Tasmanian reunions – Graham Smith

The season ended early for me with drying off on the 26th April. The dry summer/autumn encouraged this decision, and I feel it was the right one, with covers now over 2500 two thirds of the way through May.

For the record, final figures were 28,759 kg solids, 368 kg per cow, and 1027 kg per hectare. Although well down on last season, I feel profitability will be similar, or better, because I managed to cut right back on PKE input. The girls are looking good and I am already looking forward to calving and the prospect of all season OAD.

Travel was in our plans once again. This time to Tasmania for 6 days for a Lincoln Dip. Ag. 1975 reunion and tour. We started in Hobart and the highlight there was a visit to Lark distillery where we were taken through the process of whiskey making. We tasted the product as it went through its various phases. One interesting aspect was that all the employees were under 30 years, except for the main whiskey maker and he was only in his early 30s! The product was good and sort of put us in a good mood for the rest of the trip!

We were lucky that one of our number is a farm adviser in Tassie, so as we travelled he discussed the methods of farming, the soil and climate to give us a close understanding of conditions.

We visited a 60,000 acres sheep and beef farm, well run with a run-off in the highlands. The highlands are cold and stony and are used in the summer when there is more rainfall at elevation and no snow. The east side of the highlands, which is dry, hard country, is in marked contrast to the west, which had lush bush, and as we went down into the valleys, we saw plenty of good-looking land supporting dairy farms.

We next stayed at Devonport, which is the ferry terminal to cross the Bass Strait to Melbourne, a 12-hour trip. We visited an opium poppy farm and were intrigued by the security and the uniqueness of the crop. The opium is retrieved from the shell of the flower capsule, so it takes a lot of flowers to make up a kilo! The poppy seed is sold for our buns and for bird seed.

Trowunna wildlife sanctuary was a chance to be close to and pat a Tasmanian devil and a wombat, and we learnt about their life cycle and survival. We viewed echidna and ran out of time to walk through a snake enclosure, such a pity ( not! ).

The next visit was to the only salmon farm attached to land, in the Tamar river, which has huge tidal flows to maintain the health of the fish.

Back to Hobart for the final day, and just enough time to visit the Salamanca market, which is very big. The day was heating up and by the time we boarded the plane it was 40 degrees and a very hot wind. I could then see why irrigating during the day would be an exercise in futility!

As you can see, with all my travels not much milking was done by me, but my relief milker was doing well. To put myself out of contention for the rest of the season I then had a full knee replacement, from which I am still recovering.

Since then I have given another talk for SMASH at Awakeri, and finally spent some time on the farm.

Other things have been happening, but I will save that for the next instalment.

Roll on the Fieldays!


Travel tales – Graham Smith

February has brought plenty of heat to our operation, and any areas with a stone or sand base are now dead. Even my lucerne block is wilting and with growth rates at 4 kg/day silage has become the order of the day. With a 36 day round, I still have a little deferred grass, but it is all crispy. Production is around 0.95 kg MS/cow, and is down 23% for the month. Admittedly, last season was one out of the box here with record production, and I fed PKE right through until April last year. So, stopping PKE in September depressed production by 3% and the dry has done the rest. In the season to date I am down 8%, but so are my expenses.

Fortunately, a very good spring has seen four cuts off my leases for silage, with the first three into the pit and the last cut into bales. Cow condition is good at 4.7, but the empty rate at 14% is not. Still, empties are less than last year, and this gives me some leeway to set up for next season. The plan is to go whole season OAD, and with no cows with a cell count over 170,000, and nothing due to calve in September, all things point to a good start. How the cows respond is another story.

Lately, travel has been on the itinerary. Tess and I went to Canada in early January for a wedding, and decided to make a trip of it. We flew direct to Chicago and then hopped to Toronto. A visit to Niagara Falls was a highlight, and then it was on to Québec City for the wedding. It was cold, -16°C, but picturesque. On the third day a storm hit, and it went down to minus -33°C, now that was cold! We ventured out and found it survivable with the right clothing. The locals were even complaining, but it was noticeable that business continued.

We then flew to Vancouver to stay with family and enjoyed ice-skating (a first for Tess), and snow-shoeing, a first for both of us. Mountain views were outstanding and even up on the mountains it was noticeably warmer than the east coast. Also there were things still growing due to the better climate.

