Breeder Profile:
Dave & Nicole Stuart

Words by
Natalie Campbell


Dave and Nicole, Brooke, Jake and Ted Stuart

For Dave and Nicole Stuart since buying their first farm in the picturesque Pohangina Valley in the Manawatu, it’s been a time of growth and business development.

The couple purchased the farm in 2012 and have undertaken a substantial development programme as well as establishing the Komako Angus Stud including hosting their first on-farm sale.

The couple and their young family, Jake 9, Ted, 5 and Brooke 4 are running their commercially focused breeding and finishing unit on steep hill country.

The couple have always had an interest in the performance and production of Angus genetics and were farming a commercial herd of Angus cows previously. Because they were performance recording their commercial herd, they made the decision to establish a registered Angus stud in 2014.

They currently farm 180 Angus cows (including first calvers).

The property is 480ha (400ha effective) and is run alongside a neighboring lease block of 325ha (180ha effective). There is a second lease block of 70ha down the valley used mainly for finishing lambs.

The hill country property is tucked in the foothills of the Ruahine Ranges and has rivers running down two boundary lines and is dotted with native bush and there’s also 12ha of forestry.

Dave describes 90% of the farm as “true hill country”. Rainfall averages 1200mm with the property traditionally winter wet, summer safe.

Females are pivotal in the stud and Dave and Nicole agree they had a very sound base to start their registered herd from.

In 2014 they purchased eight females from KayJay Angus in the Wairarapa and in the following four years purchased cows from various dispersal sales and other studs including Waitawheta, Mangatarata, Alpine and most recently Rangatira Angus to build up registered female numbers.

“We’ve always had a passion for Angus and we really liked the base of the females we had. We were using AI to breed our own replacements and starting the stud was a good way to make the cows more profitable on the hill country.”

“We were recording all the information needed for Breedplan in the commercial herd so we decided to register and breed bulls.”

The difference between the Stuarts and many other breeders is that they only offer bulls for sale as yearlings.

“Selling bulls as yearlings suits the farm policy and fits the land type we’re on. We don’t have a lot of finishing area to carry bulls through for the second year.”

“We sell the bulls in October and that allows the finishing country to be used for lambs.”

The majority of the couple’s clients are hill country beef farmers largely from the Taihape and King Country area.

“We are commercial farmers at heart, we’re just breeding bulls for farmers just like us,” says Dave.

“Everything has to perform well in our conditions.”

The Stuarts calve 180 cows in total, including first calvers. Dave says all females are mated as yearlings and anything that doesn’t conceive is culled. They run 50 registered females and 40 PRAC recorded females.

“They also have to record good calving ease, low to moderate birth weight and have no calving difficulty,” says Dave.

In a typical year AI is carried out in early December with the majority of the herd being artificially inseminated with the couple targeting heifer weights of 350kg prior to insemination. The mixed age stud and PRAC cows are inseminated mid-December. A bull tails up the AI programme for two cycles.

After mating the cows are put to work grooming the hill country until weaning time, and while the weaning date is influenced by the season, it generally occurs in mid-March.

Dave says their goal is for an even spread of weaning weights, without extremes at both ends of the scale.

“We don’t have a target weight because it’s seasonal. But we like the calves to be gaining between 1-1.3kgLW/day.”

“Our focus is more on the maternal side of the herd and getting a live calf on the ground and good temperament – there’s no compromises on the temperament.”

The Stuarts say temperament helps with ease of management when handling stock. Tagging and weighing calves at birth provides a good opportunity to score the dams temperament. Sound temperament is a valuable safety aspect and clients regularly provide feedback of how quiet their cattle are.

Their ideal cow is moderately framed and efficient. Dave says the cows have to earn their keep and any female that shows signs of calving difficultly or fertility is culled.

