One of the recent challenges facing Trevor Johnson and his team at Paparata Station has been the changing climate.
"We have less water and higher temperatures. We have had to change our farming systems and it's important to us to know which legumes will grow where," he adds. "We are interested to know what species know what species might grow on our hills without the fertilisers we are using."
So when Johnson was approached about the 7,100ha station becoming a trial site for the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme, he was keen to get involved.
The five-year $8.1m programme - co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force New Zealand - is focused on future proofing the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of New Zealand's hill country farmers.
It differs from most pastoral-based research in that it considers the whole-farm system and, critically, the wider communities these systems exist within.
It incorporates traditional science research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science and has a strong emphasis on forages and providing decision-making tools to help farmers select the best forage option for different land management units.
Within the programme there are four research areas, all contributing towards the overall objective of future-proofing New Zealand's hill country farms and rural communities.
Paparata Station is one of the trial sites for the research led by Dr Nathan Odgers, or Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. The study involves mapping micro-indicators such as soil temperature and moisture in the hill country landscapes. The goal is to help farmers quantify key soil and terrain features to enable robust decision-making around the most suitable locations and potential benefits of introducing forage legumes.
Paparata Station is farmed in four blocks, overseen by managers. It carries 65,000 stock units, including an elite Romney stud and around 6,000 Hereford and Angus cross cattle.
"We have had to change our farming systems and supply stock with water from other sources," Johnson explains. "We can't rely any more on the natural water, which are streams in the hills. They are not lasting the 12 months. It's got warmer from late spring through summer and into autumn, so we have less feed for autumn."
He says farmers try to manage production so that feed demand fits in with feed supply.
"We've moved to finishing and selling stock earlier and we now have reticulated water. Finishing stock earlier means we can build grass covers in the autumn," Johnson explains. "We see the trials as very useful as the species we are currently growing are very dependent on water."
Cattle and sheep numbers are carefully balanced to complement one another and Johnson says getting the right ratio of cattle to sheep is important.
"You can't harvest all the grass when the feed quality is at its maximum," he explains.
"Adult cattle have the ability to maintain liveweight on pasture that has lost feed value. Cows, especially after weaning, can go on to lesser quality pastures. However, cows can damage the soils especially if paddocks are stocked with high numbers per hectare."
He says they try and avoid this damage by lowering the stocking rate per hectare.
"The present practice is to calve cows on the hills with sheep, and the cows are stocked at one cow to two hectares. This limits damage to soils."
Johnson says participation in the programme has been very easy.
"We haven't really had to do anything. The researchers have fenced off some small 2m x 2m areas where they have probes in place and they have put a monitor on top of a hill that sends the information to the research team.
"We are very much looking forward to getting feedback on the outcomes."
The Hill Country Futures Partnership is also focused on identifying a clear vision for a resilient hill country future and developing guidance for farmers on how to work towards this vision at a farm and/or catchment scale. This is based directly on stakeholder consultation, delivered through in-depth interviews with over 300 farmers and key stakeholders.
A major component is the development of a trustworthy hill country farming story of continual improvement in the environment, animals and people. It will showcase through case studies, articles, podcasts or videos how hill country farmers are demonstrating resilient and sustainable farming practices and stewardship of the land, animals and people.
Happiness Leads to Profitability
Trevor Johnson says he is strongly supportive of the 'telling the farmers' story' approach.
"It is important to us to be sustainable. I'm a third-generation farmer and in my book you have to be sustainable for the next generation in the hills - and we need to tell that story," he explains.
"There are challenges but I'm positive about the future and we want to be here forever. One of our managers has been with us 33 years, one 25 years, one 15 and one seven."
Johnson adds that one of his objectives is not just to have profitable sheep and beef operation, but to make sure everyone is happy and enjoying what they are doing.
"You could say if the farm team is happy and they are enjoying what they are doing, you will have a profitable farm."