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Reaping the rewards from years of pushing the boundaries

Words by Annie Studholme

4 May 2017

Twenty years ago Angus bull breeder Gerald Hargreaves went out on a limb making a decision that ultimately changed the entire direction on his South Canterbury beef stud, and with it set Kakahu Angus on a path to breeding some of the best bulls in the business.

Today, Kakahu Angus are leading the way in terms of using proven science and technology to boost returns to farmers selling at the top end of the meat market through Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), utilising the vast pool of the American Angus herd.

Their bulls are sought after across the country, with around 100 sold at its annual sale in June. Kakahu progeny are rated number one in New Zealand for carcass weight, and this year 90 per cent of its 2015-born heifers due to calf from August were rated in the top 10 per cent of the breed average on the Angus Pure Index (API).

But it’s been a hard sell, and it’s only now that Kakahu Angus is starting to reap the benefits of Gerald’s years of pushing the boundaries, not to mention hard work, with clients attaining results and achieving higher returns through genetic gains and better pastures.

Kakahu was bought by the Hargreaves family in 1924. Originally part of the Opuha run, it was previously owned by the Studholme Brothers farming company which at one time had included Te Waimate and Coldstream, along with a host of other properties in the North Island. The homestead was built in 1896, and a substantial garden and oak-lined driveway was planted using seedlings brought out by ship from England.

At that time it was more than 12,000 hectares, but by the time Gerald took it over from his father in 1966 it had been reduced to just 450 hectares. Fresh from two years working in the United Kingdom after leaving school, Gerald returned to the farm and initially saw no sense in breeding stud bulls so the stud, which was started in 1954, was split in two with Gerald keeping just 30 cows. “I thought it was a stupid business, so I sold half the cows. A competitor said, ‘you should have sold the lot’. So, I thought that’s a challenge!” laughed Gerald.

Back then it was a smaller, selling between 15-20 bulls annually, most of which were bundled off to Molesworth. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Gerald really started to get into the breeding side of it. “I have to admit that I really didn’t know what I was doing at the start. They were pure New Zealand (genetics).”

In the early 1990s a few innovative New Zealand Angus breeders headed to the United States to look at new genetics. Reluctantly Gerald tagged along. “I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t see the point because up until then every bull that I had seen introduced to New Zealand hadn’t been suitable.”

But once introduced to the right people, Gerald quickly realised just how much Kiwi Angus breeders had to gain from using US genetics, capitalising on decades of progeny testing and driven by a thriving domestic market shouting out for tender, consistent, high-quality, marbled beef. Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is recognised as the world’s biggest beef brand selling 1 billion pounds (lbs) worldwide (increasing 13% per annum), he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the consumer that’s the judge, not us.” The penny dropped. “They were very different to those bulls I had seen before. Suddenly, it gave me focus and something to aspire to. I knew what I was doing, compared to just breeding a bull. It was life changing,” said Gerald, with his customary infectious enthusiasm.

With upwards of 400,000 Angus registrations annually, 10 times the number of Australasia, they are able to find bulls in the top 1 per cent for performance in the American Angus herd that ticked the boxes for structure, type and temperament to suit New Zealand conditions. And to that end, he’s been using mainly US bulls ever since, returning yearly to find new bulls, accessing their soundness and suitability for New Zealand conditions, as well as carefully studying their offspring.

Kakahu aims to breed cattle suitable for the high end meat market, so when breeders are paid for quality, they will be at the leading edge. There’s so much data available. By embracing that technology, Gerald says they can guarantee more dollars per hectare. Kakahu is breeding cattle so clients will have a high degree of repeatability for programmes such as Silver Fern Farms elite EQ grade and Blue Apron. Kakahu is also one of 30 Angus studs involved in a partnership with AngusPure to improve the eating quality of Angus beef.

But while Gerald puts an emphasis on EBVs, using it to make informed genetic decisions, some things haven’t changed. “We won’t put a bull up that’s not sound, and we won’t have a cow in the herd that’s not structurally sound. It’s a no brainer. It should be everyone’s philosophy,” he says.

Kakahu’s cows are of medium build with strong structural soundness, are active and have a good temperament. They are run under commercial conditions, and expected to live a long time and produce good even calves every year. Each year they mate their yearling heifers to medium weight bulls. Calves are weighed, tagged and DNA tested at birth to check parentage, which also provides an opportunity to access each and every cow, recording data such as ease of birth, temperament, feet and general structure, culling if required.

Much of the farm’s annual turnover though rests on its on-farm stud sale each June, attracting buyers from all over the country. It’s make or break. With more than 100 bulls put up on average over the past decade, Kakahu Angus holds the second biggest Angus sale in New Zealand. They also sell around 30 charolais bulls. This year will be its 41st sale. It’s huge affair with friends and family roped into help, in everything from washing the bulls to making the sandwiches. Last year 90-odd bulls were sold for an average of $7,000 each, and they’ll be hoping for at least that this year.

While the bull sale is central to Kakahu’s business, they also run a large commercial operation wintering 550 Friesian bulls and 100 Angus heifers purchased from various clients which are put in calf to their top yearling bulls and sold as in-calf heifers from December the following year. The farm now covers 1,200 hectares, of which 260 hectares is irrigated land, and the rest is hill country. In addition to the cattle, they also run 3,000 mainly Romney-based/composite ewes on the more unproductive tussock country. 

