A Far North beef farming family are hoping to turn their farm around, thanks to the work they are doing with Extension 350 (E350), a Northland-based farmer-to-farmer learning programme.

John and Sarah Hammond run a 903ha steer finishing and breeding operation on the isolated shores of the Herekino Harbour. They started working with E350 in 2017 and so far have increased stock numbers, developed an efficient beef system, created low-cost water and fencing solutions and made better use of their pasture.

They have also identified important focus areas to improve the environment and, with the help of the Northland Regional Council (NRC), are fencing these areas.

E350 is part of the Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan and is supported by Northland Inc, the Ministry for Primary Industries, NRC, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb NZ. It is based on farmer-to-farmer learning and aims to lift farm profitability, environmental sustainability and farmer wellbeing.

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The Hammonds, whose farm opened its gates on April 4 as the first in the 2019 series of E350 public field days, came to the programme as they found their labour intensive farm wasn't allowing for a work-life balance, or giving them time to focus on farm growth.

"We work as hard as we can, probably a little bit harder than we should, and the opportunity for family and leisure activities was being eroded," Sarah Hammond said.

The farm was environmentally fragile and the limited water sources hindered development. E350 helped them look at increasing their income to generate funds for a labour unit.

They constructed a new dam last year too, to take the pressure off the springs they use.

"We took a leap of faith and had a go — the dam filled quickly and we were able to use that water over the driest three months of the year just gone. There is still plenty of water in the dam now, despite the dry beginning to 2019," Sarah said.

They have also set up an intensive beef system to increase productivity on part of the farm, and over the winter ran 50 Hereford/Friesian cross steer calves.

"This was a new class of cattle for us, and they seemed to perform well in this system. We have then used it to push our yearling commercial bulls along over summer and they have been achieving good weights at slaughter," Sarah said. "It has also been interesting watching the pasture quality begin to improve."

Due to the farm ownership structure, the Hammonds were unable to extend their mortgage to fund any planned developments, but that has not deterred them.

"Everything we have achieved has been done on a shoestring budget, with careful financial management. This has been a challenge, but so far it has been possible and it's a nice feeling knowing that when we reach our targets, we will not have extra debt hanging over us at the end of it."

Their budgeting skills have improved and they have a better grasp of Cash Manager, and with better coding they can create future budgets and plan ahead to try and avoid surprises.

Sarah said the E350 focus on idea sharing was invaluable.

"Farming is a lonely profession," she said. "People can feel isolated, so it is reassuring to get together with like-minded people and find out they are in a similar situation, and then work together to move forward."

E350 agribusiness consultant Gareth Baynham facilitates the Far North cluster of five sheep and beef target farms and mentors.

He said the Hammonds had a beautiful farm, but it was large and took up plenty of their time.

Working with their mentors, Herekino neighbouring beef farmers Don and Linda Lunjevich, had helped them identify opportunities and take action, he said.

E350 was established in 2016 and is aiming to get a total of 350 farmers involved across Northland. The programme would see 50 target farmers work with 50 mentors. There would also be 250 associate farmers to learn from the target farmers' journeys.

E350 field days dates

May 7

: Lachie McLean's farm, 4212 State Highway 1, Waipu, 9.45am-2pm.

May 28

: Agnew farm, 377 Puhipuhi Rd, Whakapara, 10am-2pm.

Mid-June

: Will and Marianne Tyes' farm, 194 Kumi Rd, Awanui, 10am for a 10.30 start.

Refreshments provided by Farm Source at all venues.