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Werner Arnold and Christine Korner : Bucking the Trend

Swiss-natives Werner Arnold and Christine Korner made the big move to New Zealand 24 years ago to start a family and create a wholesome experience for their children by switching professions and choosing a farming lifestyle. The pair started out dairy farming, later switching to sheep and beef which they still maintain at Arko Farms in Dovedale.

One interesting thing to mention about Werner and Christine’s farm is how they use goats to regenerate their pine forest and control brush regrowth. This, without a doubt, should be the thing that puts goats on the map in creating a symbiotic farming operation.

Arko Farms has been a successful sheep and beef operation for the past 14 years. Before that, Werner and Christine ran an extensive dairy farm in Westland’s Waitaha Valley for ten years. With climate and schooling considerations, they moved to Dovedale in the Tasman District with their three children, where they now occupy 200 effective hectares of farm land and a further 50 hectares in forestry and rough terrain. Werner and Christine run a small-scale operation, housing 900 ewes and 100 cattle per year. They farm Wiltshire sheep and due to their self-shedding abilities, they don’t require shearing.

On the property, they used to house 1,500 goats on their farm but have since scaled back to 350, using them primarily for weed control and pastoral improvement. Werner got in touch with Garrick Batten of Caprinex to help put together a plan on how they could incorporate the goats into a forest clearing project. “A few years back we purchased a stud off Garrick and his partner and started to breed bucks, although this is currently on the backburner. We may get a bit of live export again with bucks and semen but that’s early days. It’s a small industry in New Zealand and it could be a good export earner but there are no incentives – it’s more of a desire rather than an option,” Werner said.

The farm contains two forest blocks: one block comprising 24 hectares of five-year-old pine trees and the other block made up of pine trees that are 22 to 24 years old. The goats are situated in the younger block, that is centrally located on the property. Werner expressed the need to open up fields adjacent to the forest, taking pressure off the goats and giving them more room to graze if needed.

When Werner and Christine planted the new forest five years ago, they started a pruning programme which incorporated goats when the trees were four years old as a means to open up the forests. “Goats can be put in the forests when they’re ten to 15 months old. Much like lambs, they need soft feed for the first year. Kids do reasonably okay because there’s still grass there but they don’t do well on brush weeds because they haven’t got their teeth yet. The other thing that I usually have to keep an eye on is if the trees are too young, the goats start ring-barking them. The pine bark is very beneficial for them and they seem to be aware of that,” Werner said.

“You can’t expect big weight gains. If you want to have goats for meat purposes, you’ve got to feed them. With weed control, they’ll do okay but other times they’ll stagnate – it’s best to focus on one thing or the other,” Werner added.

Werner finds himself pruning in the forests just about every day and he is amazed at what the goats can achieve to help keep the forests looking tidy. Just a few months ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get two or three metres into the block due to grass, vegetation and blackberries.

“The biggest positive aspect, which is underestimated with goats, is that they’re very complementary to most farming operations because they have different eating habits than other livestock ruminants. They eat the undesirable plants from a farming perspective first, such as the brush weed and seed heads of grasses and then the last thing they eat is clover, so you can improve your pasture with goats full stop,” Werner said.

Werner envisions the goats to be housed in the forest until the trees are about ten years old. Pine needles are a healthy treat for goats, improving their digestive system and protecting them from intestinal parasitic worms. This whole system of using animals to regenerate forests could be extended to sheep, however Werner is happy to continue using goats as they’re ideal for wintering on the rough blocks and using forestry for shelter.

“Research shows that if you add up to 5% of goats to your farming operation, this will help to improve your production because they improve the quality of your pasture. It’s quite an interesting fact,” Werner said.

The 11-hectare forest will be harvested soon, and then replanted at some point, which will continue the whole regeneration process. They will soon be planting with carbon credits in mind, but right now the focus is providing natural material for lumber production. A large portion of their wood will be used to create strong, durable products like Goldpine poles and posts.

“I think it’s a fairly balanced block we’re running. We have an approach of reasonably low input on the animal side of things and run a zero nitrogen programme in terms of fertiliser. Our pine trees are planted into land that’s too steep or weedy for production purposes, the best place for them. At the end of the day, it’s sequestering carbon which is a sustainable outlook,” Werner said.

Before Werner and Christine set out farming, Werner was an engineer by trade and Christine had a background in social work. Werner mentioned that his admiration and reason for choosing farming was, to an extent, due to his upbringing. When Werner was growing up, his parents were very present, and as soon as Werner and Christine started their family, they wanted to create a wholesome experience for their children on the farm.

“Where we come from, it was never on the cards to own a farm. We ran farms, we worked on farms and so we came to New Zealand for a working holiday and found out that this was a really good place. We went back to Europe for a few years and then we came back and settled permanently,” Werner reminisced.

Their three children have flown the nest, with two of them living in Wellington and the other living in Nelson. They all have varying careers and aspirations: a chartered accountant, a landscaping gardener and a student studying law. “The farmer background has helped give them a good grounding and a bit of common sense. As teenagers, they hated the farming side of things but it’s opening some doors for them and it’s nice for us to see,” Werner said.

Every summer, the family tries to get away on a good camping trip with their kayaks – the Tasman region is good for that. Cycling is another passion as their first impressions of New Zealand were seen by cycling over 5,000 kilometres across the country.

Goldpine Richmond is Werner’s local store where he purchases Superposts and tanalised timber for yard maintenance. “We have been using a lot of the Rounded Superposts over the years and find it a really good price and competitive product. What I find good with Goldpine is that they will replace the posts that break. We buy them by the bundle, and if they crack, they will replace them without fail. It’s a good scheme,” he said.

Goats need to be fenced well, so Arko Farms has really good fences installed to ensure the goats are exactly where they need to be – keeping them out of the forests when they’re too young, or confining them to the forest and surrounding pastures when they’re older.

“They’re different to handle than sheep; they’re agile, fast and have a different behavioural pattern. Once you set up your farm with the right infrastructure to cater for them, for example having gates at the top of the hill because they have a flight instinct to go to the top, then they’re quite fun to work with,” Werner stated.

Having goats for regenerative purposes is what makes Arko Farms unique, along with their clear direction in terms of sustainability.

“We started using goats 13 years ago. There were certainly a few people that raised their eyebrows, but they are interesting animals to work with. We don’t want to pillage the land in order to squeeze out the last dollar. I think leaving the place in an even better state than we found it is quite important to us, and that’s on the whole in terms of infrastructure and good animal health,” Werner concluded.