Words & images by Annie Studholme
Celebrating more than 50 years in the bull breeding business, Mt Somers’ Okawa Poll Hereford Stud remains wholly committed to producing bulls that perform under commercial conditions producing well-grown, easy-care, profitable offspring.
Nick and Penny France will put up 55 quality Hereford bulls at this year’s June Okawa Stud sale. It marks the historic 50th sale for the stud, tracing back three generations. While much has changed since those early beginnings when Penny’s grandfather, Bill Morrow, founded the stud in 1954, the family’s penchant for the breed has never diminished.
Nick and Penny are the latest generation to run the iconic property. Having met at school and got together at University, the duo initially had careers in other fields outside agriculture. Penny trained as a nurse, while Nick did accountancy, before both doing post-graduate qualifications in agribusiness at Lincoln University. They then headed off travelling overseas. With a combined love of the outdoors and dreams of going farming, they later returned to New Zealand working on farms in Southland and Canterbury. “Having done the business stuff first, we had to work our way from the bottom up, getting that practical experience,” explains Nick.
In 2011, the opportunity came up for the Frances’ to return to Okawa, Penny’s home farm, and two years later they purchased the farming company outright from Penny’s parents, David and Rosemary Morrow. They have since moved into the homestead with their four children Blaise (10), Sylvie (9) and twins Jack and Violet (7).
Consisting of 800 hectares, rising from 500m above sea level, Okawa lies in the mid-Canterbury foothills, south of Mt Somers. It has an annual average rainfall of 1,000mls, and receives several seasonal snowfalls each season.
Looking back, the first five years have been a steep learning curve for the pair, but they are super optimistic about the future. At the start they had little work-life balance, but over time they’ve managed to sort that out too. “We have had all the variables thrown at us in the first five years and now we have the contingencies in place, and we know what to do, and when. You are always going to get those seasonal challenges, but nothing is insurmountable. We are always looking for new ways to fine-tune our operation,” says Penny.
Over the decades, Okawa has built an enviable reputation as one of the country’s leading Hereford studs, running a herd of 300 poll Hereford cows. Although the Hereford stud is an integral part of their farming business, Nick says the real strength of the stud lies in two-thirds of their income coming from sheep, not the stud cattle, which creates commercial pressure and a commercial reality just like their clients.
In addition to stud cows, Okawa runs a composite Romney flock of 4,500 ewes and 1,200 hoggets. They lamb in late-September, with the ewe flock averaging 159% this year from mating through to tailing. The composite hoggets are also mated, lambing at around 100%. Lambs are finished on the place, with 30-40 per cent going straight from mum to the works.
“The stud cattle have to work in with lamb finishing, hogget mating, and all the commercial realities you have of a high production farm. We run a high stocking rate of 12 stock units per hectare, using a low-cost grass-based system, maximising production from our old pastures and the stud cattle are a key tool in that. The cows are the bottom rung on the stock class ladder,” explains Nick.
“We are trying to breed a commercial bull for the high country as that’s where most of our clients are from, so it’s about creating that commercial pressure. If the cows don’t have the constitution to handle the pressure, then they’re gone. Mob pressure is always the best way to test constitution out.”
Over Spring and Summer, the cattle follow the ewes and lambs around the farm, tidying up pasture to ensure there is quality regrowth for ewes and lambs, or in January, for weaned lambs. During cooler months, the cattle are wintered in big mobs on steeper country to clean up the hill, sustaining the commercial pressures, while still being expected to wean a 250kg calf in early March.
Adhering to the same core values established back in the 1970s when his father-in-law took over the stud, Nick says the aim of their breeding programme at Okawa is to breed well-fleshed, active commercial bulls with a strong constitution with improving carcass performance.
The old days of having grass that is a foot tall and animals carry three inches of fat are long gone. As a 19-year-old, David Morrow worked in the stud industry in Australia showing cattle. On his return, he vowed never to show cattle again. “It was then that he decided to commercialise it; that was a huge turning point for the stud,” explains Nick.
From that point on Okawa’s focus has been on producing a productive cow herd with sound commercial attributes - calving ease, moderate birth weights, high growth rates, good temperaments, structural soundness, constitution and milking abilities - which naturally converts to breeding a strong line of bulls that people want.
Nick firmly believes the main reason people continue to come back to Okawa year after year is for the stud’s maternal strength. “We strongly believe that cow performance is very important and continually cull on Breedplan figures, constitution, easy care characteristics and eye appeal. I am trying to grow out animals that will last 12 years, so we give young cows every chance, but we don’t mess around when it comes to culling.”
All heifers are mated for two cycles to calve as two-year-olds, while the cows are mated for three cycles. Any found to be empty at pregnancy testing in March are culled. By them mating all their heifers, he says they’re able to test the animal’s fertility, fecundity and maturity. It is also a great way to accelerate the rate of genetic gain.
