With a clear vision of what he wants to achieve for the future of his farm, Roger Barton is constantly innovating his New Zealand sheep and beef enterprise. Ben Briggs visited Wairarapa to find out more.
SITTING high on a hillside overlooking the green rolling landscape of the Wairarapa region, Roger Barton talks passionately about farming, succession and how people in New Zealand view the industry.
Within moments of meeting him and wife Barbie at Stonestead farm near Greytown, about an-hour-and-a-half’s drive north of Wellington on New Zealand’s north island, the pair are quickly chatting about farming’s place in their country’s culture.
And the conversation does not falter, even as he drives his twin-cab pickup with brute force on rough tracks to a high point on the farm to show off the beauty of the valley he calls home.
From this stunning vantage point he reflects on the recent lambing season, when severe weather meant sheep farmers across New Zealand suffered large losses of newborn animals, the public reaction to which still incenses him.
“The lamb crop is down because of the drought in summer followed by bad weather at lambing,” he says on a clear spring day in mid-October. “If we had a lamb born at the wrong time on September 12, it would have stood little chance of survival.
“There were 800 dead lambs on some Hawkes Bay farms because of the amount of rain which fell in just a few hours. It is hard to explain to the public why this happens.
“I have rung people up who have written letters to papers complaining about lambing in bad weather to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it the way we are. They do not understand why we lamb when we do, but we have to explain how difficult the matrix is.”
Explaining he finds their numbers in the phonebook, Roger is a man who is vocal about the role agriculture plays and keen to drive the message home to the wider public, even in New Zealand, where the industry is, supposedly, better understood by the wider population than in the UK.
“I ask people if they have any connection to agriculture. When they tell me ‘no’ I ask whether they eat food and when they say ‘yes’ I tell them they obviously do have a connection, because farmers are food producers.”
A regional president of Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s equivalent of the NFU, in the late 1990s, he and Barbie have been engaged in the workings of the wider industry for a long time.
But they are now at a point where their attention is being drawn to the future of their own farming enterprise and how it will be passed on to the next generation of Bartons.
Having bought the 315-hectare (778-acre) Stonestead farm in 1981 for NZ$447,000 (about £200,000 at today’s exchange rate) at the age of 23, Roger embarked on his farming career during a period of turmoil and uncertainty for New Zealand agriculture, with subsidies abolished by the government in 1986 and sky-high interest rates compounding the problem.
Facing mounting debt and repayment bills of 60 cents on every dollar, he borrowed to finance the deal for the farm, getting started was tough.
But, oddly, goats proved to be a saviour of sorts. With a brief foray into goat breeding, the couple were able to make such a premium on sales of the animals it enabled them to invest in the farm at a time when money was tight.
During this time, they also took the decision to set aside a large swathe of Stonestead’s wooded uplands hills for inclusion in the QEII conservation scheme, meaning the land is set aside for good and retained for natural purposes.
“We have a large amount of land in the QEII scheme which means it is permanently retired and can never be touched,” says Roger. “It is retired in perpetuity and it has to remain the same as it has always been.
“We went in to the scheme in 1987 when we were paying 60 cents on every dollar servicing debt, so it helped us out.”
While still having to pay rates on the land, something he feels aggrieved about, the decision helped them out during a difficult period for the farm.
And while many would look to dairying as the way forward for the units, it was sheep farming which Roger wanted to pursue.
“We had a crazy look at dairy back in 1992 but it did not spin our wheels. We would have had 420 cows and would have had to plan for a labourer and the dairy industry has a very mobile labour force.
“If we had run a dairy farm I would have become ‘the boy’ and play second fiddle to someone more experienced in dairy. I enjoy my work so what would I have done?
What they did was grow a burgeoning sheep business based on the Romney breed.
The flock is set up to develop top quality genetics and fast-finishing prime lambs. Of the 1,350 pure-bred Romney ewes put to the tup each April, 700 are part of a performance-recorded breeding nucleus and put into single-sire mating groups. These produce breeding replacements and up to 90 pedigree rams, which are born in September and sold 14 months later.
The other 650 females are put back to the Romney for the first cycle, to produce replacements, and then followed with a Suftex to sire prime lambs for sale from mid-December.
Roger has a no-nonsense approach to selecting animals and traits he is not happy with. For example, they do not keep any single-born lambs as replacements or lambs born from ewes with bad udders or lambing difficulties. His aim is for strong, prolific females which can produce milk in the toughest of environments.
Ewe lambs which get to a suitable size are tupped and this included 70 per cent of home-bred female replacements last year. With the recorded flock, data is collected on parentage, gender, litter size, weaning weights, autumn weights, fleece weight, colour and quality, and dag scores.
Drought is more of a problem than the colder months. The ground temperature rarely dips below 5-6degC so grass keeps growing all winter. Roger prioritises grassland management and uses cattle as part of his system to ensure sheep have good quality feed in front of them for as much of the year as possible.
When the grass burns off, the first option is to send cattle away and the second is to buy-in feed. Last summer, barley was used during the drought and, although Roger says this was reasonably cheap with little waste, a high scanning rate is needed to justify the cost.
With lambs going to Progressive Meats – run by Craig Hickson, who also has a plant in Llanelli, South Wales – he is looking to achieve about NZ$70/head (about £33).
Passionate about his life and work on-farm, he has always had an eye on the future of the business, especially when it comes time for him and Barbie to retire.
With three daughters and a son, it is Rupert, 27, who is seen as the future of the business.
But the couple are keen for all the children to get their share of farming pot, and they have put a structure in place to facilitate the progression.
By buying another farm nearby with an equity partner, the idea is for the new unit to eventually be taken on by Rupert, with Stonestead broken into lifestyle blocks for those who work in Wellington and want their own piece of the good life.
About the twice the size of Stonestead in terms of acreage and sheep numbers, the new farm will be a sizeable unit for Rupert to take on.
Roger says: “The other farm is run by a one-third equity partner. We were trying to solve the succession problem and bring Rupert in at a time which suits him.”
Choosing the other farm because of their desire to have another ‘hill country’ unit, the relative proximity to Wellington, aided by the fact Greytown has a small railway station which is flooded with commuters, means they can sell small parcels of land for those who want their own small acreage.
The thought has even crossed their minds to see if a shed or hut can be placed high on the hill, appealing to those wanting a unique part of the rural dream.
Rogers adds: “It is about realising we need something to fund our retirement and give the girls their share, as well as Rupert taking the farm on and servicing the debt.
“Succession is important to the family and we have a meeting every Boxing Day to discuss what they want to achieve. The aim is for Rupert to take the other farm and the girls take their capital out of this one.”
Knowing first-hand the problems which can arise from not thinking about succession, Roger originally took the farm on with his older brother in the early 1980s but the relationship soured and led to a difficult reorganisation of the farming enterprise.
“Too many farmers get to a stage where they turn 65 and have not discussed the future of the farm,” he says. “This cannot be good for anyone.”