Then on to San Francisco: the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Muir Park redwoods. These trees were 500 years old, tall, and well looked after. We also visited Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoyed the market, and witnessed a large pro-life march down the main street. This was interesting to us for its size and the number of police on duty.Onwards to Las Vegas, which bedazzled us with its wealth and exorbitance. We enjoyed one of the shows, had a good look around, and toured to see the Grand Canyon (and grand it is), and the Hoover Dam. It was also the only time on the trip we saw any livestock. These were horned sheep, which in truth looked like goats to us. Las Vegas is in the desert, so the motorways, instead of having shrubs and plantings on their edges, used concrete walls or various colours and grades of metal. The desert itself had plenty of hardy shrubs growing and there was a sprinkling of homes throughout, with the odd village clustered around a spring.

Lastly, Hawaii on the way home, where we visited Pearl Harbour, the Lyon Arboretum, and Waikiki Beach. We felt that we could have spent more time in each of those places and seen more, still, that gives us the excuse to do it again!!

Finally, I was asked by SMASH to go to the South Island and visit Takaka and Karamea to talk about diversification; its potential and how that is affecting my operation. Succession also was on the agenda, and I found a lot of people in the same situation of “what next?”. I really enjoyed their hospitality and sharing experiences. Talking of experiences, the flight from Wellington to Takaka and on to Karamea was in a small 7-seater plane. We wore earphones that enabled us to follow the pilot talking to the control tower and hear how many other planes were also in the air. The weather was stable and it made for an enjoyable flight over the Sounds and upper South Island.

Keeping on top of the grass – Graham Smith

Mating this year has been a little better than in the past due to the great weather. Submission would be classed on the low side, at 85% after three weeks. I put nine cows on once a day and that certainly got them cycling. I have one cow not cycling now, so in all I am happy with that.

GS cow calf2 small Nov18

Currently production is 1.7 kg per day, down on last season, which was a record season, but I am using a lot less PKE due to the great grass growth. In the season to date I am 4% behind last year, but still happy with where I am at. I have already made two cuts of silage from my leases and brought the heifers home to clean up any surplus. The last cut was very heavy, and my small pit just managed to take it all.

All this great growth has necessitated mowing ahead of the cows to maintain residuals, and the quality of the next rotation will give a production response, I hope. Average cover is 2300 with all my leases locked up for another cut.

It went from very wet to a little too dry. Right now, there has been a series of thunderstorms passing through, but we have missed the heavy rain and have had just a few light sprinklings. That has been enough to get the annual fertiliser working.

The calves are doing very well on a daily shift ahead of the cows.

Once the weather fined up, I got a lot of metal spread. Having a four-wheel drive tractor for the first time has meant even the steep tracks are in great shape. Having a cab has also meant not worrying about taking a raincoat and leggings, and I have never done so much work in such comfort!!! The starlings also thought the new (secondhand) tractor was a great place to nest, and it has been a battle of wits trying to stop them getting in. I used rolled up wire netting, and after the fourth attempt I managed to exclude them from getting under the bonnet.

GS Feeding out time small Nov18

During Labour weekend my eldest son, Chris, got married to Nadia on the farm. It was timed to coincide with the Paulownia flowering and the farm looked a picture. The weather was good, and the wedding took place on top of our central hill in a natural amphitheatre. We built a walking track up the hill through the trees and the rock face. It is a pleasant walk, and will eventually link in with the other walking track we are building. Having all the family gathered was a bonus and we all enjoyed each other’s company.

The track started by our French guests was further extended by two more French couples during November. Benjamin and Enis, and Charlile and Marissa, went to it with a will. The track now extends to the top of the hill, with some nice views on the way. We also discovered a new site of glow worms in a cave on the farm and they enjoyed viewing them. They were further wowed when I called up the moreporks and they called back!

Digging for treasure – Graham Smith

The sun is shining as I write this, and that certainly has made life easier. In spite of the mud calving has gone really well with one cow to go, and one milk fever. The girls are currently producing 2.27 kg per day, with grass a little short they are also getting 3 kg silage and 4 kg PKE/ tapioca blend. For the first time in many years I had surplus AB heifers and managed to sell 7. The rotation length is currently 23 days and I went there quite early to minimise the mud, being on my fastest round by the 25th August. This meant a lot more silage being fed to maintain decent residuals. I went into this winter with good covers of 2200 kg/ha. But growth as low as 5 kg/day and no higher than 12 forced an early start to silage feeding, and even so my cover got down to just below 1800.

Having had the digger in during winter, with some drainage and track forming done, it is only now that I have been able to lay metal and stabilise the work. This compromised access to some paddocks to the extent that only the cows could get in, and I was pleased to have keen dogs who saved me a considerable slog through the mud.

