The cream of the crop

By Kathryn Chung

The cream of the crop
Former grain and seed researchers, now a third-generation Silver Fern Farmer, Nigel Woodhead works tirelessly to ensure his livestock enjoy the finest quality pasture, resulting in happy, healthy, high-calibre stock.

Soon into our tour of Nigel and Leanne Woodhead’s 400ha Milton farm, the conversation turns to the topic of the crop he’s been growing to feed his animals. He’s become quite an expert in the art of pasture management and by the way he waxes lyrical about the many benefits of his clover crop, you can tell it excites him.

Situated about 50 minutes from Dunedin and 10 kilometres from the coastline, Remote Farming is made up of rolling country hills and pastures, with native and pine trees covering the property’s steeper stretches. Before taking over the family farm in 2015, Nigel worked as a researcher and field consultant at grain and seed production company Midlands Seed. It’s there where he built up his agronomy expertise, a skill he now uses running his sheep and beef farm.

Right now, he’s in the process of transitioning more pastures to pure red and white clover, a crop that has been helping him achieve impressive results with his herd of 3,500 ewes and 60 Friesian bulls. “It’s not always about having the most pasture, but the right quality,” he explains. “The clover is very high in protein so the stock do really well on it. It takes a lot more specific management, but we’re getting some fantastic performance from it. The stock are always really healthy on it.”

Ensuring his herd are happy and healthy comes down to three key pieces: quality feed, fresh water and good fencing. These elements, along with regular rotation of the herds to keep them stimulated, are all key to achieving a quality product for the consumers. “There’s a real art to animal management. If you get things right, they perform really well.”

The benefits of his agronomic skills go beyond the animals, helping improve the health of the land and the environment around. By using clover crops, he’s able to source the nitrogen he needs naturally. In turn, he’s planted swede crops to absorb the nitrogen in the soil. “It’s all about crop rotation and being smart,” he explains. “If I was doing nothing in that paddock, it might end up in the waterways. This way, I’m utilising it.”

His meticulous approach to farming takes a lot of work, making sure the herds are rotated frequently and the pastures are looked after. But for Nigel, it’s all part of solving what he likes to call the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of farming. “There’s all kinds of different things going on and every time I want to change one thing, it changes another. But I love the challenge. It’s a balance and that’s one of the intricacies about what you’re trying to do on a farm, focussing on what the stock are doing and the pasture.”

A family affair

A lot of his farming knowledge has also been passed on to him from his father, Stephen, who first bought the farm in 1993. The home Nigel and his wife Leanne live in with their children, Sienna and Finn, is the same home Nigel grew up in.

The day-to-day operations at Remote Farming are very much a family affair. As we sit down for lunch in their backyard, we can hear Stephen mowing a paddock nearby. Leanne, who grew up on a family farm in Zimbabwe and has worked as a territory manager for Young Farmers, often helps Nigel rear the young Friesian calves and weigh the cattle.

It’s a great family environment, she says, and as their children have gotten older, they’ve been able to join them out on the paddock. She says it’s wonderful to see Nigel’s passion and enthusiasm for the work he does. “I love what he’s doing, he comes home and he’s so happy. He’s been working really hard on the stock.”

As a third-generation farmer, Nigel is bringing new ideas and processes to his operation, but at the same time he has great respect for the legacy he is carrying on.

“My parents farmed in the 1980s when there was a huge amount of upheaval and my grandparents and great- grandparents farmed through the Depression. I’m not making light of what’s coming at us down the line, but every generation has its challenges. We’ll find our way through it but we’ve got to make sure we take the people with us.”

Nigel cares a lot about relationships he’s built across the industry. In 2017, he won the prestigious FMG Young Farmer of the Year Award, which sees farmers nationwide put through rigorous practical, theoretical and technical farming challenges. Looking back at his farming career, Nigel says winning the award has been one of the highlights.

“To win it was huge and I’ve been given a number of opportunities as a result of it.” Now involved in the FMG Young Farmer of the Year Contest Sub- Committee, the governance group overseeing the contest, Nigel is now approached for advice “I wanted to give back to the contest, but also give forward to up-and-coming contestants. I would not be where I am without the help of others, so I thought if I could help the young farmers coming through the ranks and inspire them, well that would be pretty special.”

Advocating for the industry has been a huge part of Nigel’s farming journey. In 2018, he was selected for the Primary Sector Council to help form a vision statement for New Zealand’s Food and Fibre Sector and provide strategic advice to Minister for Agriculture, Damien O’Connor.

“Before, there wasn’t a unified vision as an industry, so we put together a vision for where we wanted to go and how to get there.” The group was made up of 25 key stakeholders and Nigel was the youngest council member. “I think I brought a different perspective. I think that a young farmer’s point of view was valuable.”

Relationships of trust

His experience has given him valuable industry insights about what consumers want, which benefits his long- standing partnership with Silver Fern Farms, who have worked with the Woodheads since his grandad was farming.

Valuing the trust and integrity that this partnership is built on, Nigel’s passion for ensuring quality feed and care for his animals makes him a key player in Silver Fern Farms’ vision for being the most sustainable red meat company in the world and delivering quality meat to consumers. “Nigel wants to do what the consumer wants, that’s the Silver Fern Farms approach,” says Silver Fern Farms Livestock Representative, Andrew Cowie.

Nigel echoes this ethos when talking about what he learned during his time on Primary Sector Council. “You get to understand the value of that customer insight and what they want. Then it’s about doing everything in your power to deliver it,” he says, speaking to all the work he’s done in pasture management and ensuring quality crops for his animals.

“It’s great working with a company that cares about the customer and produces what the customer wants, not the other way around. That’s what Silver Fern Farms are doing, adding value to our product that doesn’t just come and go. It actually adds sustainable value.”

As a farmer, Nigel is constantly aware of the long-term impacts of everyday decisions he makes on the farm, both on the consumer side and the environmental. All his cattle are fenced off to protect the waterways and he’s continuing to fence off more of the creeks and streams that run through his property. He plans to plant a kilometre of tree line along the property to provide more shelter for the animals.

“There’s more emphasis on our environment, the water, air, natural flora and fauna,” he says. “From the way you graze paddocks, to fencing, to crop management, there’s a huge amount of thought processes. It’s a whole dynamic of decisions. I’m passionate about making sure the farm will be in a better position when I step off and that we’re ready for the future.”

Visit silverfernfarms.com

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