THE DOMINION POST, 2
DEC 2004, Edition 2, Page 7.
Hawke's Bay heritage
By: MORGAN Jon
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
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
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
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
"Gwavas was not in great shape when I came back from
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
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
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
Gwavas guardian: John Hudson. `Every generation's got to
take responsibility for itself.'
© The Dominion Post, Copyright of Fairfax New
Zealand Limited 2004, All rights reserved.