Due to the neighbours’ bull getting in with my heifers the vet came out to give that magic disappearing injection. Whilst he was here I got him to DNA test a calf with dubious parentage and send off the sample. Genemark (LIC) sent it back saying they don’t accept samples taken with a Zeetag sampler. It had to be with an Allflex sampler. Pity neither the vet nor myself were informed of this fact. I had been in touch with them for the paperwork and no one saw fit to inform me then and it was not in the written “how to” instructions. So, all be warned, LIC don’t accept Zeetag!! Needless to say I had to get hold of an appropriate sampler and go through the process again.

Being part of the NZ Farm Forestry Assoc. means you meet interesting people. I had an American forester stay for a month in July. He expected to do some pruning in lieu of board but I was in the process of planting my nursery Paulownia saplings. So, he learnt how to dig them out and then how to plant them, with only the fencing left to go. Russell was from New Hampshire and had no knowledge of Paulownias, but it was fair to say that after a month his knowledge was as good as mine. He had also been a nurseryman in another life and I learnt a lot from him. We had some very good discussions about how to run the world!

GS visitors

Our accommodation was also used by three young French men who came to stay for free in return for working on the farm. They enjoyed calving and milking the cows, and really got into the project we set them. We have set aside about one hectare that is slowly being planted with native trees. It is situated below the cliffs and we wanted a walking track for our guests. The lads got stuck in with a will, and we now have the first section of track built and metalled. They also, with Russell, got taken to Waitomo caves and the Kiwi house, and we introduced all of them to the iconic kiwi pie, which they very quickly became addicted to! We hope they all pass their business management degrees and come back with their families one day.

GS Track-1

The digger was not here just to titivate the farm. Some time ago I got in a contractor with ground penetrating radar to survey two paddocks for buried logs. I pegged all 180 spots he found in two paddocks. The digger went down on these pegs, but turned up nothing. So I gave him free rein to cast around for logs and he immediately found a couple that could be milled. After half a day we had three logs and a churned up paddock. So, I decided to cut my losses and tasked him with extracting metal in an adjoining paddock. He immediately hit a reasonable sized matai log, which took a bit of work to extract. Soon after he retrieved another log, and then he needed to drain encroaching water. Whilst digging a shallow drain he hit the biggest log yet. This was only 1 metre under the soil but took some strenuous efforts by the 20 tonne digger to move it. Our estimates are that this tree took approximately 1000 years to grow to this size, remembering that it also had been buried for 1800 years after the Taupo eruption. When you look at the photo (below) remember that all the sap wood has rotted off leaving only valuable heart. This tree has existed through a lot of our recent, recorded history.

GS buried matai

Matai sells for about $3000/m3, and is used in windows and flooring because of its hard-wearing traits. I intend to save a slab as a bar top. The rest will be milled to suit flooring, and the sale of the timber will easily offset the costs of all the digger’s work on the farm. Milling native timber salvaged in this way is legal. There is a form to fill in, and a photo must be taken of each log. Finally, a registered native timber miller must be employed. The application to mill costs nothing. When I bought this farm I had no inkling that this was possible, so this has become an exciting sideline to dairying. I will try not to enjoy myself too much!!!

Flame dried timber not the ticket – Graham Smith

Being July, I am in the last throes of getting organised before the new season. The rubber ware has been replaced, but I still must repair cracks in the yard to keep the inspector happy. That is the problem with a 60 year old shed – the maintenance required to create the right environment to harvest milk.

Last season ended up being a record, with 33,350 kg from 78 cows. The target is always to match or better it, but I think I have set myself a hard job. Using the correct amount of PKE will be the next task and I am sure it is going to tax many of us getting that right.

Tess and I managed to get away for a break up north to do a spot of fishing. Over ten days we got five days of actual fishing due to a few storms that brought torrential rain. We did catch enough for a feed every day, and smoked a few to bring home. Mangonui is a great place to stay, and we were very lucky to not to have to tow the tinny up there, as a mate said to use his five-metre boat. A bigger boat was just the ticket in rough waters, and provided more space for us and friends.

