Interview: Michael Cammock of Atkins Ranch

We met with Michael Cammock, an Atkin’s Ranch supplier, over Zoom from his land in New Zealand. We learned about what it’s like to manage a profitable, pasture-centered livestock operation in a region that’s exposed to cold stormy weather.

Tell us about your land and operation.

We have a farm here, which is nearly 2,000 acres, located about one and a half hours north of Wellington City. We are on the east coast of the North Island, which is dry with medium to steep hill country. The highest point of our farm would be 1600 meters above sea level. In terms of the operation, we have approximately 5,500 sheep and around 500 cattle — so we're a predominantly grass base. So that means our livestock are outside 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I manage the property, and there's one other farm worker, so two of us in total. We also have some outside contractors helping us at various times of the year. We've got a base flock of 4,000 breeding ewes and 1,500 of what we call replacement you hoggets. So they are one year old and above and come through as replacements as the oldest sheep come out. From springtime onwards is our harvest period. The sheep are processed at a slaughter facility, which is about two hours north of this property under Atkins Ranch. Atkins Ranh is a meat processor and a marketing company, which, therefore, in turn, supplies Whole Foods. If our sheep do not go directly to Atkins Ranch, they will be going to another supplier within the Atkins Ranch group to be finished and processed. 

Tell us about your relationship with Atkins Ranch. 

John Atkins and Phil Gusscott founded Atkins Ranch in the early 80s, with the vision of looking for premium in the market. And each of the markets expanded into the US. As a second-generation farmer, along with my father-in-law who farmed this property before me, we are proud suppliers of Atkins Ranch. Atkins Ranch has the business values we want to align ourselves with. Suppliers like us generally have a shareholding in the business, and their marketing efforts generate a premium. 

Tell us about your transition to regenerative agriculture and EOV. 

The regenerative space has sort of just come into fruition in New Zealand in the last two or three years. Atkins Ranch was one of the first meat processing marketing companies to initiate the Global Animal Partnership, which is focused on animal welfare, and then non-GMO, antibiotic-free certifications. All of that aligns with what we do here, and we're very proud of our animal welfare. Now we've gotten into the environmental space more by reducing our carbon footprint through regenerative agriculture. We’ve been in the regenerative agriculture space since 2019. With EOV and Land to Market that's more of a long-term thing than short-term, and it's only after about five years that the rest results start to show a positive trend in outcomes. 

Where are you at with EOV now? 

We're in year four of using EOV, and it has altered our thinking when it comes to environmental sustainability. All animals on this property feed on grass. If it's not grass, there may be a small supplement of something like hay. And like I said, the animals are outside 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so nothing is housed. One of the outcomes that we've had from EOV is that we've decided to reduce our cropping in order to reduce our carbon footprint. Also, we've really looked at how we can protect our soil and our pasture. So our soil and pasture damage that we can have in the winter. For example, we run smaller mobs of our sheep and cattle so that we have less soil impact damage. We’re also trying to encourage legume growth and other grass species to develop in our feeds, with good root systems to maintain a good plant foundation. 

With EOV, we're really concentrating on letting paddocks rest so that the root structure can establish itself. We're also looking at how our paddocks are subdivided up with fencing, and we may have to alter that ever so slightly and exclude areas. We get a lot of southerly storm weather — including rain and very cold temperatures because we're situated here in the North Island, very open to the Antarctic. So protection dictates how we subdivide our paddocks, and also how we plant trees and shelter belts that try and protect us from that southerly weather. Lastly, we're really concentrating on reticulated water rather than a natural source of water. It’s harvesting water, putting it into tanks, and having water troughs, rather than having livestock having access to our natural waterways, be it at our wetland area, river, stream, or lake. 

For protection, we're planting a lot of native plants. Native species are very good to look at, attract a lot of native bird life, and are great protection from the southerly storms. We try to exclude non-productive areas, steep areas, and rocky areas where we don't really want livestock. Unfortunately, this year we were exposed to cyclone Gabriel, which happened in February, so we have had a lot of areas of tracking that have sort of been taken out, and a lot of erosion damage, which is in tune taken out fences. So we’re still in the process of recovering from that. 

How did you initially get into farming? 

So on this property here, I'm a second-generation farmer. This is the family farm of my wife, Jane. Originally, I'm a fifth-generation dairy farmer, so my parents still have a farm and about an hour north of here. I always liked the rural side of things and wanted to align myself with them, but was very uncertain about where I wanted to be, so I worked for a couple of rural service industries. One was a fertilizer company for a number of years, and the opportunity came up on this property, working alongside my father-in-law, and we trialed it just to see on the pretense that obviously he wasn't getting any younger that there could be some sort of succession journey that we could maybe devise together. And that's essentially what happened. So he's now moved into town, and we lease the property from them. My wife and I run the whole business. 

I absolutely love what we do. Of course, it has its challenges, like weather and commodity pricing — but we've got an ethos here that animal welfare is forefront of our business. It’s important that our farm is environmentally sustainable and also financially sustainable. We want to stay in business without leaving a path of destruction.