The need for feed

Water – specifically the lack of it – has dominated plenty of conversations in 2020. The Farmlander spoke with Waihau farmer Erin Train about how thinking outside the box on supplementary feeding helped keep her going through this year's drought.

Less than an hour away from Hawke's Bay's twin cities is the farming community of Waihau. The population is sparse and for a decent chunk of this year, water has been even harder to come by.

 

It is a place Erin Train calls home. She is the second generation on the farm, after her father-in-law purchased the 338ha property at the end of 1954. While the ratios have changed over the years, it has remained a sheep and beef operation for the past 65 years.

"When my father-in-law arrived, he had to break a lot of it in. It's a stunning farm now but I'm  reaping the benefits of decades of hard work," Erin says.

"It was probably more weighted towards sheep back then, with more of a focus on wool. I've been on the scene since 2000 and it's been sheep and beef in my time."

Erin farmed the property with her husband Pete, who sadly passed away 7 years ago. She now runs the property with their three sons – Ed (16), Max (14) and Sam (12) – with support from family, friends and her neighbours, including stockman Wayne Purvis.

 

Life has changed dramatically but Erin has found the right formula to keep her business ticking over. Then the big dry set in.

"We probably got this later than a lot of people in Hawke's Bay – we had one day where we had 57ml of rain in January and 5ml 4 days later. That was pretty much our saving grace at the start,"

Erin says. "Even at the start of tupping we were in a pinch but we scanned not much lower than last year.

"It may have hit us later but the flip side is I probably got caught out worse. I had the 'she'll be right, it will rain next week' mentality and by the time we were really in the crap, the sale yards had dried up and the meat works were limiting shifts."

Erin laments that farmers traditionally talk to their spouses with issues on the farm and Pete was proactive in moving with changes to ensure good pricing was secured early.

Options began to dry up for Erin and even the options remaining fell through due to her good nature – giving up her spot at the freezing works to a farmer in a more dire situation. "I talked to the stock agent and said if you've got a desperate farmer who's in the poo, let them have the spot," she says. "In hindsight it was still the right thing to do, because there were a lot of farmers in a worse situation. That situation got made worse by COVID-19 and the options for bailing out just weren't there."

Rather than selling, the focus switched to finding feed for the stock. A silage pit that had not been used for years was utilised, followed by the addition of a newer one.

"The year Pete died we supposedly had our worst drought in 70 years and we recovered a silage pit that hadn't been used for 12 years, the quality of which was superb," she says.

"I remember when we were last cutting silage and it was a typical Hawke's Bay day – 34 degrees and a westerly. The chopper cutting it broke down and I was running around like a headless chicken.

"It was not great quality – pretty dry and pretty average." Erin admits she was reluctant to use silage. She decided early on to use the silage exclusively for the heifers, while remaining reluctant to feed it to anything in-calf or in-lamb. That meant finding an alternative for her sheep and continuing to look at the weather forecast for any respite.

"I would be laying in bed at 11.30 at night, looking at my phone for the weather forecast. We  weren't as dire as a lot of people were, so our options were there a little bit longer. They were just running out," she says.

"It's a bit hard to always bank on your long-term rain. What was really demoralising and added pressure this time around was the short-term stuff that just wasn't coming. Everything was coming from the west, breaking up and going around you. That was a lot of stress."

With the weather not playing ball, Erin took control of the situation herself – during her research she discovered sheep nuts as a supplementary feeding option.

 

The Waihau community has always been a good sounding board, so Erin turned to them for advice. "We've got a fantastic neighbour who's a really good go-to – he's really supportive and really good to talk to. When I said to him that I'm thinking about feeding sheep nuts – he said to do it."

A few phone calls and some technical guidance later, within 3 days Erin had 12 tonne of sheep nuts delivered, along with a new feeder to accompany her side-by-side.

"It sounds weird but that was a real highlight of the COVID-19 period. The first time I fed out the sheep nuts, I remember getting to the gate and I was smiling. I thought to myself that I couldn't remember the last time I had smiled. I was finally doing something about what had been playing on my mind."

Taking a leap of faith on nutritional requirements for her stock gave Erin the confidence to make some other tough calls. Each year Erin has traditionally taken on Charolais weaner heifers and this year she decided she needed to put her existing stock first.

"I think we get stressed to the point we don't sleep at night but deep down, we ultimately know what we need to do," she says. "Those Charolais weaner heifers – as much as I love the stock and dealing with the farmer that supplies them – I knew I couldn't do it. But I really value that relationship.

"That's a lot of what farming is – valuing relationships – but you can't buy everything. The stock agent was great and so was the farmer."

Erin acknowledges every farmer is different and there is a cost to supplementary feeding. She says they were fortunate to be in a position to take a punt.

"I made the decision that the cost of not supplementary feeding was higher. On a per-head basis, particularly a twinning ewe, it wasn't that much," she says. "For me mentally – getting that feed was invaluable for my stress levels. That weight was lifted; it gives you an option so that you can get ahead. Even when you're not going backwards, you've still got that option."

 

Erin's local ram supplier, Matt Holden, organised a Zoom video meeting with Australian farmers who used supplementary feeding to combat their dry environment.

Listening to Australian farmers where supplementary feeding was the norm allowed Erin to change her thinking on the practice.

She says their mindset of 'feed first and not feeding second' made it easier to bite the bullet and get on with it.

They also discussed feeding out after set stocking, something New Zealand farmers traditionally are reluctant to do due to the risk of mis-mothering. The Aussies stated that while the normal benchmark is your lambing percentage, in a drought it is ewe survivability.

"We have all got something that we love to do on the farm. I love to put a prime, grass-fed lamb on the truck," Erin says. "We all set our aims and we aspire to them."

"We're in an industry where pretty much everything is out of our control and while we have those aims, we have to change our thinking sometimes. Farmers are their own worst critics and we can start by making it easier on ourselves. Some years you're just up against it and our usual benchmarks are just not realistic. I've just sold store lambs – which I hate doing – I hate not finishing stock. But I did the best I could and that's where we're at."

"The other major saviour during the tough times, both physically and mentally, was having the boys at home," Erin says. "We are lucky to have such capable and hardworking kids."

They not only helped with the feeding out, stock and autumn shearing but did a great job of the cooking and dishes too – even if Erin admits, the odd meal was a bit minimalistic. "Mentally, the constant pressure and stress is our biggest challenge to cope with. One night as I was battling with it, I thought of the boys who were finally off their devices and blissfully asleep. It helps me reset my priorities and drive, as the boys are singularly the most important thing in my life."

 

Erin believes that, whatever people do, they have their problems and shared experience helps. "Farming is the life I choose. I don't care about the Queen Street lawyer's problem – I don't care that his car park cost has gone up 300 percent. I care about other farmers and how they are affected and when the times are tough, they are the best sounding board."

A mindset change is, as always, supported by the local community. Neighbours check in on each other and share ideas – a couple of other Waihau farmers have jumped on the bandwagon of supplementary feeding via sheep nuts.

Erin plans to continue using sheep nuts to preserve set covers during the winter months and has stocked up accordingly.

Even in a good year, winter is a tricky time to manage a farm. "I'm thankful I've got enough nuts to get me through. Now, onto the next stressful phase – lambing."