Greater Wellington Winners

Ponatahi Valley sheep and beef farmers Dan and Reidun Nicholson

Greater Wellington BFEA Supreme Winners

Dan and Reidun Nicholson


Ponatahi Valley sheep and beef farmers Dan and Reidun Nicholson are the Supreme Winners of the 2016 Greater Wellington Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA).

The judges wrote: “Tokaroa Farm is a well-managed and maintained property that is an excellent example of dryland farming in the Wairarapa. Dan and Reidun are part of an exceptional family business that has an impressive governance structure which will ensure this progressive and intergenerational business will remain robust and successful well into the future.”

There are two farms in the business, however, just Tokaroa was the subject of judging for these awards. Dan grew up on this hill country property which has about 33 percent rolling contour. About 6200su are wintered on the (effective) 585ha block, and there is a 75:25 ratio in favour of sheep.

The judges were impressed with the Nicholson’s “understanding and commitment to managing soils” and the “potentially gamechanging search for new pasture options and grazing management”.

Dan is a member of the Massey University learning group which encourages connections between farmers and scientists. The farm is the scene of numerous forage trials involving Lincoln University, the Future Forage Systems and Malcolm Macfarlane from On-Farm Research. Dan is particularly interested in clovers. “Some of the results are quite exciting,” he says, “and I’m really enjoying the interaction, having a scientist on the farm analysing everything we do.”

Dan’s parents Patricia and the late Matthew purchased Tokaroa in 1977. Upon his return from overseas travel in the late 1990s, Dan took over managing the farm. He and Reidun, a vet, then leased it and now live there with children Flynn (11), Patrick (10) and Gabriella (7).

In 2011, after Dan’s brother Matt returned from also travelling, the brothers and a nonfarming relative equity partner purchased the 800ha Bush Gully Station, 30 kilometres away east of Martinborough. The judges were impressed by the collaborative farming model with an interchange of stock periodically. Each brother is in charge of each farm, but they are also part of the governance structure of the company that owns both.

The judges wrote: “The system between Tokaroa and Bush Gully is designed to ultilise the benefits of scale while protecting each property’s physical assets.” Dan describes the structure as “corporate with a family feel”. There is one full-time staff member and the farm is also used as a practical placement for second year vet students and 14-15 year olds who are part of Taratahi’s Primary Industry Trades Academy (PITA) programme.

Tokaroa is summer dry, early country; their stocking policy reflects this. “Our main goal is to catch the early market and minimise the risk,” explains Dan. Through winter 2500 older ewes, 1500 hoggets and trade lambs and mainly trading heifer cattle are kept on Tokaroa.

Using approximately 110ha of fattening crops including plantain, clovers and pasja, they have 70 percent of the Tokaroa terminal lambs to the works straight off their mothers in mid-November. They also send the older ewes off around the same time.

Around Christmas there is an interchange of stock classes, but this is flexible according to the season and feed situation. The judges noted, “stock monitoring and financial enterprise analysis is undertaken to ensure that trading between farms is fair and equal”. Reidun takes care of financial records for the whole business.

Dan and Reidun are continuing the erosion control work begun by Dan’s father. They estimate there are currently between 4000 and 5000 poplars established on the farm. The judges commented: “Greater Wellington Regional Council’s farm plan is well understood and valuable. Conservation plantings are excellent and as well as serving the farm aesthetically they provide shade and fodder in dry summers.”

A 14ha area of gullies and steeper country containing manuka and kanuka has been fenced off and under-planted with natives. The couple are committed to further planting and stream fencing and are driven by a catchment management approach.

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