On the dry coastal country bordering the Aotea Harbour, just around from Kawhia, a large herd of red cows and calves is not a common sight, but Lance Limmer has spent 20 years building up the South Devon cow herd on Okapu Station, and reckons he has them just about where he wants them.
The 300 strong cow herd is big and framey, as Lance has selected replacement heifers on the Maori Trust-owned block with good length and legs and good body proportion, as well as concentrating on the carcase characteristics.
He also selects only the red cows, wanting an even line of cows that produce good growthy weaners. "We are working towards a completely red herd," says Lance. “The cattle do well for us here,” says Lance.
He has been impressed by the South Devons for many years, and shortly after taking over the manager’s job on the 770 ha effective station in 1980 he started buying Tahake South Devon bulls to put over the Angus basecows on the then Maori Affairs-administered property.
"I am more than impressed with the cattle," says Lance. “They do justice here for us and are so beautifully natured to handle."
All the bull calves are steered and sold at the March Te Kuiti weaner fair, often to older guys who Lance says are keen on them because they are so quiet and will grow on to finish as big bullocks. The station yards between 120 and 140 steer calves per year with the top line weighing 310-315kg live-weight and keenly sought after. "The top line has averaged $635 - $640/head over the past 5 years," says Lance, "and one exceptional sale they made $750." Repeat buyers are keen to purchase and one buyer has been buying Okapu weaners for 15 years.
Sixty red heifers are selected as herd replacements each year, to be mated at two years old and first calve at three. Lance is a firm believer in this policy for the summer dry coastal station. "I honestly believe that heifers won't go on and grow into decent cows on this place if they calve down at 2 years old - it would happen on a more productive King Country or Waikato place, but they do really need to be fed as yearlings for that to be successful," says Lance. Surplus heifers are fattened for the local trade whenever they are ready. "We are happy to sit on them if the market drops and wait until it comes back to kill them," says Lance. A line of 40 finished in February at 14 months of age killed out at 227kg.
Bulls are the other important part of the equation, and Lance knows what he likes and isn't afraid to buy it, even if it costs up to $7,000 or $8,000.
He attends a lot of the South Devon stud sales, having first lined up the bulls whose EBVs have caught his eye in the catalogue. He tends to buy 2-3 bulls per year and reckons that they last him 6-8 years, barring accidents. Using the EBVs to help him select, Lance looks for low birthweight bulls, although he says that they are not easy to find in the South Devon breed. Visually he looks for good legs, length, an impressive rump and evenness through the girth. He doesn't buy bulls that are overly big as he says he doesn't want bulls that will get too big for his cows. Changing bull breeder every 3-4 years, he has purchased from Wairoa, Kauri, Whangarei and the Manawatu in the past and is currently buying Peter Foss's bulls from Aria. Mating starts on 15 November, in mating mobs of 100 with one bull to every 40 cows, spread right around the property in amongst the ewes and lambs from the 5000 strong Romney flock. The lack of reliable summer rain forces the station to run as a breeding block, quitting all of the August-born wether lambs at the Frankton lamb fair in the first week of December. However the surplus ewe lambs are kept on until they are finished at the end of the autumn. The ewes and ewe lambs are shorn early December, after the wether lambs at Labour weekend. "I am a great believer in shearing lambs to get them to do - they grow well without their coats on." Following second shearing in late May the ewe lambs rotate in mobs followed by the ewes and then the cows cleaning up behind them. The main ewe flock lambs on the hill country and the ewes are easy care with low mortality rates. Lance is thinking of mating some hoggets, and working at improving the ewe flock lambing performance of 100%. "It's hard farming lambs in this country, especially in dry summers,'' says Lance. "We have to be really careful of viral pneumonia in hot dry summers, and try not to handle them too much. Facial eczema can also be a problem on this coastal country,'' he added. Lance is thinking of mating some hoggets, and working at improving the ewe flock lambing performance of 100%. "It's hard farming lambs in this country, especially in dry summers,'' says Lance. "We have to be really careful of viral pneumonia in hot dry summers, and try not to handle them too much. Facial eczema can also be a problem on this coastal country,'' he added.
The station boundary follows around the edge of the Aotea Harbour and up to the bush line on the back road to Raglan. With 12O-160ha of easy country the rest is hilly to steep broken country with rock and papa, which dries out in the summer and is very wet in the winter. Because the country is difficult to get around in the winter, the cows are calved behind a wire on autumn saved pasture with added silage, hay and salt blocks. Starting in four mobs, they are shedoff each day with new calves. "It suits this country to be able to keep them handy to the yards at calving so we can sort out any problems," says Lance. The calving percentage is reflected in the care taken at calving time, reaching up to 97%, but hovering around 90-92% in a dry year. The first calving heifers are mated to an Angus bull, sourced from a local bull sale, a cross which Lance says produces very good calves. From a rodeo background, Lance has always been a keen horseman, and all the big jobs are done on horseback by himself and shepherds Shaun Limmer (Lance and Gaylene's youngest son) and Jim Mahara. "I've never believed in motorbikes,'' says Lance, "You can't be watching stock and dogs when you are riding a bike - you have to watch where you are going." Building the stock units up to 8,000 and improving animal performance have been goals over the 25 years of Lance's tenure, and since the block was handed back to the trustees in 1990. Fertiliser has been applied every year, at a rate of 250-300 kg/ha and lime every four years. The country is deficient in cobalt and copper, but Lance prefers to add these to the drench. "We don't get the results in the fertiliser, so I prefer to get it down their throats. Then it really shows in the stock. Development has included getting on top of the massive gorse problem - by averaging 20 ha per year of helicopter work and ground spraying. "There will always be follow up work on the gorse says Lance. Working with a Board of Trustees for the 100-odd owners, Lance and Gaylene set and monitor the budgets and have a good working relationship with them. Dividends have been paid out to the owners, but mostly returns are put back into the property, apart from Education Grants that the Board has paid out to owners' children for many years. "They have to come up with the paperwork to show what they are studying towards and then the grant money is shared out amongst the applicants," says Lance. "It's good to encourage them into education." Up until now the system has been all grass, with hay and silage, with trial crops not being overly successful. However Lance is thinking of giving cropping another go, growing swedes and turnips for the cows, since the loss of a forestry grazing lease block has tightened them up over the autumn/winter period.