Genetics, irrigation drive business at Benmore

Genetics, irrigation drive business at Benmore

You can’t spend time in the Mackenzie Country without responding to it. Perhaps only in the Maniototo does that bluest of skies seem so endless. Lakes shimmer in varying shades of blue surrounded by golden tussock.
Mt Cook and her neighbours guard the west, glacial landforms provide texture, and the rounded hills north, east and south complete the enclosure.
Some folk want it left in its natural state, but it’s too late for that. Dams and canals provide electricity. Tourists require good roads and facilities. Farmers need to make a living, and the old ways no longer provide that.
Rabbits and hieracium, that damned dandelion that smothers pasture grasses, made swathes of Mackenzie farmland unproductive.
Irrigation has transformed farms in the south of the basin, paddocks that once saw only grey-green hieracium leaves and bare soil are now green and lush.
Benmore Station, straddling the main highway near the Lake Ohau turnoff is one such farm. Run by Bill and Andrew Sutherland and their families, the station acquired Ahuriri Downs to the south, and more recently, the adjacent Clay Cliffs station.
The latter two are dryland farms; tussock and typical pasture grasses prevail. But Benmore has pivot irrigators, and the whole business has changed.
Fed from the Ohau River and some local streams, irrigation has seen this former store property, formerly at the whims of the market, surge from 7000 stock units 10 years ago to 36,000.
Benmore has 5800 hectares, and the other two add a further 5600ha. Put to the ram this year were 12,000 merino ewes, 4000 halfbred ewes and 1000 halfbred hoggets.
Eighty percent of the halfbred lambs go to slaughter off Mum. Their contracts enable them to take merino lambs through the winter to get a wool cheque as well as the meat cheque.
ANZCO has the meat contracts; the New Zealand Merino Company takes their wool. Benmore runs 400 Hereford cows.
The other two total 260. Cows are run on dryland on all three. Calves are weaned then go onto irrigated crop for the first winter. They have been buying in some calves but aim to be self sufficient soon.
Steers are finished before their second winter and killed before the end of March. Merino, half-bred and Hereford studs, serve their own needs, and they sell rams and bulls to other farmers whose environments are similar.
“We have an AI (artificial insemination) programme for new genetics importing semen from Australia,” says Bill. “We’re hooked into EBVs (Estimated breeding values). Just another tool in the tool box to concentrate on traits we want.
Similar to us, a lot of clients are chasing higher fats, giving better lamb survivability and earlier fattening. Lambing percentage for the last five years has been 118%.
In 2017, the percentage was 126 for merinos. “We’ve had favourable periods, but a lot is spin-off from the genetics we’re using. And we’re feeding them better than we used to.
If you don’t feed them, you don’t get the results. “The combination of high percentage lambing and high wool rates makes merinos an attractive unit.”
The 730ha of irrigated land grows a winter crop, then barley, then is regrassed. Continuing to improve the dryland is important. “We rely on the hill country; the breeding ewes are there 24/7, so it has to function well to feed the irrigated country.”
Significant areas on Clay Cliffs and Benmore have been brought under QEII National Trust covenants, a partnership protecting unique native biodiversity forever. And two further large wetland areas on Benmore have been voluntarily retired and fenced off.
“We have a stock manager and a single shepherd on each property, and Andrew and I are still hands on. But we spend a lot of time at meetings. It’s mind boggling the time you spend sitting round a table.”
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