A look at changing land use has been more like a trip down Nostalgia Lane for one Whanganui observer.
Independent Whanganui farmer, livestock agent, commentator, rural real estate agent and Horizons regional councillor David Cotton reckons we are going through another major change in land use and, more significantly, a move away from traditional practices despite the booming livestock markets.
"The lamb market hit an all-time high with store lambs selling at an average $5/kg at last week's Stortford Lodge sale, after the announcement of a $10/kg winter contract schedule. The question on everyone's lips is how high can it go?" Cotton asked.
"As good as the livestock markets are, we are seeing another major change away from farming livestock in our region.
"I started working in the livestock industry here in Whanganui in 1978 with Dalgety and well-known livestock agent Harvey Falloon.
"The Fordell sale yards had weekly sales about 48 weeks of the year when the main ewe and lamb fairs could top 25,000 to 30,000 sheep with not a spare pen in sight.
"Worsley Transport from Taranaki would have its truck and trailers lined up by 10am even before the sale started, ready to transport all the store lambs back to new homes mostly in the Maxwell-Waverley-Patea area.
"Eric Weir was the Patea Meat Company buyer at the time, and he told me they would buy in 35,000 store lambs at the beginning of the season to replace the lambs that had been killed off their mothers.
"Driving up the main road from Maxwell to Hawera today you struggle to see a sheep. The January cattle fair, held over two days, was one of the largest in the country at the time, pulling in both local and NZ-wide buyers because of the quality and numbers available. No live-weight scales, it was all done on the stockman's eye."
Cotton said from the mid-1980s, we started to see a change from livestock finishing (lambs and cattle) to dairy support, dairy conversions and cropping. The start of the decline in livestock farming had begun – the rest is history.
"I believe history is going to change again as I now see another change in land use as I drive south of Whanganui towards Fordell or out to Okoia. Houses now dot the skyline with a pet horse, goat, or ride-on lawnmower taking the place of commercial farming.
"I drive down Rapanui Rd, or just south of Waitotara, and see kiwifruit. In Mangamahu orchards are popping up – back to the future, as kiwifruit was first grown in Whanganui in 1906, with the seeds brought into NZ by Mary Isabel, the principal of Whanganui Girls College. In 1980, orchards again started popping up in the region.
"We have the climate, soils, rainfall, and contour for horticulture to be a major industry both here and in South Taranaki.
"The major change we have seen in recent times – and this did also happen in the 1980s - is the hill country being sold to forestry again, as well as carbon, or bee farming.
"It is not unexpected that this would be having an impact on the number of store livestock being available to finishers. But currently, we are also seeing a drop-off in the number of finishing farmers requiring livestock. I watch with interest where the equilibrium lies."
So, the obvious question is: where will the store livestock come from?
"I do not have the answer for store lambs. The store cattle is an interesting one, though. Again a lot fewer beef cows on the hills.
"Many commentators say the dairy industry is the answer, but I was chatting to farming friends Grant and Sara Deroles last month, asking about their calf rearing business, which was once one of the largest in the region.
"Grant and Sara started rearing calves on their Brunswick property back in 2001, starting with 300 calves. By 2010, this had increased to 750, and again increased to a peak of 1100 calves in 2015.
"They tell me that the calf market back then had been supported by the likes of Silver Fern Farms and Riverland through rearing contracts back to back with their finishing clients, which gave them the confidence to rear such large numbers of calves.
"However, with meat companies exiting these programs, along with Mycoplasma bovis, it put all the financial risk back on them.
Adding to the risk of rearing calves has been Covid-19, along with the substantial increase in costs. Even I was surprised at their list of costs to rear calves. The obvious costs, along with those not so obvious, include milk powder, meal, sawdust, transport, electric power, animal health, and capital required in rearing sheds and vehicles over recent years, and all this is not taking into account labour costs and pasture required.
"The risks are just too high to rear such large numbers. Even the meat companies will not take any of the risk these days to help underpin the rearing of large numbers of calves.
"The great thing about the farming business is the changes that take place, and the ability of farmers to seize these opportunities, look to diversifying, and make hay while the sun shines," Cotton said.