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Making the most of potential
James Bruce, the horse whisperer.

Making the most of potential

When run-down Martinborough Station was up for sale, James and Janeen Bruce saw it as their golden opportunity. John Watson reports on the couple’s ride to farm ownership. Photos: Graeme Brown

James Bruce understates his own skill and drive when he claims he’s got to where he is with luck.

Described by those close to him as just a regular bloke, with the energy of about three, James, 38, is building up nicely from humble beginnings to farm ownership and a good reputation in farming circles.

His partnership with wife Janeen (or Neens as she’s known) gives them a solid base to push the boundaries with investment in their businesses.

They are also in partnership in a couple of preschools in Masterton, where Neens works three days a week.

When Martinborough Station came on the market in April 2007, most prospective buyers had only seen the run-down state it appeared to be in, while James saw potential.

He had been working for James and Jo Falloon at Ditton Farms for five years and had developed a keen eye for quality stock and how to feed them at crucial times to get the best out of them.

With Martinborough Station he had a blank canvass. The pasture was rank and leaning over, the fences inadequate and dams and tracks were in need of maintenance.

To stock it on a tight budget, the Bruces started with dairy grazers and bought in about 1500 wet-dry ewes.

Every dollar earned went into fertiliser and fencing, while James provided the labour in his spare time.

The grazers gave James travelled long distances and worked late into the evenings to manage the farm while still working on Ditton.

The wet-dries were put to a Southdown ram and lambed a fairly respectable 130%.

Dry ewes and poor doers were culled and more wet-dries purchased, gradually lifting the stocking rate.

Roughly half the lambs were fattened and killed, with the other half kept to build numbers.

Every dollar earned went into fertiliser and fencing, while James provided the labour in his spare time.

With no buildings, he had to travel from Masterton or camp out. A neighbouring block had a very old woolshed that he was able to fix up and use.

Eventually, with the station and accumulated lease blocks, he was running 8000 stock units and it became necessary to leave Ditton and settle in Martinborough.

With many dairy farmers preferring to graze their cows on flatter country, James started buying dry dairy cows through his father-in-law Rex Playle, a PGG Wrightson dairy rep in Masterton.

The policy was similar to his sheep buying except he was buying them in June and selling them as in-calf cows after a year, giving him vital cashflow in winter.

While never doing formal feed budgets, James developed a good sense of timing so pasture was available at crucial times like flushing/mating and lambing/calving.

Hoof and tooth

In-lamb two-tooth ewes tuck in to their feed.

In-lamb two-tooth ewes tuck in to their feed.

During those first few years, the pasture needed hammering, so James used the hoof and tooth technique.

The wet-dries were already carrying a bit of condition, so were able to withstand heavy stocking and grazing down to the dirt.

Conversely, the dry dairy cows came in looking like toast racks but got fed well in spring and put to a beef bull. He targeted younger cows because of the hills and their ability to forage.

Pregnancy testing was done 60 days after the bull went out and a week or so before selling them vetted-in-calf.

While their value has fluctuated over the past few years, James finds buying and selling on the same market makes them worth staying with.

He lost a few in the first couple of years, mainly because of falls when foraging too close to steep banks, but now he runs them with steers that tend to lead them and makes more use of a flatter lease block.

Now he uses a local agent, Andy Donaldson, to source two-year-old steers in October and November, depending on how the summer months are shaping up, then fattens them to slaughter as three-year-olds.

In November 2007, James began grazing ewe hoggets for Wairere Station and by the following May had put them to a Wairere Romney ram.

The progeny were either sold back to Wairere as ram lambs, fattened and killed, or mated as hoggets a year later.

During those first couple of years, there was a big emphasis on doing them well, as they were the only sheep he had.

Having made such a good job of it over the next three years, James was offered a bailment agreement when Wairere started to move into their facial eczema-tolerance programme.

Lease-hold variety

James Bruce feeds out to the two-tooth ewes.

James Bruce feeds out to the two-tooth ewes.

One of the keys to getting the best out of the station and the livestock on it has been James’ willingness to lease nearby land to give different revenue streams. At any time, he can have half a dozen lease blocks on top of the 405-hectare Martinborough Station.

This enables him to continue to grow the business and optimise the various topographies with his grazing policy.

For example, a couple of small, flat farmlets are used for fattening and finishing steers and works lambs, a larger hill block is used for running his replacement ewe lambs plus two and three-year-old steers, while another two blocks are cultivated and planted in onions, barley, maize, peas (until the outbreak of the pea weevil this year), Titan rape, lucerne and chickory-plantain-clover combinations for more lamb fattening.

