Case study: Awatea Farm, Huiroa

Werders 8 April 2015

This young Taranaki couple have only been farming at Awatea since July 2013, but their passion for the land has already been rewarded with three farm environment awards.

Laura and Sami Werder were multiple winners at this year's Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards, picking up the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Livestock Award, the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award and the Waterforce Integrated Management Award.

The "immense pride and passion" the Werders possessed for their business and the wider agricultural industry was unmistakable, said the award judges after they visited Awatea Farm in Huiroa, east of Stratford. They wrote: "A joint effort, great to see equal involvement, interest and enthusiasm. The judges were very impressed with the start you have made to your farming career."

Both Taranaki natives with Massey University degrees, Laura and Sami took over the 372ha (355ha effective) property in July 2013 after two years on a smaller first farm. They hadn't intended such a short tenure on their first farm but made their move for Awatea, which had been in the same family for 70 years, "because opportunities for farms like this don't come up very often".

It is a breeding and finishing unit with contour one-third flat to easy rolling and two-thirds easy to medium hill. They are wintering around 4,200su with a 65:35 cattle to sheep ratio. Despite Sami retaining his full-time position as a rural manager for ASB until the end of January this year, the couple have already achieved much on Awatea Farm. Laura has been in charge of the day-to-day operation of the farm that, the judges noted, had healthy stock "achieving great yields".

Their farm-wide upgrade of the water system is almost complete with just 10 paddocks remaining to be incorporated into their new gravity-fed system. This large-scale water project will eventually allow three water pumps to be switched off, troughs in every paddock and the fencing and protection of riparian areas including a large dam, small wetland and numerous creeks.

Logging the small pine plantations on the farm is taking place, spread over the next few years. One area on flatter country is being reinstated into pasture but, after consultation with Taranaki Regional Council, Laura and Sami have decided to leave the rest to regenerate, and plant in natives if necessary. "We had a good look and you can already see a lot of native growth coming through," says Sami. "Some of the pockets of pine were quite open and there is good native undergrowth already."

Farming sustainably, with an eye for protection of their environment is "just commonsense", the couple believe. "It's the way we see is the most practical way to farm. Fencing the waterways helps hugely with stock management and maintaining pasture quality. The pine pockets that will become native bush eventually are in areas that were gullies and not productive anyway. Changing the water system has improved stock health already. All these things add up to our drive towards a financial performance on the farm that will allow us to build on what we have, to grow our business."

The couple credit their enthusiastic but sensitive approach to farming to their upbringing, their knowledge gained while completing their Massey degrees, and subsequent employment. Sami graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Agriculture and Laura in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science with Animal Science and Ecology majors.

Laura has since worked in fertiliser support, soil testing and preparing nutrient budgets. Before joining ASB Sami managed his family dairy and sheep and beef properties. On Awatea Farm, Laura is overlaying her technical knowledge with the practical management experience gained running the place.

"We definitely wouldn't be in the position of understanding our business as well if we hadn't done Massey and had the work experience," says Sami. Having the opportunity to see how a wide range of farming businesses are operated is valuable he says. "You are able to look into other businesses and see what levers work, and use what applies for your own place." The breeding cows on Awatea Farm are Herefords with bloodlines tracing back to Laura's Downs family property at Pukengahu. The cows are mated as yearlings. Bull calves are kept and sold as service bulls. They are building up their sheep flock, initially using Suffolk rams to assist with finishing but aiming for a Romney/Perendale base.

Family is clearly important to Laura and Sami, and they acknowledge the support of their families, both financial and practical. Both sides of their families work together as much as possible.

"Laura's brothers have good dogs and are pretty handy shearers. And my family like to help out with the docking and at shearing time too," says Sami. "Everyone helps everyone as much as they can. It makes the jobs much more enjoyable and cuts down the time spent, which frees you up to go and help each other, and others." The Werders recognise the value of off-farm interests. They play sport, are involved with their local hall committee and part of a Taranaki-wide sheep and beef farm discussion group.

Judges' comments

  • Very strong business focus and understanding
  • Strongly profit driven, incorporating sustainable long-term plan balancing environment and business
  • Strong documentation to support decision-making
  • Contagious enthusiasm for a future farming within the New Zealand sheep and beef industry
  • Strong emphasis on growing stock and keeping them in excellent condition
  • Focus on survivability to increase profit
  • Cost-effective and efficient new water system
  • Limit impact of stock on natural waterways and wetlands
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