point and put on better feed. Multiple-bearing ewes are returned to the easier hill paddocks at 6.5/ha while the single bearing ewes (generally about 600–700) are set stocked on steeper hill paddocks at 7su/ha.

“Reducing the stocking rate on the hills from 7 to 6.5/ha takes a bit of pressure off enabling the grass to come away under them in readiness for lambing,” Sheldon says.

Single bearing B flock ewes are set stocked on the exposed flats at 12/ha, twin bearing twins on easy hills at 6.5/ha.

“When a southerly comes through at lambing time it’s pretty deadly especially on the flats so the bigger, single crossbred lambs have the best chance of surviving,” Sheldon says.

They only do a lambing beat on the flats to pick up dead animals and assist if needed.

The first draft of lambs occurs about December 12 when 200-300 terminals leave Richwyn at an average CW of 18-20kg.The remaining terminals are left on the ewes until the next draft early January. A weaning draft of single Romney male lambs is taken in early January.

The Martins aim to draft 1000 lambs off mum by the second week in January.

All remaining lambs are weaned and shorn after these two drafts are taken. Lambs continue to be drafted off the flats throughout the summer leaving up to 300 winter lambs which are all gone by July at an average weight of 18-20kg ($170-$180). Last year about 3000 lambs were killed at an average weight of 18kg and price of $136. This year the average weight will be 19kg.

Ewes are shorn at the same time as the lambs and those in extremely light condition along with the five-year ewes are drafted off.

Very light ewes culled

“We cull the extremely light ewes which may number only about 20-30 because experience has shown us that they, for whatever reason, are incapable of regaining condition. They’ve had a drench capsule and have been weaned late so they should have responded,” Sheldon says.

Any light-conditioned ewes get drafted off whenever ewes are in the yards and are given extra feed to lift their condition.

The five-year ewes get preferential treatment in readiness for mating in early March and are later sold as running with the ram. The main mob of ewes is set stocked on the hills at the back of the farm where they spend most of the remaining summer.

Twice-a-year shearing in early January and at the end of June is still practised in spite of the cost of shearing and the poor return for wool.

Ewe losses are generally 2-3%.

The Martins produce about 120 bales a year of high bulk, high yielding (85%) fibre which commands a premium.

“This year’s June shear returned $2/kg in the shed but would now be worth an extra 20c/kg.”

Romney rams come from Turanganui and Suftex rams from Rob Tennent at Takapau. They pay $1300 for their Romneys (middle-of-range rams) and $1500 for Suftex (top pick).

Sheldon likes moderate-framed rams with a broad hind end and a good spring-of-ribs.

Wool must be well-structured and be about 37 microns. He has a particular aversion to white feet.

The maternal index is of some interest to him but he doesn’t like to see any outliers. Good early growth coupled with good fertility/fecundity are the traits he particularly targets.

Suftex ram selection is based on the same phenotypic characteristics as the Romneys with growth being the only genetic trait of interest.

Calving on the hills

The cows are set-stocked on the hills for a large part of the year coming down onto the flats when the ewes start lambing on September 10. They come off the hills for weaning/pregnancy testing (April/May), a month before calving (to administer 5-in-1 and rotovirus vaccine and get a lice/anthelmintic pour-on and at calving.

Once the first of the four paddocks contains a quarter of the cows the next paddock starts receiving its quota. By the end of calving the four paddocks will each contain about a quarter of the cows and their calves. Before the bulls go out on December 20 these four groups are amalgamated into two and are moved onto the hills with two bulls running in each group for 50 days.

First calving R2 heifers receive preferential treatment in the last month of pregnancy by being moved into a 10ha hill paddock with 150mm-200mm of saved grass and fed hay. Calving occurs in an easy contoured 3ha paddock close to the house where the Martins can keep an eye on them. They get a picking of grass and are fed hay and like the older cows are shed onto saved pasture along with their calves a couple of days after calving.

“We used to calve them behind a hot wire on the flats like we do with the cows, however we had too many calving problems that we don’t get calving them on the hills,” Sheldon says.

R3 heifers are single-sire mated as a group with the bull going out on December 20 also for 50 days while the top 40 15-month heifers are mated to a low birth weight EBV bull for 30 days with the bull-out date being December 1. Normally 28-30 get in calf.

Weaned in April/May the calves average weights are about 280kg for steers and 265kg for heifers. The Martins normally achieve a 90+ calving percentage (cows mated/calves weaned) but have exceeded the 100% when they have had a good run with twins.

Cows are not cast-for-age but are culled if dry, have bad feet or develop udder problems as a result of producing too much milk or udder ligament breakdown.

R2 steers and cull heifers are normally sold in forward store condition (steers 500-550kg and heifers 400-450kg LW) at 18mth for $3/kg LW.

As is the case with their rams Sheldon prefers to buy the bulls he likes and is prepared to pay for them.

“If I can get a bull for under $10,000 I’m pretty happy.”

Sheldon likes a more compact type of Angus but with good 600-day growth because all 18-month steers and cull heifers are sold on weight.

Porina damage to pastures is a major problem on Richwyn to the extent that it couldn’t be farmed economically without treatment. The entire farm has to be sprayed annually with the insecticide Dimilin which is applied with the thistle spray in July using a helicopter.

“One year the pilot missed a strip across a paddock and all that was left were flat weeds,” Nicola says.

Richwyn’s flats have their pastures renewed every 10 years using a cropping rotation going from old grass to oats in the autumn followed by annual ryegrass in the spring and back to oats in the second autumn and finally into young grass in the spring.

“Oats are a very cost effective winter feed and grow well in our environment being easier to grow than swedes and chou,” Sheldon says.