LIVING THE HIGH LIFE
BY LISA POTTER
GREG and Louise McConnell are on top of the world - literally. The couple’s 55-hectare property is perched atop the Hauraki Plains with undeniably spectacular panoramic views.
From their enviable vantage point, they overlook rolling hill country bristling with native pockets of bush, as well as the extreme flats of the Hauraki Plains, drawing the eye down to the firth of Thames coastline.
The tranquil vista is unbroken by the sharp contrast of power lines and other modern amenities – the couple are off the grid and generate their own power through a combination of solar and wind.
Despite the fact their property is named Hau Hiwi (Windy Ridge), the windmill generates a meagre 10 per cent of their power, with the bulk coming from enormous solar panels (eight of which rotate during the day to follow the sun), feeding into six batteries, safely wrapped in insulation and packed in a type of nesting box.
“We’ve learnt a lot by trial and error,” Louise said.
“The batteries operate best at exactly 25deg C, so we made up a battery box to house them and wrapped them in insulation in an attempt and keep them warmer at night as they were getting down as low as 9 degrees Celsius.”
The couple are not diehard greenies who strive to live solely off the land, but they do take a certain pleasure in adapting to the conditions of their somewhat challenging property.
“When we initially looked at building, we were told it would cost about $150,000 to run power up here. It was another three years before we built and the costs significantly rose in that time, hence we opted to go off grid,” Louise said.
The couple estimates it has cost about half the amount originally quoted to set up their own mini power station. This is supplemented by gas for cooking and a substantial range used for heat, cooking and to run the wetback. There’s also a diesel generator for the periods when fog sets in and there’s neither sun nor wind off which to draw power.
“We use only the generator a handful of times a year, but it’s worth the security of back-up, as the batteries hold enough power to run the property for only about a day,” Louise said.
Pumping water from the deep bore uses more power than the whole house, as pumping runs for hours in summer when the cows drink a lot more water.
However, the combination of methods works a treat. Cleverly designed from 180mm thick tilt slab panels packed with insulating polystyrene, the home is impressively warm, despite a bitingly cold wind outside. Sun pours in through large double glazed windows (German designed), heating the concrete floors. The windows have been custom-made to cope with the ferocious winds which can hit, opening the opposite way to conventional windows to avoid the wind catching them. The couple has also designed an eyecatching schist wall, which traps the heat from the range to gently release it at night.
The septic tank system is also eco-friendly, with the pair opting to try a worm farm system, with which they are delighted.
“A lot of the mainstream septic tank options not only required ongoing servicing by outside contractors, but would also have been a drain on our power grid. This more natural system works really well here,” Louise said.
The couple says that aside from improving their land and creating 25 paddocks with reticulated water (there were previously four paddocks relying on spring water), their greatest achievement is the fact they managed to successfully build their home in such a high-wind area – “and the fact that the house hasn’t blown away in the first three years is promising.”
“When it was a building site we had some definite challenges. After a particularly windy day we would have to wander around finding where everything had been blown to. We’ve lost the outside chairs and umbrellas a few times, but it’s a beautiful spot to live – and very peaceful,” Louise said.
Protected by the walls of the house, Greg and Louise can unwind at the end of a busy day in their firebox-heated hot tub, a luscious deep wooden tub, which requires no power to operate and is heated by a wood fire.
On the land
Having originally purchased the then bare block as a run-off for their dairy herd, the couple had no immediate intention of making the property their home. With their main farm based in nearby Ngatea, they ran stock over the somewhat wild land when they needed extra grazing. Originally, the 55ha block was divided into just four paddocks, with water supplied by natural streams and no yards or handling facilities.
With nothing much going for it on paper, a key selling point was the well maintained airstrip. This held instant appeal for Louise, who has held her private pilot’s licence since graduating from Veterinary School in 1984.
Today, the main purpose-built shed doubles as a spacious hangar, although the precious two-seater aircraft the couple built from scratch over a period of three years, is kept in Thames.
“We’ve travelled New Zealand, from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island, by air, and I fly whenever I have any spare time,” says Louise.
Spare time is a precious commodity, despite the fact Greg and Louise dub their Hau Hiwi Red Devon Stud their “semi-retirement” project.
Louise works part-time in a local veterinary practice, and although Greg has handed over the running of his dairy farm to his daughter and son-in-law, there’s plenty on the 55ha to keep them busy.
Having built their home and moved on to the block just three years ago, it has already undergone a dramatic transformation. Gone is the golden glow of prolific ragwort infestation, and there’s no sign either of the blackberry which threatened to take over chunks of the land.