Going forward, Kakahu’s success now rests firmly in the hands of the next generation. Daughters Belinda and Fiona have followed their own careers, but Tom, and his wife, Anna, have now taken over the day-to-day running of the farm as well as running their own boutique interiors, architecture, graphic design and advertising business, Thomas & Co. Along with doing all the stud advertising and website work, Anna also has her own clients, which she juggles around being a full-time mum to 18-month-old Francesca.

Returning to the family farm wasn’t always Tom’s plan. “Dad said to go away and don’t come back until you’re 30. I took that quite literally and came back just three months before my 30th birthday,” laughs Tom. In the time since he’d finished school Tom had a stint working for the McRaes at Glens of Tekoa Station near Culverden, did a year at Lincoln University which he hated, so went off and played polo in England and Ireland.

After realising he didn’t have that much of a future as a professional polo player (“I wasn’t good enough”) while he was in the UK, he managed to secure a job working for an architecture firm in Bath, reaffirming his love of architecture and design. So, on his return to New Zealand he launched into a Bachelor of Design majoring in Interior Architecture at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT), now known as Ara. It was there that he met Anna, who was completing a Bachelor of Design majoring in Visual Communication; they eventually headed to Europe, and then Melbourne, where Tom worked for an architect company designing commercial buildings around the world.

But with his 30th birthday looming, Tom knew it was a case of now or never. “I owed it to everyone to come back and give it ago.” When it came to succession, luckily everyone was on the same page, says Tom. “The fact that everyone wanted it to stay in the family - that’s why it worked.” A Christchurch city girl, it was also a big call for Anna to move to the country, inheriting the 6 hectare park-like garden with a predominance of English trees, rhododendrons and camellias which is open to the public for groups and tours, but she’s taken to it with her traditional gusto.

Tom gave himself two years, starting off as a shepherd and learning the ropes from the bottom up. Gradually he started taking over, Gerald happy to take a step back. “The learning curve was vertical. But the more responsibilities I got, the more I learnt, and the more I started to enjoy it. It was quite daunting at the start, but the more people you meet, the better it gets.”

Tom’s the first to admit that he still has a lot to learn, but he sees that as an advantage, not adverse  to drawing on the expertise of others, whether it’s bringing in a tailing gang instead of trying to do it themselves or using specialist consultants where needed. “I’m a big believer in having people that are as good, if not better than you and in my case, that’s pretty easy,” says Tom. “I look at the guys I have working for me and it’s as important to them as it is to me that this farm is running really well. I see farming as a really big business and a massive industry, and there is no point in trying to know everything. My goal is for my staff to know more than me. Having them have a passion for your place helps you make those decisions and trust those guys in what they do. They need to love the farm as much as we do, and do it as well as we would do it.”

Tom’s fortunate he has gathered a great team of staff around him, most of who have been at Kakahu for more than three years. They include a full-time tractor driver and two block managers – one helping with the cattle stud and one looking after the commercial side. Integral to the team is Tonga national Sani Hansen, who has been at Kakahu for 20 years as a general farm labourer, go-to Mr Fix-it man-come gardener.   

With such a strong team, it’s afforded Tom the flexibility to continue his passion for architecture and design on the side. It started when Gerald and Sue needed a new house to live in nearby, putting Tom’s skills to good use. He also took charge of completely renovating and modernising the homestead before he and Anna moved in. He’s since designed four homes and done several renovations, with many more waiting in the pipeline.

The farm is still his priority but he estimates that he spends about 40 per cent of his time on Thomas & Co projects, while the other 60 per cent is devoted to the farm. “I love the variety, and the fact that my life is just not focused on one thing. It gets you out meeting different types of people,” says Tom. It’s also a great way to have a business together. “I do all the structure and the form of the building and then Anna takes over and works on the interior of the building. She’ll do all the finishes and the design of the kitchen, and even the colour-schemes with the clients. It works well for both of us. ”   

Although Gerald has stepped back from the fray, if it sounds like he’s been put out to pasture, think again. More at home in his digger these days, he is currently in charge of on-going development, working on transforming 350 hectares of gorse and old pasture in to lush fields capable of running 15-20 ewes to the hectare as opposed to less than 10. “I don’t think he’ll ever retire as such,” laughs Tom. “When you have put your life and soul into a place you don’t just walk away.”

“I’m happy on the digger,” says Gerald. “That way I can make myself useful without getting in the way. I think as you get older you slow down, and Tom’s just ramping it up again. He’s doing the things that I should have done.”

While Gerald and Tom are both excited about the future, they see many challenges ahead, especially with regards to the widening gap between rural and urban. There is a fine line between becoming more productive without negatively affecting the environment, but it’s in our best interests not to ruin it, says Tom. “We want to protect our land, not because we have to, but because we want to. The more the industry learns, the more we improve. With the benefit of what we know now, you can either choose to act or choose not to. I’m trying to influence what I do in this world in my short time to help the next generation (Francesca). It’s something that I am a big believer in,” says Tom.

Tom and Gerald have been proactive. In the past decade, they have taken many steps to protect the environment around their property and Tom is an active member of the Kakahu Catchment Group. They have fenced off more than 5km of river from stock and built sediment ponds to act as filters or undertook riparian plantings before any run-off meets waterways (creeks and Kakahu River). “Farming is becoming more intensive and we want to reduce the risk as much as possible. Eighty per cent of our farming activity ends up in the river. Measurements of what goes into the river and what comes out has shown no detrimental change over the past five years. We want to make sure that we are doing is not affecting the future of Kakahu.”