Back home I am now planting out the sapling Paulownias, which is a bigger job than usual because the wet summer has provided more large saplings than normal. I usually plant about 100 per year, but this year I have 150. This entails digging them out of the nursery, which involves a tiling spade and an axe head welded to a long handle, so I can cut the tap root. I take out about 20 at a time to the planting site, dig a large hole and then ram up the soil around the sapling so it can withstand spring winds as it develops leaves. I also put 5 fertiliser prills in with every tree to give it a good start the first year. The other issue is to find planting space around the dairy paddocks, and designing the planted rows so that they do not impact on day-to-day operations, such as mowing. After the planting is done they then need to be fenced with two wire electrics to protect them from my cows, who would love the chance to ring bark them.

paulownia saplings.jpg

Next week we have an American forester coming to stay for a month to learn how we do it around here. I have been saving some of the planting for when he arrives, so he can give me a hand. We are probably going to learn a lot from each other and I look forward to it. He is here for some time, moving on to other farms in both islands, staying at each farm for about a month.

paulownia stack.jpg

One big issue currently is drying timber for sale. I have got behind on my supply of dry timber due to the wet conditions since Xmas. Air drying is trying to get the moisture content down to 14% or less, without paying for heat or fans etc. So I used a diesel forced air fan to blow hot air through a tunnel with wood in it. That worked quite well until the wind blew some leaves in the path of the hot air, which dried them rather quickly. They ignited, and I lost my stack of wood to a fire. We were able to extinguish it with our house fire extinguisher and the garden hose. No big deal, got insurance. Not so quick, I was not covered by the usual contents cover because this was commercial timber for sale. This means only the shed will be paid for, plus a few tarpaulins. Lesson being: make sure everyone knows what is happening so the appropriate cover is taken. The hard lesson has been learned and I am now buying a container in which to dry the timber with a dehumidifier and a fan.

burnt paulownia.jpg

Air drying timber requires a bit of experience in setting up the stack, filleting each piece of timber so it has its own air space around it. Different timbers must be treated specifically to their needs. Some must be dried very slowly, e.g. eucalypts, which need to be dried over two years or the wood will split or develop cell collapse, which disfigures and weakens the wood. In that case, it is necessary to wrap the drying stack with two layers of shade cloth to slow wind speed and evaporation. Some timber requires stacking according to the grain displayed at the end of each piece, depending on if it was flat, or quarter sawn.

As you can see, learning about timber and trees is a big job, but very rewarding, just like milking cows.

Photo credit: Thanks to Tess Smith, Te Awamutu Camera Club.

Rants and raves – Graham Smith

GS 4X4 Tour1

Hi all. As usual at this time of year, the emphasis is on setting up for next year.

For me that means using grass silage to lengthen the round from 36 to 72 days. The girls are still putting in the effort, but you can tell they are looking forward to a rest. They are currently producing 1 kg MS, after empties and culls have been sold.

Lime has been applied to the whole farm at 2 tonne/ha, and SustaiN is now going on at 70 kg to keep the cover going into winter.

As you read in the last blog, we featured on Country Calendar and this has put pressure on my timber business. Following the programme, I had 170,000 hits on my website. Business has been booming ever since, and I have had to increase the throughput of timber fourfold. I have had numerous offers of trees to buy, of people wishing to grow timber for me, and of course sales have increased because people know about Paulownia now. There have been more visitors to see the operation on farm and I have many new friends.

I said I would talk about the growing of Paulownia in this issue, but events have overtaken me a little. So instead I am going to have a rant and a rave.

First the rant. Some time ago we all became aware that we could claim our fuel tax back, and there are companies out there to do it for us. I contracted one of those companies, they duly delivered and every three months I received some cash back. Great!

Then, out of the blue, I received an email saying they were increasing my fee structure because I don’t use enough fuel. They already took a percentage commission, but on top of this they felt it necessary to take what worked out to be about 20% of the refund I got after their commission. My fuel usage was about 200 litres a quarter. Not a lot, but then this is not a big farm.

They, of course, were depending on inertia. That is, I wouldn’t be bothered to do anything about this because I was too busy, or not confident enough to do it myself. Their effort to earn the commission was little once I was in their database, and if you think about big fuel users their share of the commission must be pretty good for the same amount of work. Anyway I saw red, and googled up NZTA, eyeballed the forms, and decided that I would do it myself. My first payment is on the way, NZTA were very helpful, and I make more money. Of course this made me think about insurance, so after investigation I changed companies. Then I did the same with the power company and presto! Saved enough for a holiday!!!

So, bugger inertia, have a close look at things you have let slide, you never know where it may get you.

