Case Studies, New Zealand

Simon Hales

Simon Hales
Fact-based farming lifts production at Kereru Farm

Adopting a philosophy of ‘fact-based’ farming has created changes across every aspect of production at Kereru Farm. Four years ago, Simon and Trudy Hales bought a 330-hectare property next to Simon’s family sheep and beef farm at Weber, east of Dannevirke. The couple initially farmed the two blocks of mixed steep and rolling hill country as a single unit. This year Simon and Trudy purchased the family land and consolidated the farming operation. The fourth-generation family farm now winters between 6500 and 7500 stock units — 3850 Romney ewes, 1000 replacement ewe hoggets, 100 breeding cows and 220 rising one-year cattle.

“Around the time we took over management of the farm we were looking for a more tailored plan for our property, which we didn’t feel we were getting from our current fertiliser company” said Simon.
“Annual soil sampling led to the same programme year after year with no fine-tuning, so I started looking for something a bit more independent and in-depth.

Simon had been interested in soil health and its implications for pasture and stock health for seven or eight years but changing the established way of doing things takes time. It was the economics of applying bulk ag lime on a hill farm without an airstrip that was the catalyst for a new approach to fertiliser management on Kereru farm.

“The economics just weren’t adding up,” explained Simon. “And super without lime made no sense to me, so we found ourselves at a crossroads. I wanted to try prills and at the same time I was questioning the value for money delivered by our established fertiliser programme. Soil tests came back commenting on Olsen P levels and I couldn’t understand why you would only look at one thing. It made no sense to me when there’s a whole range of minerals and trace elements that can limit production. I wanted to get an independent, external viewpoint.”

This led to a conversation with Nathan Congreve, during which Simon felt a real synergy between his own philosophy and iFert’s. “I have always focused more on the solution rather than the product – most fertiliser companies seem to be the other way around. We wanted to move away from a ‘one pill fixes it all’ approach,” continued Simon. “And iFert’s approach of tackling the most limiting factors felt right.”

Simon was already moving away from superphosphate to dicalcic applications as a step in the right direction. “I just didn’t feel that the property seemed healthy – there were parts that definitely weren’t growing to potential. And there was no in-depth analysis to help us fine-tune things because the whole farm was treated as one block.”
Working with iFert, Simon has split the farm into five blocks for soil testing and fertiliser treatment with the objective of raising the quantity of clover on-farm and improving feed quality so that stock fully utilise the pasture.

Initially five or six soil tests were conducted across the farm, but this has been reduced as fertiliser treatments have corrected specific nutrient and trace element deficiencies, bringing the blocks into line with one another.
“We do four soil tests now and there’s one hill block that we don’t apply any fertiliser to at all – it’s just not economical.”

It was on another block of hill country that Simon has seen some of the most dramatic change to feed quality and quantity. “I was always told that it wasn’t worth putting any money into this block,” explained Simon. “But I felt that there were times when the land could be useful.”
Simon took the opportunity to put the iFert approach to the test and see if he could boost productivity and feed palatability all the way up the hill. His aim was to grow two or three times more grass, improve quality as well and reduce moss and brown top. “We needed to lime it – the pH was rubbish. The economics of applying bulk ag lime didn’t work so I decided to try prills – and I worked with iFert to see what else we could put in.”

The hard hill block is now pumping. “The stock graze right to the top of the hills, there’s a lot more clover and a lot less moss. The rest of the property looks healthier throughout the year as well. It seems to handle all weathers — it hangs on longer in the dry and we still get some growth in the wet.  There’s more quality to my feed.”

Other signs that tell Simon he’s on the right track are reduced thatch, increased worm numbers (up 83%), increased soil respiration (up 90%) and there’s 43% more clover across the farm. Healthy, active soil biology means the pasture’s a lot cleaner with less debris on the surface — cattle dung is broken down more quickly.

“We note the colour of the tips of the leaves for signs of mineral deficiency and conduct paddock-specific testing if production isn’t at the level we think it should be. We are steadily improving the under-performing paddocks.”

At the same time Simon has changed stock management practices, lowering ewe numbers and focusing more on production. “We’ve looked at animal health and taken a more scientific approach – in the same way that we changed our approach to fertiliser. We don’t routinely drench adult stock.

“The farm’s healthy, so the stock is healthy and more resilient to parasites. Lower stocking rates have further reduced stress, so we only treat animals if there’s a specific reason to do so. It’s a much more scientific approach than doing something because it’s always been done that way. We’re much clearer about the purpose and timing of things.”

“I think our approach with iFert is the same approach that we adopt on-farm with everything now. Improving the most limiting factors, improving lowest performing aspects, working through the whole farm operation.”

This shared philosophy has built a deep trust between Kereru Farm and iFert. “If someone walked onto the farm and asked me how my farm has changed due to our approach to fertiliser, I would point to the lift in pH, the palatability of feed in the hill country – the stock’s ability to graze properly and fully utilise all the feed we grow, right to the top of the hills.”

“Everyone comments on how good the place looks — and farmers are harsh critics, so if they say it looks good, you know it looks good!”