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Drought proofing pays off at station

Drought proofing pays off at station
Drought proofi ng has been a focus at Closeburn Station in Central Otago with plantings of drought resistant grasses like clover and cocksfoot. A big investment has also been made in irrigation.

Only the best New Zealand merino wool is used by exclusive Japanese clothing company Konaka, whose representatives often come to visit Central Otago’s Closeburn Station to gain a first-hand appreciation of where the wool is grown.

Closeburn Station has been supplying Konaka with ultra-fine wool since 2012 and long term relationships have since been built between the elite suit and coat maker and the Clarke family who work the land.

Maniototo farmer Tony Clarke’s 40 year-long passion for karate has only served to deepen the bond and, in July, he travelled to Japan for an International Budosai event.

Tony’s wife Rebecca shares his fascination for Japan as do their children Anna, 17, and Hayden, 14, who both take an active interest in the life of the station.Merinos make up just over half the flock on the 3850ha property, with the remainder being corriedale. By selecting the right genetics, the station has been able to consistently produce wool of 15 microns.

By 2017, around 75 per cent of the merino wool clip was going to Konaka, but now the company takes the entire clip.Of course, genetics is only one part of the picture when it comes to managing stock for a discerning market in what is one of the harshest environments in New Zealand.

Over the past few years, much has been done to improve drought proofing on the station. Drought resistant grasses/lucerne has been used to improve flatland pastures and a big investment has been made in irrigation.

“The difference between a good season and a bad season now, in terms of silage making, is less than seven per cent,” says Tony. “Even in a dry season we can still produce a lot of silage for winter feed and we’re actually making more than we can use every year.”

An interesting innovation has been to establish silage pits in the hill country that can be used not only in winter, but also during summer droughts. “It’s a mind-set change for us, but we’re expecting more dries in summer and want to be capable of handling them when they do happen.”

Trialling ways to keep out plant pest hieracium has been another big focus for the station, which began rolling out control measures on selected 50-70ha blocks a decade ago.

The blocks have been named after Gallipoli battlefield sites, in memory of Tony’s grandfather who served in the Otago regiment: Chunuk Bair, Lone Pine, Air Strip, Quinn’s Post and Hill 60.

Tony says the usual approach to managing hieracium by spraying it out and then regularly applying fertiliser is simply cost prohibitive in the high country. He’s pursued a more back to basics approach that involves applying fertiliser in the drilling years only, with nothing further applied from then on.

Getting the pH to the right level is being achieved through applications of lime. Results so far are very positive.One of the blocks has been successfully holding back hieracium for five years now. “If we can get that up to 10 years, you’d have to call that a success.”

Where hieracium once dominated is new pasture growing a drought hardy mix of cocksfoot and clover. (Ideally, lucerne would also be grown but currently aluminium levels are too high to do so).

“In the dry we had a couple of years ago, we were very brown on the flat but Lone Pine was still green and growing grass. The higher altitude has a different time frame and that is very helpful to us during those very dry seasons. It just gives us a much greater ability to handle the dries. We’ve got water up there and, with the silage pits there too, we can also use these blocks as a feeding pad.”

Carbon testing has recently been conducted on existing hieracium country. “Then once we’ve done the regenerative grassing programme, after five or six years, we will hold that land out of the system and see if there’s a difference. It’s a long term journey to work out if we can grow carbon in our soils.”

Using fodder beet for wintering stock has been another successful innovation on the station.Meanwhile, Konaka presented Tony with a merino wool suit when he was in Japan in July.

“It’s not something you usually get to experience in the Maniototo!” Konaka also organised tickets for him to attend the Rugby World Cup.

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