Creating a salad of pasture diversity offers peace of mind for Whangarei Heads farmers Tracy and David (Fred) Ody.
Their difficult coastal 500ha sheep and beef property throws a range of challenges which, at times, have been a bit of a nightmare, according to Tracy Ody.
The farming venture lambs 1200 ewes a year as well as operating two cattle studs, specialising in Shorthorns and Santa Gertrudis beef breeds.
"The farm was 90 per cent kikuyu, which was good in the summer as that was the only thing that would survive, but not particularly nutritious when we were trying to fatten lambs.
"We were already starting to try a bit of diversification like a lot of farmers but then in April 2018 we went to a pasture regeneration seminar at the urging of our fertiliser advisor Bryce Manderson of Avoca. We were in the middle of dealing with a horrendous drought and really didn't think we had time, but he was insistent. We arrived late but what we heard of the talk was quite amazing,'' she said.
Ody said they learned their early attempts at pasture diversification were not going far enough.
"We were mixing four or five species. They were recommending mixing more than 20.
"The range of plants would work together in the soil to improve its quality and reduce the need for fertiliser. We decided it was something we needed to try.''
Ody said three dry years in a row had ruined their usual pattern of being able to feed their animals.
"The first year we had the silage to cover it but the next year it really started to bite.
"We were spending $100,000 a year on fertiliser with no grass to show for it. Something had to change.''
Ody said the farm is a mix of volcanic and clay hills and "very low flats, some of which are at sea level".
"We had some geology work done and they found 27 different soils over the farm.
"Our property backs on to Mount Manaia so we have volcanic soils at the top and sandstone on the flats.
"If you want to dig a strainer post on the flats, you would need to take explosives with you,'' she said.
Big easterly storm surges would also inundate some of the flats, making saltwater floods another problem.
"There are crazy challenges here.''
Ody said they had become sick of paying for supplementary feed when they had exhausted their own saved feed supplies.
"We were blowing through $400 a day feeding 180 cows. It was like burning money.''
Changing the way they grow feed for their animals was risky.
"We couldn't afford to fail,'' she said.
From initial trials, the couple have plans to expand the diverse pasture crops after finding that the soils, pasture and animals have been thriving.
"Instead of a monoculture we are creating a salad in our paddocks.''
Ody said the best thing about pasture diversity was the ability of the plants to settle into the various soils on the property.
"If something won't grow in one part, there is something else that will.''
Summer crop species included maize, sunflowers, millet, teff grass and peas.
"A lot of the maize got eaten by ducks and pukekos. The millet went crazy in the wet channels and the sunflowers grew in dry spots where nothing else would grow.''
Ody now made her own mixes, choosing a wide variety of seeds to cover winter and summer.
More than 20 species have been planted, including grasses, cereals, legumes, brassicas and chenopods, such as spinach and chards.
Mixes needed to include annuals and perennials so pastures would persist throughout the year. The annuals provide plenty of feed in the first year while the perennials need more time to become established.
"I have found animals that I had been worried about and had consulted the vet about thrived when I put them on the diversified pasture.''
Soil tests had shown dramatic improvements, which had allowed them to cut their fertiliser budget from $100,000 a year to $40,000.
"Now we are just putting on lime and monitoring unimproved pastures for nutrient levels.''
Ody said the changes have meant a big learning curve and they continued to learn more all the time.
"It's a very different style of management, you have to be really observant.
"We are very happy with the results so far. It's about being more resilient in extreme weather and climate conditions.''