High country station owner seeks balance between production and environment

Hamish Orbell says he has "development disease."
John Bisset

Hamish Orbell says he has "development disease."

Back  in the 1960s,  Clayton Station's 9120 hectares had 12 paddocks, five hill blocks, few shelter belts and no roads.

The snow and drought prone South Canterbury station has since been subjected to the "development disease," that owner Hamish Orbell picked up from his father. Orbell likes to see the ground turned over to produce something it didn't before.

"When my grandfather bought the station in 1964 it was run down, with no fertiliser history. So it has gone through a huge development phase over the last 50 years," he says.

Orbell hopes to leave the land in better shape than when he took over.
John Bisset

Orbell hopes to leave the land in better shape than when he took over.

Hard work by Orbell, his father and past and present staff has morphed the station into 163 paddocks, 25 hill blocks, 54km of shelter belts and 100km of roads. About 300ha-400ha of tussock country is under development annually.

READ MORE:
Top deer environment award winners named 

 *Snow restricts access 

Orbell and his wife Anna manage the now 4200-hectare sheep, beef and deer operation sprawled across the back side of the Fairlie Basin. Orbell succeeded his parents, the late Andrew and Ruth Orbell, when Andrew was killed in an accident on the farm in 2003.

Clayton Station under snow in 2013. In 1895, 15,000 sheep, possibly about half the total flock, died in a metre of snow.
John Bisset

Clayton Station under snow in 2013. In 1895, 15,000 sheep, possibly about half the total flock, died in a metre of snow.

The station runs 11,500 sheep, mainly romney/texel hoggets, which have lambed at 140 per cent the past five years.

Alongside the fertile ewes are 500 angus and angus-hereford cows including 120 in-calf heifers. Another 130 steers and stock are grazed and wintered for Gerald Hargreaves of Kakahu Angus Stud in a relationship that goes back about 15 years.

About 960ha of the property is deer fenced to support more than 4000 deer units. This includes 1300 breeding hinds, 200 velveters and 400 replacements.

Deer are an inherited passion for Orbell.

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"They are a bit of a drug, especially on the velvet side. You get hooked quite easily. I get excited come September as the season's crop begins to show the genetic gains made."

Orbell has no regrets starting a finishing arrangement with Ashburton deer farmer David Ward.

"We used to sell our deer on the open market and this was fraught with problems.

"We started dealing with David and we've come up with a formula, a contract arrangement based on the current market rates that is fairer to both of us." 

Orbell sells Ward the weaners for finishing at 80 - 90 per cent of the market value with the balance paid at killing time based on the current kill rates. This arrangement lessens the impact of any violent swings in the market and means both get a fair margin, Orbell says. The arrangement relies on good communication between the parties.

In the last 70 days of winter, Orbell brings the hinds off the hill. One lot are put on swedes, kale and fodder beet while the terminal hinds are put on silage. This allows 70 days for the hill to recover in the first part of the spring. Sheep and cattle will go through that country and tidy any standing hay, he says. The hill is then shut up so the clover can re-establish.

"The deer operation has been a good contributor to our bottom line in the midst of soft lamb and wool prices," Orbell says.

"Sheep haven't been that brilliant the past couple of years but deer have definitely held their own especially velvet, and venison is getting back to where it should be.

"We do a bit of trophy [stags] here as well. It's an end-use for our velveters once they are past their use-by date."

On average a third of the station's lambs are sent for processing each season with the balance either retained to increase their weight or sold as stores to be finished by other farmers.

"We generally have a cut-off date of April 1. All store trading stock have got to be gone."

After battling brucellosis in the early 2000s, the ram flock was involuntarily replaced. A silver lining was the opportunity to introduce genetically superior rams, Orbell says.

"This significantly improved the flock's fertility, which had been low, and helped breed a hardier sheep."

Orbell says he used a chemical flush on the ewes over a four-year period raising the scanning percentage from 120 to 180 per cent and the lambing percentage from around 100 to 140 per cent.

"We have dropped the flush out of the system now but it gave the ewes a good boost. With improvements in our feeding regime and tighter management, we've been able to maintain the percentages at this level."

Most of Clayton Station lies between 500 metres and 1000m and it's history reveals an environment of extremes. In 1895, 15,000 sheep, possibly about half the total flock, died in a metre of snow. In more recent decades the property has experienced snowfalls up to 1.8m and in 2006 it was smothered by 10 snowfalls over the year. However, drought has presented one of the biggest challenges in the past few seasons causing Orbell to cut stock numbers.

"We hit speed bumps because of the drought," he says. "Stock units are 18,000, down from a high of 23,000 in 2014.

"Those two seasons of drought were extremely frustrating. We were unable to fatten any lambs. We had to sell all lambs, including stores, at weaning and weaned a month early because of the drought."

"We are lucky the property has the ability with deer, sheep, cattle and crops to roll with the punches."

A board including a mix of accountants, ex-farm advisors and mentors, has overseen the running of the station for about 40 years and acted as a sounding board for Orbell and previously his father.

"The board helps keep things in check," he said. "Development can come at a cost, so its great to have the board there to barnstorm with and seek advice from about different ideas."

He says Clayton is in a period of consolidation after some extensive development which included doubling the size of the deer farm, putting in three new water schemes and fencing and subdividing some of the large areas. 

"We've also changed management practices a lot in the last five years - trying to manipulate cashflow so that we have some income from October to December when input costs are high and traditionally we didn't have a lot of income."

Finding a balance between production and caring for the environment is crucial for Orbell.

"We have set up a nutrient catchment area of 1.5ha," he said.

"The creek runs from the main (Opihi) river through the catchment and back into the main river. In the past two years, we've tested the water as it comes into Clayton, as it comes into the deer farm and as it leaves the deer farm."

"We have set a base level for ecoli, nitrogen and phosphorus. Our main issue is ecoli and it's not necessarily from the deer. Our main areas of concern are the stockwater creeks. Through the drought, we put in a couple of new water schemes which allowed us to get rid of some of the stockwater creeks and we are hoping these will rid us of the ecoli. We are monitoring constantly."

There are three riparian areas on the hill blocks the water has to go through before it gets to the nutrient catchment area. These areas were planted out in poplars but were either frosted, or the drought dealt with them, Orbell says.

"All the water that goes into Lake Opuha has to go through the sediment trap area. We've all got to do our part and we hope the water coming off the property is as good as the water coming onto it, if not better."

Seedlings of mountain flax and cabbage trees are taken off the hill and replanted in the creek areas, the logic being that being locally sourced, they are more likely to survive

"It's difficult to plant out all the creeks but we have to do something. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

"I see myself as a custodian of this land and hope to leave it in even better shape than when I took over. I hope the next generation will wish to continue on."

 - Stuff

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