Drive past Brent and Bernadette Hodgkinson’s farm in the Tadmor Valley and you would barely give it a second glance.
There is no flash house and garden and the property is far from immaculate.
But behind the modest appearance is a very smart, profitable business.
Not only were the Hodgkinsons finalists in the recent national sheep supplier of the year awards, they grow the meatiest lambs supplied to our largest co-operative, Alliance, by any farmer in the country. And they have been producing high-quality, high-yielding lambs year after year from a property where soil fertility is naturally poor and the climate can range from bitterly cold in winter to drought in summer.
However, you won’t get Mr Hodgkinson – a down-to-earth 53-year-old with five older children – shouting about it.
Sure, he’s proud of his achievements and “it’s cool” to have been a finalist, but he’s more comfortable talking about how and why he has done it.
It started when he took over the farm – which has been in the Hodgkinson family since 1876 – from his father Basil who was keener on cattle, running up to 450 of them along with 1600-1800 ewes.
Mr Hodgkinson decided sheep were better suited to the property which still required developing, were cheaper to run and in most years earned more than beef.
But as a largely one-man operation, he wanted it to be easy care and to focus on profit rather than production.
It meant finding a type of sheep that fitted his farming philosophy and the conditions.
“I wanted a medium to small-frame sheep, well proportioned and muscled, with a good presence about it without being too nutty, that was good on its feet and could get round the hills and could stand up while they lambed.”
Mr Hodgkinson – who has always been interested in genetics – found what he was looking for in 1992 when he put a texel ram over some of his best perendale ewes.
“I was so impressed with their offspring I thought we have got to try these, and my father, who was a good stockman, could see the potential too.”
But he has stuck with halfbreds to retain the best qualities of each breed: the lean, big muscles of the texel and the hill hardiness of the perendale.
A move to progressively increase his flock to 3300 ewes and 850 hoggets, while reducing his beef cattle to 100, has paid off handsomely, especially with the introduction by processing companies of payments based on meat yields.
This is well above what most other farmers achieve, with a meat yield norm of 54 per cent and about three-quarters of lambs qualifying for a yield payment.
In short, the Hodgkinsons are excellent at producing what Alliance and its consumers want, which prompted the company to nominate them for the supplier of the year award.
It has also reaped them almost $6 more a lamb in premium payments or up to 30c a kg above last season’s schedule price of around $4.80.
Alliance technical officer Hayden Peter said what marked the Hodgkinsons out was their consistency over many years, which showed what could be done through a combination of the right genetics and canny management despite a challenging environment.
“It’s a credit to him and his farm management and to his ram breeder as well.”
It’s meant Mr Hodgkinson has been able to invest more back into developing the farm, where he has concentrated on keeping things simple and inputs to a minimum and letting his sheep better express their natural abilities by maintaining a modest stocking rate of nine to a hectare.
For example, he doesn’t grow summer or winter crops, relying on grass and clovers boosted by timely applications of phosphate and lime fertiliser to feed ewes and fatten lambs.
He doesn’t intervene at lambing time, spreading the ewes across the hills at a set stocking rate and letting them get on with it by themselves. Once lambing is over they are mobbed up and rotationally grazed around the farm which has been subdivided into 90 paddocks.
“Some might say I’m a careless bastard and I should be out there saving as many lambs as I can, but it’s a bit impractical to walk around 600 hectares.”
He points to lower-than-average lambing losses of 14-18 per cent as evidence that his hands-off approach works.
He has maintained profitability despite two tough seasons in a row, including last year’s drought, which reduced his lambing percentage from his usual 135 per cent to 125 per cent. “But that is sustainable because I haven’t got high inputs.”
Higher production doesn’t always equal profit, he says, recalling one season where he used a fertility drug and ended up with a much higher lambing drop but a lot more deaths and a heap of stress and an extra worker to cope with 350 sets of triplets.
“It taught me to pull back a bit and that this farm was not set up for it.”
However, that is not to say he doesn’t see plenty of room for improvement. There are still patches of gorse and weeds to clear which will allow him to slightly increase his flock, while he wants to focus more on animal health and condition.
It’s also why he has entered the Golden Lamb Awards, known as the Glammies, over the last two years, coming seventh in the open class this year.
Increasingly farmers will be paid more for lambs that are not only meaty, but taste good, are tender, don’t shrink when cooked and have a longer shelf life, he says.
“That’s what keeps me interested.
“For me it doesn’t finish when the lambs go on the truck out the gate, it’s about those warm fuzzy things that happen when it gets to the consumer and they come back and say that was some of the best lamb in the world.”
Entering awards also allows him to benchmark himself and rub shoulders and swap ideas with other passionate and progressive farmers, scientists and educators.
Farmers are not successful by themselves, he says, praising the work done by AgResearch, Beef + Lamb and meat companies.
There are a lot of resources that complacent farmers are not taking advantage of.
“Eighty per cent of farmers reckon they are in the top 20 per cent.”
Unlike others, Mr Hodgkinson – who this year held his hand up to be Federated Farmers meat and fibre spokesman in Nelson – is not disillusioned by the difficulties faced by the red meat industry which has seen a drift to dairying.
The industry was “bent, not broken” and could be fixed if farmers and companies showed more loyalty and trust towards each other. This included adopting season-long contracts, guaranteed killing space at the works and a more cooperative marketing approach.
The Meat Excellence Group, which is lobbying for major change, was on the right track but had to realise farmers controlled only 50 per cent of the industry and couldn’t tell private companies what to do.
While a shrinking sheep and beef sector was a worry, dairying was close to its maximum and those that hung in there would benefit from a smaller supply of lambs pushing up prices.
However, if agriculture was to prosper it needed a lot more graduates.
“It doesn’t have to be farming, it could be ag science, but we need people on the ground to make export dollars.”
He hopes several of his children will take over the farm from him, but for now he’s having too much fun.
“Most days I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning.”
AT A GLANCE
Island Valley Farm covers 630 hectares which rise from the Tadmor Valley floor to the skyline 600m above sea level. About a third is steep hill country with the rest terraces and rolling terrain.
About 550ha is farmed and another 60ha is in pines. It winters 3300 texel/perendale cross breeding ewes, 850 hoggets and 100 mainly angus beef cows.