The lucerne is grown across six paddocks (total 20ha), and his early-lambing ewes are rotated on a seven-day shift from the second week in September until weaning at the start of November when he shuts it up before the first cut around Christmas.

It gets cut twice more in January to produce about 100 bales for winter supplement.

James can’t overemphasise the role lucerne plays in enabling him to get his sheep performing so well.

The two major times to really feed the ewes, he believes, are for the month around tupping and the month before set-stocking for lambing.

During this time, the ewes are fed out on the river-flat country for ease of management and this lets the hills grow some good cover for lambing.

James believes the first rule of thumb in business is to stay in business, so he’s prepared to spend capital on what will boost his main income stream.

An example of how well this system works is his hogget mating, where they go to the ram if they’re more than 38kg liveweight (LW). He doesn’t use teasers and mates them for just 12 days but has scanned 120% this year.

The station’s soil is relatively free-draining, which means it can dry out quickly with wind and lack of rain. When it does rain, it responds well with the water going straight to the roots.

The past few years have seen diminishing rainfall: from 1058mm in 2011 to 744mm in 2015. Stock water is mainly supplied from dams in the hills, with a dozen troughs gravity-fed on the flats.

One of the lease farms came up for sale last year and the Bruces extended themselves once again to buy it. They had already begun building their home, but because of the slump in dairy prices, demand was low and the opportunity too good to pass up.

James believes the first rule of thumb in business is to stay in business, so he’s prepared to spend capital on what will boost his main income stream.

By employing Geof Lorimer for two days a week a few years ago they have done several kilometres of necessary fencing and built three sets of satellite yards by borrowing a post rammer and doing it himself and has more to do.

He also intends to plant as many trees as possible in the next year or two.

Horses for courses

Breaking-in sport horses is James Bruce’s passion.

Breaking-in sport horses is James Bruce’s passion.

James has also built impressive horse yards and stables to provide a great facility for his side business, and passion – breaking-in sport horses.

Depending on the time of year, one or two are always being worked for paying customers needing their horse expertly started and James has developed the knack passed on by his father, Ewan Bruce, from an early age.

Alongside all this work, James spends hours each winter coaching rugby and giving time to the community through his beloved Martinborough Rugby Football Club.

Having played for 12 years at senior club and representative level in Wairarapa, he now keeps fully involved by being one of the assistant coaches for Wairarapa Bush even though he struggles to find enough hours in the day for his farming duties.

While some observers question the wisdom of this when developing a large farming enterprise, James believes it keeps him focused and gives him an outside perspective to what he’s trying to achieve.

He loves interacting with people, especially those involved in the grassroots level of rugby and rodeo, and will pick anyone’s brain for ideas on how to do something better or more profitably.

James also believes in letting experts take control of aspects of his business he can’t specialise in.

So Richie Kershaw is given the task of ensuring all the cropping is being done efficiently and profitably and Phil Guscott of Wairarapa Property Consultants has been invaluable in advising and mentoring James and Neens over the past 10 years.

Road to ownership

James and Neens Bruce with children Macey (top), Poppy (bottom) and Neve (right).

James and Neens Bruce with children Macey (top), Poppy (bottom) and Neve (right).

So, how did a kid from rural Wairarapa manage to successfully own and run a large farming operation without inheriting any of it?

After four years of boarding at Wairarapa College in Masterton, James knew farming was his destiny and he needed to work hard and smart to achieve his goals.

He left school for a job with John and Julie Booth, who had a large cropping operation. This he did for three years, until taking up a stock manager role at Massey University’s Riverside Farm.

This gave him good experience fattening stock and after two and a half years, got a job as manager of 7000-stock-unit Bagshot Station.

He spent the next four years putting in 13km of fencing, extensive regrassing and fertilising programmes and began calving heifers and mating hoggets.

During this time James and Neens invested in a couple of houses in Masterton and bought into their first preschool where Neens continues to work.

James’ next move was just next door, to James and Jo Falloon’s Ditton Farm, where he was involved in stud sheep work as well as a high-performance commercial farm.

After three years, they learned Martinborough Station was on the market and with the sale of their rental properties were able to put down a deposit and buy it.

He stayed on at Ditton for another year, travelling to Martinborough most evenings to attend to the stock work and do maintenance, often by torchlight.

Twelve months later, they shifted to Martinborough with their first child and began farming the station and various nearby lease blocks full-time.

All this time, he was playing top-level rugby and being involved in rodeo circuits. His wife, Neens, was also a rep hockey player, so sport was seen as their release from hard work.

The couple now have three daughters: Neve, 9, Macey, 6, and Poppy, nearly 3, who love spending time out on the farm.

James and Neens value the importance of enjoying and supporting every minute of their children’s interests, as well as having the children being a part of their work and hobbies. Healthy for all.