Supplier Search

Seeds, science and farming traverse the Plains

Words by Richard Rennie

19 April 2017

North, east or west, having farmed most points of the compass within the Canterbury region, Warwick and Anne Green believe they may have found a place that completes their farming career, and sets up a positive succession for family ownership.

For Warwick that farming career has also provided an invaluable test bed for the last 11 years, putting trial to practice in his role heading Seed Force, one of the country’s significant proprietary  seed companies.

The passion to go farming in his younger days had always lurked within Warwick, despite leaving Lincoln with a less than conventional degree for the College at the time, comprising botany, zoology and agronomy papers.

Leaving Lincoln he took up a role with Wrightson NMA as the company started to establish its Kimihia Research station at Lincoln in 1973.

After two years of living in town, the young couple decided it was then or never to go farming, and with that took up a 186ha ex solider settlement block in North Canterbury in the Waikari Valley.

The years there served Warwick a solid grounding in farming to the climate.

With no irrigation and some tough hill country above the valley floor, the country instilled a level of carefulness, conservatism and respect for the elements that made one farm for a “1 in 5” good year, a “2 in 5” average years and “2 in 5” severe drought years.

“And I know we pretty much experienced all that in the time we were there. You learnt to plan for things not going the way you intended, and keep a very good eye on your finances, dependent upon how the year played out.”

He recalls them as tough, formative years that came with the impact of “Rogernomics” reforms that pulled the chocks from under sheep farming in particular. Ewe prices plummeted to a $1 a head, while interest rates rose into the early 20% mark

The community, like many throughout the country quickly realised its strength lay in unity.

Farmers shared equipment and seasonal jobs, even doing silage contracting outside the district. To encourage a sharing of good ideas and practice, Warwick initiated a farm discussion group headed up with a MAF field officer that ran for several years.

“It was a tough time, in quite tough country, but we were all in it together, and we still have very fond memories of that time with families all growing up together and making their farms and their community work despite it all.”

With farming facing a need to boost productivity and output through a tough time, Wrightson NMA invited Warwick back to his old post at Kimihia to oversee grass and crop trials and then to manage the R&D platform at Kimihia.

He took it on the basis he could continue with his other passion, farming, and undertook a 200km return trip every day to the Lincoln property.

By 1990, with the family growing up the couple decided to purchase a property nearer to specialist education for their special needs daughter Amy, and  made  the move south to Flemington on the south bank of the Ashburton River.

Despite being a similar size to their last property, Terralea at Flemington bought a whole new level of demands with it. The irrigated, flat land unit meant a level of income could be guaranteed from cropping, after years of nature determining budgets and stocking rates.

“But it also bought a more intense pace of farming, with the demands of irrigation and the higher costs that bought too.”

Terralea at Flemington became the family farm for 25 years and over that time experienced an evolution in its farm system type. Crops moved from the traditional wheat and barley to small seed crops including Asian brassicas, ryegrass seed and clover types.

For Warwick the property provided an ideal trial ground for his work at Kimihia.

“It was a time when the agronomic aspect of farming evolved significantly, with really strong gains in yields in traditional crops like wheat and barley, and new crops starting to prove themselves.”

The certainty water bought meant finishing lambs was an option, and they meshed well with the farm’s cropping calendar. Italian rye grass planted in autumn was used to winter lambs on, then shut up for seed harvest over summer.

The intensive system meant for some “pretty full on years” with Warwick working at Kimihia, and he attributes much of the success to the hard work and commitment of his long time farm worker of 21 years Michael Harris.

“He became very much part of the family and his skill and commitment meant I was able to continue with that drive to my other job every day, knowing he had things under control.”

Meantime by 2006 Warwick stepped out of his Research & Development (R&D) job with Wrightson to pursue his own seed company business, establishing Seed Force and remaining there as Managing Director until he stepped down last year.

For him the opportunity to have an ownership stake with a couple of colleagues and a major French shareholder company RAGT was too great an opportunity to miss.

“Thinking about it, I have had the perfect opportunity to do the two things I really enjoy, one of them is to farm, the other is to pursue an ongoing love of science and agronomy being applied at a farm level. I have enjoyed seeing how new varieties come to market, and being able to demonstrate how we can optimise their productivity.”

The decision to leave Terralea 2015 came after Warwick had commuted about 1.0 million kilometres across the Plains between the farm and Kimihia over the 25 years.

But it was not the commute that prompted him and Anne to decide to quit the farm then.

“The decision to move came when our daughter Ros and her husband Bill became keen to get involved in farming themselves, pretty much out of the blue really.”

Ros had been working for Ravensdown for 10 years, while Bill had been a chef, and both were ready for a career change.

“We knew Terralea was not going to be big enough to support us all, and it was a tough proposition as a first farming job given its level of intensity.

“We had also reached the point where we wanted to do something new after having farmed for a long time, and decided to seek a larger, different sort of farm that would suit. We also wanted a family farm that would provide for our future generations.”

With that they retreated from the flats to the hillier country at Sheffield, tapping into their experience in hill country many years after leaving Waikari Valley.

