THE DOMINION POST,    2 DEC 2004,    Edition 2,    Page 7.

Hawke's Bay heritage


JOHN HUDSON, with his wife Fiona and two children, lives in a grand colonial homestead, one of three historic homes on Gwavas, his family's 1334-hectare farm on some of Central Hawke's Bay's best land.

Surrounding the house are century-old woodland gardens, oaks, maples and cedars. Their view is of a close-by 125ha remnant of podocarp forest nestling under the Ruahine Ranges.

He is the latest in a long line of farm managers from the Cornish family that first carved the farm out of the bush in 1858.

But with this heritage comes a big headache -- a cumbersome family trust he says is frustrating efforts to bring the big sheep and beef farm to its full potential.

"I've been trying to fix it for the past 10 years. It is very inflexible and has held me back in a big way."

His struggle to pay out other family members and wrest control of the farm from the trust is taking time and effort he feels would be better spent farming. "It is frustrating having to share the farm's profits with people who are not contributing to the earnings while at the same time having to find the money to pay them out."

The recent steep rise in land values has made matters worse, increasing his relatives' expectations to beyond the farm's earning capacity.

Despite this restraint, he hasn't exactly stood still since taking over the farm in 1986 from his father Michael, who wanted to concentrate on expanding Gwavas' 140-year-old collection of exotic plantings.

The farm had been whittled down from its original 33,000 acres (13,350ha) over the previous 80 years to pay off land taxes and to resettle servicemen.

For some time, Gwavas had relied on its size to generate its profits and had lacked an incentive to improve its performance. By the time the big sheep and cattle station hit farming's awful 80s it was showing its age.

"Gwavas was not in great shape when I came back from Lincoln University," Mr Hudson recalls. "Fertility was low, the grass species were appalling and as a result all our stock performances were pretty average. If you had a long winter or dry summer everything took a long time to get going again."

The farming economy was struggling to cope without subsidies and with rocketing interest rates at a time of falling export prices and rising exchange rates. For Hawke's Bay farmers, the odd drought was thrown in for good measure.

Gwavas had 5500 Romney ewes -- lambing at 80-100 per cent -- and 300-400 Angus cows in about 60 big paddocks. Eighty per cent were capital stock that couldn't be sold and in summer every blade of grass was needed to feed them.

"When droughts came the place used to hit the wall very quickly. There was a big cost in grazing cattle away, and that sort of carry on."

He hung on through the 80s -- "years of absolute hell that just about destroyed us" -- by borrowing to fund improvements. Then came the 90s and a change in fortunes.

Two decisions proved crucial to Gwavas' resurgence. One was to take on a new way of farming bull beef -- TechnoGrazing, an invention of Rangitikei farmer Harry Wier involving the grazing of bulls in paddocks divided up into small cells.

The other was to be one of the first monitor farmers. The Meat and Wool New Zealand scheme puts a farm in each region under a microsope for three or four years with a committee of local farmers, consultants and other industry specialists discussing ways to improve its performance. Progress is measured by regular monitoring of key elements, such as pasture growth and animal weights.

"It was a blessing," Mr Hudson says. "We had a lot to do and it was great having that sharper focus. We set a baseline of where we were, and then worked out where we wanted to be and how we were going to get there."

Gwavas had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Work on improving the grass species had already begun but now it speeded up. It became an all-grass farm with no supplements. TechnoGrazing was embraced and the ratio of sheep to cattle changed from 70:30 to 40:60.

"Beef finishing lined up with our best grass growth between May and Christmas. If it went dry after that we destocked. That didn't matter, we had made our money. It gave us flexibility, we didn't have to make hay."

This change also helped in the fight to maintain sheep health. Drench-use halved as more low-parasite land became available for lambs at weaning time.

THE monitor farm years came just as the transfer of technology from the research laboratory to the paddock was picking up impetus. Farmer discussion groups began and the use of consultants became more acceptable. Gwavas became a scientific testing ground and over the years Mr Hudson has been grateful for a first look at trial work with grass species and biological controls for grass grubs that became commercial successes.

"It might have been a bit of a criticism of us that we didn't change much during those four years, but you couldn't do everything overnight -- the bank would have thrown the toys out of the cot," he says. "We needed to pick the priority areas. Some of the biggest gains didn't come for four or five years as we built up momentum."

Those gains are shown in Gwavas' financial results. At the start of the four-year monitor farm programme gross income was $400 a hectare and the economic farm surplus $130-$140 a hectare. Now the gross income is up to $1200 a hectare and the surplus is $500-$700 a hectare.

Capital stock numbers are now down to 40 per cent. Gwavas has 3500 ewes lambing at more than 150 per cent and by mating all the hoggets at 80 per cent lambing is producing a lot more lambs at heavier weights than 20 years ago when there were 2000 more ewes. "It varies from year to year, but we finish most of our lambs, though we sell store lambs if the need arises to preserve land for breeding stock. We lamb later and calve a lot later. We try to fit in with nature."

Mr Hudson can't keep the sarcasm from his voice when he talks about the quality of Gwavas' Romney flock in the 80s. "We put a Border Romney through so they could actually see a gateway and have a lamb, though they couldn't actually look after it."

In the 90s, East Friesian genetics were tried at first, then a first-cross Romney-Finn was settled on up till the last three years when straight Romney rams returned after making a big leap in quality.

He finishes 1500 rising two-year Friesian bulls and 200-300 steers a year on TechnoGrazing and estimates he has 400ha in small cells, some of the long strip paddocks holding 300 cells. The Angus cow herd has been cut back to 70-100.

He has subdivided the big farm that straddles Highway 50 at Tikokino into 100-120 paddocks and regrassed all the flat country. "We've got the engine room ticking over, though we're still conscious of the possibility of drought -- you don't forget what they can do in a hurry."

His struggle to loosen the grip of the trust has made him cynical about caring for the family treasure.

"Every generation's got to take responsibility for itself. You don't want to spend your time putting sticking plasters on things that need a sledgehammer taking to them, otherwise you spend your working career playing catch-up and don't live your own life."



Gwavas guardian: John Hudson. `Every generation's got to take responsibility for itself.'


Part: C
Sub-Section: FARMING

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