“We don’t like them too big on the hoof for our country and there’s definitely no free lunches. We are a typical hill country farm. The cows need to be efficient be of a moderate type, get back into calf and have good rib and rump fats,”

Following weaning the cows run behind the ewe rotation tidying up pastures through to late August. Calving starts in mid-September with the cows calving behind a wire and being break-fed for ease of tagging and weighing. Once calved the cows and their progeny are put back out on the hills.

Short gestation length is a trait the Stuarts are targeting and Dave says their aim is for at least 75% of the calves to be born, prior to their due date.

“It keeps us on our toes with a short calving window, but we get a nice even line of calves,” he says.

“The quicker a calf is out on the ground, the faster it grows and once the cow has calved she’s more likely to cycle ready for the bull again.”

With little finishing country, what the Stuarts do have, has to be used in the most efficient way.

A cell grazing system is implemented for growing out the bulls.

Dave says if bull calves wean at an average of 250kgLW their aim is to grow them out to between 430-450kgLW for their on-farm sale in October.

The couple had used cell grazing at previous farm operations they worked on so knew it was an effective system for growing out their young stock with limited finishing country at their disposal.

Dave says the key is having a bank of feed ahead of the cattle in the system.

“We aim for 2800kgDM in June and they graze in mobs of 20-30 head.”

Despite limited flat country the Stuarts do manage to cut about 80 round bales of baleage which is fed out at calving time.

Females are pivotal to the Stuarts herd.

“They are what we retain and our breeding stock for at least 10 years, so to us it’s really important to be able to breed the cows that we want and that suit our conditions.”

With female genetics playing an important role selecting the correct sires to produce them is critical.

The couple choose proven sires for their AI programme with high accuracies in their EBV data.

In the Stuart’s performance recording they pay particular attention to calving ease, positive fats and maternal traits such as scrotal size and mature cow weight. These are important traits they take into consideration and review when looking at the influence a sire has had.

“We’re looking for the sires that have worked for us when we look at that data from the off spring,” says Dave.

All sires used in the Komako herd are expected to have high accuracies against their EBVs.

“Last year we brought a sire from Kaharau Angus and he goes back to Matauri Mac and Kowai Trust 484 has also been used.”

“Kowai is an older bull, but he covers the ground well.”

Previous AI sires of influence include Turihau Liberation C27 and Turihau Crumble Y126.

“They both produced really good females for us as did Matauri Resolution. We have progeny on the ground from Taimate Lazarus this year and are impressed with those calves too,” says Dave.

He is a firm believer in using EBVs as a tool alongside seeing the animal in the flesh.

“For us an animal has to be correct, sound and phenotypically what we want first, then the EBVs back it up.”

“We definitely look at EBVs a lot, especially with AI sires, but accuracy is really important as is the heritability of those traits.”

“Having high accuracies gives us confidence that the data set isn’t going to change much for the EBV traits and will give us a higher chance of these heritable traits being passed on.”

Dave says there’s a lot to read into EBVs and acknowledges for the commercial farmer it can be challenging if they only refer to them at bull buying time.

“It’s important not to get too carried away with them but they do need to be considered,” he says.

“They really are a tool to have in place but not look past the animal itself.”

Dave also suggested an important aspect of bull buying is getting to know your bull breeder.

“Get to know their system and environment and if their cattle suit your operation.”

Last October saw the Stuarts host their first on-farm sale.

The couple had been selling bulls by private treaty for about six years and felt demand was growing and they decided the auction was a fairer system for clients.

Dave recalls they didn’t have any expectations about hosting their first sale, but they were blown away by the support and feedback.

“The sale results were really encouraging but it was a daunting step to take.”

Social media plays a role in the marketing of Komako Angus genetics.

The Stuarts have a Facebook page which they update regularly and is used in conjunction with advertising in newspapers and online.

However, Dave feels word of mouth is just as important for spreading the word as advertising and he acknowledged that being a new stud also naturally created a degree of interest.

Relationships with clients are vital to the Stuarts and Dave says he and Nicole touch base a couple of times a year.

“Feedback is really important and it doesn’t get overlooked by us, we use any feedback to help improve what we’re doing for our clients.”

