New Zealand’s iconic high country often leaves visitors stunned by its beauty, and with a pervasive sense that little has changed on the properties that have called this country home over generations.
But one station operator is leading the charge on integrating cutting edge technology with traditional high country pastoral operations to improve productivity, safety and success in some of New Zealand’s toughest landscape.
John Anderson’s family have owned Kawarau Station at Bannockburn in Otago for three generations, and can proudly point to it being the original founding station in the district.
The original sprawling 100,000ha has been reduced over the generations with the original station area forming the foot print for other stations that have splintered off from it over the generations since its founding in 1858.
Today it sits on about 10,500ha of land comprising both freehold title and covenanted Queen Elizabeth II river front property. There is also Crown land leased for 30 and 10 year grazing rights in a deal established under the tenure review process in the mid-2000s.
“The main reason we supported the tenure review was the security it gave us, as opposed to possibly having to pay very high rentals in the future,” says John.
On John’s watch the family have been able to turn the slide in station area around by purchasing neighbouring Mount Difficulty and joining it to the original property.
The tenure review process also provided the family with some funds to invest back into the station, and for John the focus has been on how to boost productivity on the station without necessarily having to throw more manpower at the challenges.
This has involved a blend of common farm improvements with some exciting “out of the box” approaches to tipping traditional farm management on its head.
Over on the property’s Mount Difficulty block John has invested in a new set of yards that will mean he does not have to run wethers back to the home block for drenching, a job that consumes two days walking and working.
Meantime back in the hills when mustering starts it is not always a helicopter and dogs that are echoing off the valley walls.
Two years ago John invested in a drone, with an eye on using it to check fence lines after snow events to save time heading into the back country on ute and foot. He knew he was onto something when it only took him three minutes to check a fence line that would have taken a good hours’ worth of driving and walking to get to.
It now only takes minutes to check a fence line that would have taken a good hour’s worth of driving and walking to get to.
“But it has been for mustering where we have found it really useful. One morning I kicked off mustering 2,000 wethers and left home at 8am, drove 20 minutes to where I launched the drone and we had them all down by 10.30am, in time for a coffee. Normally it would have taken three men and a ute to bring them down, and only be finished by lunchtime.”
John says the sheep are wary of the drone’s presence and respond well, moving away from it steadily and without becoming overly spooked.
The high tech machine does not make either his dogs or his mustering pilot redundant, but instead integrates well with both.
“We will still use the chopper over some of the levels, but the drone gives me the opportunity to go in where it may be too dangerous for either dogs, men or choppers, particularly when there are high winds.”
A drone provides the opportunity to go in where it may be too dangerous for either dogs, men or choppers, particularly when there are high winds.
He estimates even at this early stage of its use the drone has saved him over $10,000 in chopper time and labour.
Jokingly he says he has asked the drone’s distributor for commission, having had half a dozen farming friends either buy a drone or have one firmly on their shopping list.
Meantime he is also taking an alternative approach to managing the fertility on the property’s 112ha of invaluable river flats. After years of using traditional superphosphate based fertilisers John and his father Richard decided nine years ago to trial a fish-lime based liquid fertiliser.
“The aim was to stimulate the microbes in the soil and get the plants healthier at their roots, and it certainly seems to have worked for us.” He has noticed more aggressive, rapid regrowth in his hay paddocks even heading into dry summers, and higher grass yields when harvesting the flats for hay.
To optimise the potential of his flat country even more, he is also examining an alternative irrigation system that incorporates a coupling that allows the irrigation standard to be hooked on and off, saving the labour intensive work that goes with running traditional K line irrigators.
After a recent visit to Kawarau Station, Bayleys National Country manager Duncan Ross says he was struck at how John had incorporated innovation within a traditional station system.
“Everything he has done has been with one eye on improving productivity, and on keeping the system sustainable – many people think of stations as being stuck in traditional ways of working, but he has definitely stepped outside the square. I have no doubt this is something of a quiet revolution we hear little about that is happening through many of our traditional sheep stations, and it’s really refreshing to see.”
John admits he has spent much time thinking about alternative approaches to farming in the tough high country, and some of his ideas have gained a life of their own.
His purchase of a Te Pari sheep handler, and suggestions for modifying it have been taken up by its creators and he will be the first to trial the new model.
Longer term like the generations before him he remains committed to the high country and Kawarau Station, appreciating that his back yard is the same one many of the visitors to Queenstown only minutes down the road travel half way around the world to see.