The 420ha “Roecombe Hill” farm had been faithfully farmed by the same family for 90 years, and its scale held the promise of offering a succession opportunity for its new family owners.

“The flat country had also become more expensive, and by seeking a farm that was not irrigated, we wanted to be in a higher rainfall area.

“We were not fazed by the hill country, and this property is made up of about 420ha of rolling hill country. We were fortunate to be able to purchase part of the neighbouring farm Glenrowan and later Windermere, both flat farms and these complemented the overall farm. We have now 540ha of hill country  with a good balance of hill and flats.”

Not long after purchasing the property the Greens learned that the Sheffield irrigation scheme had got the green light, and the opportunity was there for Roecombe Hill to benefit with the first water flowing this year.

Plans are still relatively raw for the farm’s irrigation plan, but the 90ha of irrigatable flats will lend itself well to the family’s longer term plans for intensifying the property and lifting profitability.

“We have not even decided whether we will use pivots or laterals yet, but it is only 90ha, and using a pivot would demand having the trees removed, which we don’t really want to do in an area where it is windy most of the time, and the shelter is needed.”

The scheme has been hard won, requiring 4,000ha to be viable and just hitting that number now. Not all farmers in the district are choosing to be on the scheme in the catchment that runs from the Sheffield basin almost to the Fonterra plant at Darfield.

The irrigation provides the opportunity to grow small high value seed crops and provide winter feed in the form of fodder beet to finish 400 Angus calves on over winter.

“Irrigation means the yield can be doubled from about 15t a hectare dry matter, to 30t, it also enables us to make silage and to finish lambs. It changes the dynamics of the farm considerably.”

The plan is to build the farm up to holding 5,500 stock units, a figure irrigation will tip them over. A breeding unit includes 250 Angus cows and 1,500 ewes with replacements.

“We buy in the calves we do not breed to get to the 400 total and finish them for the local trade, or for the feed lot in Ashburton.”

Warwick says Angus were recommended by Roecombe Hill’s previous owner for their ability to perform well in country that stretches from 300m above sea level on the flats, to 550m at the tops, where snow is not uncommon over winter.

“The cows also mean we can control the pasture well for the ewes and calves.”

Wairere Romney genetics are providing the input for the capital ewe flock, with good all round performance on hill country well proven throughout New Zealand.

With family on the farm, and having stepped out of his Managing Director’s role at Seed Force, Warwick could be excused for taking things easier.

“But I think I am probably busier than ever in some ways. There is a lot in managing a farm this size, and the family are still learning as they go. My wife Anne is a pivotal part of the team as she manages all the farm accounts and helps outdoors . It’s a team effort and its great to have our two granddaughters close by.”

“We work really well as a team, Bill is showing a good aptitude for farming. He and Ros are enjoying learning new things and it’s been a positive move with a view to the future - we’re really happy about it.”

Putting seed science into practice at Roecombe Hill

With a life time’s work as committed to agronomy as to farming, Warwick Green brings a unique perspective on what works in trials when it comes to the “next big thing” in crops, and how they play out in the reality of commercial farming practices. 

Warwick admits he continues to enjoy seeing how new varieties perform on farms, but laments the low level of re-grassing undertaken by many sheep and beef properties in New Zealand.

“It is only about 2-3% a year, and one of the challenges for pastoral farmers is to lift that level and to take advantage of the good new varieties of grasses that are now out there.”

As the country grapples with the pros and cons of genetic engineering and what it may bring in terms of productivity gains, Warwick believes there are enough non-modified crops and grasses available that could provide more immediate gains for farm productivity.

“We have been very reliant upon ryegrass in the past, but there are varieties of cocksfoot,  fescue and Lucerne around that are proving very productive.”

And he’s practicing what he preaches.

At Roecombe Hill brown top dominates in some pasture areas, but Warwick is progressively re-grassing, putting in new varieties of perennial rye and cocksfoot with red/white clover blends.

On the flats fodder beet reigns supreme as a high yielding winter feed option, and is a crop Seed Force invested in significantly to boost its productivity and suitability for New Zealand farm systems.

“We have seen it used in dairy systems, but I wanted to integrate it into a sheep and beef farm. It means winter is busy shifting fences for breaks, but we want to put live weight on the cattle over winter, aiming to finish them in their second autumn, rather than their second winter.”

Fodder beet require significant investment in seed bed preparation, weed control and planting early on, but pay big dividends in dry matter yield, and cost per dry matter, if done properly.

They will play a big part in Warwick’s belief that an integrated beef fattening, cropping and breeding unit can generate a return to support the business and the families, whilst remaining flexible enough to respond to shifts in market returns over time.

The irrigation scheme will bring pressured water to the farm gate and opens up Roecombe’s opportunities, albeit at a cost of about $800 a hectare a year regardless of how much water is used.

“But I think the reality in Canterbury is that water schemes like this are going to be the way of the future, compared to aquifer sources which are under pressure to have the demands upon them lowered. I think we may find in future aquifers will be paid for and that will put pressure on farmers to use water smarter from them.”