A changing climate is one of the bigger challenges facing the Stuart’s business.

“No two years are the same and it’s a challenge to adjust and respond (as a breeding unit) and try and fit in and be more environmentally friendly,” says Dave.

He said there’s a lot of pressure on farmers and a lot of focus on rural practices currently.

“We’re trying to adjust our system to be more environmentally friendly and as farmers we need to use the pressure to our advantage. We should be talking to our regional councils about the fencing and planting opportunities to find out what support and advice is available and tap into it – because it’s there.”

The Stuarts adopted a Horizons Regional Council Whole Farm Plan a number of years ago and have fenced off a lot of main creeks and different land classes as well as planted poplar poles to prevent erosion.

“We’ve done 6km of Horizon fencing and planted between 400-500 Poplar poles.”

Dave is optimistic about erosion acknowledging it as a characteristic of the country they farm but is using the Poplar pols to help reduce the impact.

“The climate is the biggest challenge, especially as a breeding unit,” he says.

Flexibility in a breeding unit to respond to climatical events can be an issue.

“We can’t just drop stock in and out, so this is something we’re looking at,” he said.

He recalls their first season on Komako as very dry and to manage he and Nicole sent their cows away grazing for 4-5 months.

“Since then, we get as many lambs off mum early and use summer crops strategically in case it does get dry. The cattle themselves, tend to tough it out,” says Dave.

Running alongside the Angus herd are 3400 Romney ewes and 1000 replacement ewe hoggets.

Dave says they don’t mate the hoggets preferring to allow more room for the main ewe flock to lamb.

He says the hoggets are grazed out from September to December in Halcombe at Nicole’s brother’s property giving the hoggets time to grow out further.

“It works well for us.”

The Stuarts dock between 145-150% to the ram and they buy Ngaputahi Romney rams from Forbes and Gus Cameron, who farm in their area.

“They work well in our system,” says Dave.

The 70ha lease block is used for lamb finishing and if needed some lambs are sold as forward stores.

Dave says they’re not rigid in having to finish all their lambs because it allows for flexibility in the breeding unit.

When it comes to wool the Stuarts are believers in the natural fibre and are committed to their Romney flock.

“We just have to grit it out. It’s such a great natural product and sustainable too.”

Dave notes, that globally the trend is to move away from plastic.

“You can’t get much more natural than wool.”

He believes the market will correct and improve – if the story of wool is pushed and marketed.

“We won’t be getting shedding sheep any time soon,” he laughed.

But he did acknowledge it can be difficult when the sheep are shorn and there’s a bill rather than income for the job at the end of the day.

Life since buying the Komako property has been busy for Dave and Nicole.

When they first took over, the property only had 15 main paddocks and since then they’ve done about 13km of internal subdivision and put in a reticulated water system as well.

“We made that decision after a number of dry summers and the cows were fouling up the dams – it was a no brainer to have a gravity fed system.”

There’s also been extensive pasture renewal undertaken on all the flat and tractor accessible land they can.

In the cell system summer grazing is a Chicory and clover mix which is followed by Shogun in a two-year cycle.

Hill cropping has also been undertaken in the past to develop 35ha of hill country. A helicopter is used to spray out old pasture and sow new permanent pastures.

Looking ahead the Stuarts will be undertaking more waterway fencing in conjunction with Horizons Regional Council and they also want to concentrate on good production while keeping their business cost structure down.

“We’ve invested a lot in the property and now we want to maintain what we’ve got.”

Dave and Nicole also agree that they just want to keep improving their business and genetics.

“It’s exciting times but we feel we still have a way to go to where we want to be – we want to keep improving. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where we think we’ve finished – our goals are always shifting to meet the needs of the market and environment – there’s a lot to try and improve on,” says Dave.

“We really just want to breed good even lines of cattle year in, year out, that work and perform for ourselves and our clients.”

To find out more you can follow Komako Angus on Facebook