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Taking on the elements and winning

Sharon and Ben Smith with sons Matthew (left) and Caleb.

Taking on the elements and winning

2003/04 Season

Owners: Ben and Sharon Smith
Farm location: North Whangarei
Farm size: 114 hectares
Herd size: 340 cows

A passion to farm family land despite its difficult environment and the need to maintain a sustainable farm business provides plenty of challenge to Northland farmers Ben and Sharon Smith. Along with their two pre-schoolers Caleb and Matthew, Ben and Sharon live and farm on the difficult flood prone country that makes up the Hikurangi Swamp, north of Whangarei.

Ben admits his path back to the family farm in Northland was not straight forward, but it was a decision that has held him in good stead for dairying in a region not easily farmed well. After leaving Massey University he spent six years working as a rural bank manager. That experience gave him plenty of opportunity to view numerous farm systems, from the lowest input, lowest cost, to intensive high output milking platforms. "Working in a position like that, I appreciated the need for sustainable, economic dairy farm systems," says Ben.

The couple now milk 340 cows on 114 effective hectares, producing 114,000 kilograms of milksolids. They have a 50% shareholding in JV Farms which they lease from Ben's parents Edwin and Beverley.

Coupled with his experiences growing up in the Hikurangi region, Ben was only too aware of what he was coming home to. Dairy production can be best described as risky in a region often plagued by equal doses of flood and drought, sometimes within weeks of each other. This season has been no exception with Northland farmers suffering some of the worst weather ever.

While both Sharon and Ben share a passion for the land, they recognise the need for it to grow their equity and provide a decent future for them and their young family. Often climatic events in the Hikurangi region will conspire against these goals. The property is bordered by the Wairau river which will flood at least twice a year, with Ben describing one of these floods every year as "major". His description of "major" is one that many less familiar with flooding would describe as nothing short of catastrophic. "I define a major flood as one that takes out more than 45 hectares of the milking platform."

The randomness of the flooding only adds to the difficulty in farming, coming at any time of year. Ironically the effects can be worse in summer, with pasture covered in water for greater than three days dying off. In winter it takes 10 days to die off. Winter or summer, the after effects can last for up to six weeks as the pasture is out of production. Heavy silting post-flooding will leave pastures largely unpalatable to cows.

Even without flooding, the heavy silt-clay soils are easily pugged making pastures near impossible to graze after heavy rainfall from May to August. At the other end of the season, the soils are known for their ability to go from soup-like state to brick-like state in 2-3 weeks.

A combination of dairy farming's worst case weather scenarios form the weekly backdrop to Ben and Sharon's livelihood. Together they have developed strategies to reduce the impact of these climatic forces. While not eliminating the climatic challenge, they have insured the business from the worst of these extremes.

The first move was to build a low cost feed pad. Based on wood chips, it acts as a stand off pad over wet winters, reducing stock time in paddocks and significantly reducing pugging effects.

In 1986 Ben's father started feeding maize, now Ben and Sharon feed out more on the pad. "Now, even with 40% of the farm taken out from flooding we can still feed the cows, and feed them as cheaply as possible. We are feeding our maize for around 10 cents a kilogram of drymatter," says Ben. The maize brings a two pronged benefit being fed on the pad. Not only are cows adequately provided for but so is the soil. Woodchips are bladed off and spread onto the maize paddock in spring, providing a high level of organic matter and natural fertility, reducing the cost of the base fertiliser required for the maize crop.

The Smiths grow maize on a nearby runoff, getting yields up to 25 tonnes of drymatter a hectare followed by a further 6-7 tonnes of grass, giving a combined yield in excess of 30 tonnes per annum.

The third strategy has been to split the herd's calving pattern, capitalising on the farm's excellent grass growth through winter. It also provides greater flexibility if floods do occur over spring. Feed levels can be managed better by spreading the impact of possible wholesale pasture loss away from the traditional peak milk flow period.

Finally, the construction of an irrigation dam in 1994 has reduced the reliance on summer rains. Not only can grass growth be guaranteed through summer now, but the dam is the centre point for effluent distribution over 80% of the farm.

This four pronged approach to dealing with a difficult climate and unforgiving soils has paid off. Production has been increased by 50% in just over 10 years, with the Smiths consistently 40% ahead of the rest of the district in milksolids production.

The system is proving its sustainability and importantly reflects its profitability on the Smith's bottom line. They are in the country's top 10% of dairy farmers for EFS per hectare.

"We have found with the maize covering us in the wetter months and the irrigation for the drier ones, we have nullified the risks we face from this environment," says Ben. He and Sharon believe they have placed their farm business well on the way to providing a sustainable and profitable future for them and their family.