Now the rave. We took a four wheel drive holiday with NZ Adventures in the South Island, seven days through the central high country. Fabulous views, learnt some new skills with a four wheel drive vehicle, and met some great people. We were well looked after, getting very well fed and very good accommodation. The mountains and their management were a revelation and it was interesting to meet the farmers who were running these big stations. Safety was paramount, and although some of the farm tracks were rugged there were no mishaps, which was a credit to how the trek was managed. Erosion, hieracium, matagouri and rabbits were in evidence everywhere. Some erosion was natural, but quite a bit was man-induced, and it was noticeable that retired areas were making a good comeback from the ravages of stock and man. Apparently, a lot of this country was covered in beech forest originally, but it was rare to see any on the trip, and the only growth that beat the conditions was wilding pines. Makes one wonder if the current thrust to plant trees should be directed at this fragile land.

The tour ended in Wanaka, just in time for Warbirds over Wanaka. We saw two days of old planes re-enacting their glory days. It was truly amazing to see these planes still flying, and we enjoyed it immensely. We also took the opportunity to look up old friends in both islands as we passed through.

After a couple of weeks away I was pleased to be home, if only to catch up with all the deferred work!

GS 4X4 Tour2

Photo credit: thanks to Tess Smith, Te Awamutu Camera Club.

Passion for Paulownia – Graham Smith

Hi all. As I write, the thunder is echoing around the hills and light rain is falling. Grass is no longer in shortage, and the cows appreciate it. Production is up 13% for the season, with the girls still holding at 1.32 kg MS/day, on OAD. I went OAD on 27th December and then started to annoy the fish in Aotea Harbour! It has been great. Ended up with 17% empties, which wasn’t good news, so I will be selling some good young cows. Just baled another cut of lucerne which is absolutely loving this weather. Growth rates have varied wildly recently and it has been a case of keeping a close eye on covers.

As promised in my last blog I will talk a bit about my operation with Paulownias. I run two nurseries on farm to supply around 100 rooted saplings per season. They start out as root cuttings in September, and by May should be up to 6 metres tall. In their first year they achieve this phenomenal growth by having leaves twice the size of what an adult tree will have. I wait until they are dormant in June and then dig them up for planting out. I have to dig a large hole to replant them and that requires some planning as to spacings and location. Once planting is finished they require fencing as the stock will ring bark them if they are not protected. I use two wire electric with the top wire outriggered.

GW Paulownia first year Feb18GW Paulownia milling Feb18

After two years they are ready for a light prune and thereafter will be pruned annually for the rest of their life. Pruning is essential because my customers want “clears”, that is, no knots or blemishes in the timber. They have a tendency to always try to grow branches where you don’t want them. They are milled on size between 15 to 20 years, and up until recently I got a portable saw miller in to do the work. Lately I have been trucking them to a mill, and time will tell which is the best system. I sell the timber through my website (paulownianz.co.nz).


The trees have to work in with the cows, so they are planted around the edges of the dairy paddocks. They are pruned to 8 metres which gives a moving shade and healthy grass throughout the season. One of the main queries has been “Do they cause eczema?”, but I have no problems because I think the high pruning allows air flow which does not provide ideal conditions for the spores. Also, the high pruning gives a moving shade allowing all the grass to get enough sun which prevents it from going sour. On these hot days the cows love the shade and there is plenty for everyone. At this time of year, I like to prune when the cows are in the paddock so that they can benefit from eating the leaves and twigs. The crashing of breaking branches is the signal for a stampede towards the noise which signals lolly time!

Paulownia feed

I am experimenting with planting densities and have planted up to 100 trees per hectare without any production detriment. If you look at each tree producing about $1000 worth of timber every 20 years, that is a tidy income when you think this is on top of dairy income. By my calculations I will earn about $5000 per hectare per year from timber and another $6500 per year in dairy income (at a $6.00 pay-out).

Paulownia Timber in racks

I also like the fact that I don’t have to get up to the trees at 4:31 am! If I wish to have a break the trees just look after themselves.

Some dates coming up that may interest you:

  • 17th February. Farm forestry field day at Dave Forsythe’s (23 Hinewai Rd, Te Kawa). 10 am. Bring your own lunch. Lots of different trees to look at on a large (650 cows) dairy farm.
  • 18th February. Country Calendar featuring Tess and myself, 7 pm. Where you can have a look at what we do https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/country-calendar/2018-stories/episode-1
  • 22nd February. Field day on my farm at 1291 Wharepuhunga Rd, 1 pm. For rural professionals, but all welcome.

As usual I am happy to answer any questions.

Photo credit: thanks to Tess Smith, Te Awamutu Camera Club.