“Mating is a culling tool for inclusion in the cow herd. We have plenty of time to grow them out so we are doing it as cheaply as possible and we still calve at 96% and wean mid-March at weights of 200-240kg. The key performance indicator is at next year’s weaning as a second-calver. Did she get in calf, raise a good calf, and is she a condition score 6 or 7?”
Those cows that are still producing a good calf at 10 years plus in the high country can make our clients a lot of money, and it’s no different here, adds Penny.
They sell about 100 yearling and two-year-old bulls into the dairy industry each spring. Bull calves are wintered in one mob of up to 140 head until 400-day weights are taken in October, when they are cut back to about 70 until 600-day weights taken at the end of February and run in the same mob until sale day.
Since taking over, the France’s have built the stud back up to 300 cows. While they have continued to maintain that maternal strength which the stud’s renowned for, they have focused on adding more grunt into carcass strength.
“It is a fine balancing act. We are after Landrover performance, not a Ferrari with all the bells and whistles. We have to produce something that is going to last and perform to our clients’ conditions.”
The Frances’ are eagerly awaiting the first progeny to go through the ring by Grassmere Gallant 9 at this year’s sale. Purchased for $42,000.00 as a rising two-year-old bull from Chris and Amanda Jeffries at Grassmere Herefords in Cheviot in 2016, he proved to be the most expensive beef stud bull bought that year.
To date, Nick and Penny have been thrilled with the results, with potentially 30 sons to go under the hammer. Not only does Grassmere Gallant 9 have all the muscling and carcass attributes of a stud sire, but he has really good structure, a bit more frame and overall size than other Gallant bulls.
“It’s easy to make a little bull look meaty, but he’s got scope and athleticism and still expresses a hell of a lot of muscle. He matches up well with our more moderate maternal lines adding more grunt! His sons are shaping up similarly, so they should make excellent sires to put across the typical moderate-framed cows of most commercial beef herds,” says Nick.
Besides New Zealand-bred bulls such as Grassmere Gallant 9, Beechwood Fast Round 580, Limehills Starter 6062, Okawa Major 2008 and Okawa Shultz 5016, the Frances’ are also involved in a group jointly trialing overseas genetics. “Overseas there are better carcass attributes, but the New Zealand herd is very commercial and our environment and grass systems are unique.”
Penny says their aim is to New Zealandise these genetics so particularly the females stack up when the commercial mob pressure comes on up a river valley against the Southern Alps. Because of their herd size, they can experiment and if the bull turns out to be no good, then they needn’t retain any of the progeny.
Nick says locally there seems to be a big push back to the Herefords, as black cow herds look to regain the 10-15 per cent gain from hybrid vigour first cross cows can deliver. “There is a lot of commercial power in a first cross whiteface cow and their performance is hard to beat. We are getting a lot of inquiry as people move back to this while we find our large high-country clients continue to demand the hardiness, moderate cows with maternal strength and great temperament that the Hereford delivers.”
Maintaining strong relationships with their clients remains really important, with some having bought from all 49 sales to date. Nick spends time each autumn catching up with clients, seeing what they want, while at the same time monitoring the industry. “Seeing our bulls performing well for other people is hugely satisfying. We have regular clients whom we hope get value for money. We often get comments regarding the soundness and longevity of our bulls. They go home knowing the animal will last the distance.”
Their staff are an equally critical part of their whole farming operation, says Penny. “We love them. We put a lot of time into developing their knowledge, skills, confidence and management ability so they can go on to be capable farm managers and farm owners. It’s about being a good person; they are not just a labour unit, they are the future of our industry. Why wouldn’t you want to support them?”
They use a team approach, giving their staff of two full-timers plus students at key times, full disclosure of their financial accounts, management information and stud data. Staff are also involved in most of the decision making.
“We are treating them how we would want to be treated,” adds Nick. It not only helps to foster absolute loyalty and trust from their staff, but they get that buy in. “They know why we are doing things and they can see the commercial benefits. Sometimes we get challenged on things and we have to justify why we do what we do, and that’s good for us too.”
Over the past two decades Penny’s parents have worked tirelessly planting and fencing off a number of springs to keep cattle out, creating wetlands on their property to protect important water sources and permanent waterways. It started with planting natives, flax or cabbage trees along laneways and in corners and grew from there. They’ve got great satisfaction out of it, and it’s work Penny and Nick want to see continue.
“That environmental work is really important to us and we are happy to put our own money into doing it, but we can only go as fast as we can maintain them,” says Penny. “You can’t just plant them and walk away. It can take years to get them established. You have to take care of the weeds before you can move onto the next one.” They’ve recently gazetted off another wetland area and planted more than 6,000 plants, and they hope it will be the first of many to come.
When they are not busy farming, Penny is heavily involved in the local Mt Somers Springburn Home and School committee, Methven Pony Club and local hockey club, while Nick loves his dog trials, regularly heading to Hawaii to teach the local paniolos (cowboys) training heading dogs.