With an impressive purebred herd of almost 30 Red Devon, including three bulls, the couple also runs some Jersey cattle, five goats to keep on top of the gorse and blackberry, 100-odd turkeys, 50 peacocks and a sizeable flock of pheasants.
The bird life is wild, but has quadrupled in size since they moved in; regularly appearing at the troughs amongst the calves when maize silage had to be fed out during the drought years. The occasional bird makes it into the freezer when it makes a nuisance of itself, but Greg and Louise enjoy the sight of the birds living on the hills.
There are also eight beehives (from which Louise gathers delicious honey), although it’s a battle against the generous wasp population, which has already destroyed two hives this year that had been weakened by varroa.
Six chooks happily roam in the protection of Greg’s ingenious mobile chook-house, made by adding wheels and skids to an old calf shelter. The mobile unit can be easily moved by hand, without needing to be hooked up to any machinery.
The foray into establishing themselves as highly-regarded Red Devon breeders started out by accident. Greg purchased some Red Devon “purely as mouths to eat the grass down”, but quickly discovered the many benefits of the versatile breed.
“We hadn’t had any dealings with the Devon breed when we started out and only got them to knock the huge clumps of rank grass down, as the property at that time didn’t have quality pasture so wasn’t suitable to put young stock on. “
The placid breed soon proved its worth, with Greg using the Red Devon as a ‘vacuum cleaner’ and to help keep the young stock parasite free. The cows follow the young stock on each rotation round to reduce the parasitic load for the young stock next time round. A comprehensive trace element program for the cattle is also kept up to date.
Greg and Louise run their livestock with minimum intervention, and the Red Devon are particularly suited to this method of farming, with the genetics to perform on a totally grass-based system.
“The only other inputs we make are a few vaccinations as youngsters, trace elements and free choice minerals like salt,” Greg said.
With the system Greg and Louise run, the Red Devon cattle generally cope without chemical inputs like worm drenches or pour-on treatments for lice, etc.
“The Devon cattle are a medium size breed and they’re quite kind on the land and really great stock to work with. They thrive very nicely here on our hills,” says Greg.
The Hau Hiwi Red Devon Stud started with a few surplus cows from Woodlands Stud and Taylor Stud, both from the Waihi area. After purchasing a bull, Rotokawa 861, in 2000 from Rotokawa Stud (Wanganui), Greg and Louise slowly began expanding and improving their herd.
A number of sires have since been used, including some imported semen, with Louise setting an early goal of changing the genetic base of her Red Devon stud to entirely A2 A2.
“This is something I’m really passionate about,” she says.
“The health issues associated with A1 type milk is something more people are gradually becoming aware of, but I have long believed it is of vital importance. Our breeding programme reflects this and is focusing on the A2 genotype in line with the actions of other breeders around the world.”
Louise and Greg have been on the pathway of switching their dairy herd to the A2 genotype since 2000. Their dairy herd has only a handful of high producing teenage cows that still have an A1 gene and over 50 per cent of the Red Devon herd is now exclusively A2A2.
“The reason for this move is that there are documented health issues with consuming the A1 protein in milk for a proportion of the human population. Often diagnosed lactose intolerance to dairy milk is actually intolerance to the A1 protein in dairy milk.
“This was seen with one of my family members who has no problem consuming A2 cow’s milk but could not drink regular milk at the supermarket,” says Louise.
“Although this problem is associated with the milk protein, there are no studies to determine if A1 meat is an issue too. Recent Australian research indicates that an association of meat tenderness and the A2 genotype, so by breeding in this direction, other benefits may follow.
“While the A1 effects on the health of a certain portion of the population has yet to be proven scientifically beyond doubt, a number of European countries have already decided to concentrate on selecting for the A2 genotype and breeding with only A2 bulls or A2 semen. “
One of Greg and Louise’s Devon bulls has had semen collected so A2 semen is now available in New Zealand.
Greg and Louise only drink A2 milk and also use it to make feta cheese, which has become a regular staple in their fridge during the dry season when a couple of house cows are kept milking for this purpose.
The breed’s calm nature is a huge asset and Louise, who is used to working with all breeds of stock, delights in the ease of working with these cows. There is no problem lifting and weighing a new born calf which is one measurement that should be taken for breeding purposes.
“The calf’s mother will stand right beside you and watch the procedure unlike some breeds who would not suffer this insult to their new-born calf.”
Moving the herd just requires calling them so a dog is superfluous.
“Devon cattle don’t really like dogs and will chase them out of the paddock when they have new born calves.
“We’re pretty happy up here,” says Louise, with a smile.