Environment award winners build on work of forbears

Canterbury farm environment award winners say they're building on the achievements of previous generations on the family property. Tony Benny reports.

Stonyhurst runs 10,000 halfbred sheep and nearly 40 per cent of the farm's sheep income comes from wool.
Tony Benny

Stonyhurst runs 10,000 halfbred sheep and nearly 40 per cent of the farm's sheep income comes from wool.

The winners of the Canterbury Ballance farm environment awards say they're just building on the good work of previous generations on the family property.

Brothers John and Peter Douglas-Clifford have been farming Stonyhurst, a 3000 hectare station on the Canterbury coast, about an hour and a half north of Christchurch, for the best part of 40 years and today share the management with John's son Charles.

Their family has been on this land since 1850, after Fredrick Weld, the partner of their forbear Charles Clifford, spotted it from a ship sailing down the coast and the pair became the first to take up the lease.

Stands of native bush have been fenced off on Stonyhurst .
Tony Benny

Stands of native bush have been fenced off on Stonyhurst .

"Dad inherited it from his uncle Charles Clifford, who's father was George Clifford, the son of Sir Charles Clifford who actually started the place," says Peter Douglas-Clifford, the fifth generation on the property.

"Dad was a Douglas and his mother was a Clifford. His uncle owned Stonyhurst and had no children and he left it to the oldest surviving son of his sister, which was Dad, on condition he took on the name Clifford. It just kept that historic part of the name with the farm."

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Peter Douglas-Clifford, right, with nephew Charles and wool classer Guy Palmer, during shearing at Stonyhurst.
Tony Benny

Peter Douglas-Clifford, right, with nephew Charles and wool classer Guy Palmer, during shearing at Stonyhurst.

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Peter says he and John carried on the work started by their father who put a lot of energy into fencing and clearing gorse and broom.

"We've followed on with different sort of development, maybe more fencing and just making the whole place flow because there was only the two of us and one other staff member working on the farm 30 years ago."

Since the family's earliest days on Stonyhurst, they've cared for the land, fencing off bush-covered areas deemed too fragile to farm.

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"In our mind, that's what appealed to the judges, the fact that we were always doing it. It's not a new sort of fad that's happened in the last 10 years, it's something that's been happening for a 100 years – long before the word covenant ever applied.

"Gullies were fenced off and land was conserved and native areas were fenced off and looked after. It's been done over Dad and Peter's generation and earlier generations as well," says Charles.

He adds that the family didn't do anything differently when they entered the Ballance awards. "We're just demonstrating what we do and what we're proud of doing and how we do it."

But the Douglas-Cliffords are also firmly focused on running a profitable business on the 22,000SU breeding and finishing property, where they run 10,000 dual-purpose halfbred sheep, 400 red deer hinds and 450 angus/hereford cross breeding cows.

"There's a balance – if it's not economic, you won't stay there but there'd be an argument nowadays that if it's not environmental, you're not going to stay there either," says Charles.

There have always been halfbred sheep on Stonyhurst, bred originally by crossing merino and lincoln parents and now stabilised. Peter reckons you can't go past wool and the Douglas-Cliffords have had a contract with US manufacturer Smartwool for close to 15 years. Wool contributes between 30 and 40 per cent of the farm's sheep income.

But he says about 10 years ago genetic improvement in the breed stalled, leading to Stonyhurst's involvement in a project with New Zealand Merino and six other fine wool growers to develop a new sheep called Southern Cross with the fertility of a crossbred but with fine wool.

The Southern Cross nucleus flock is based on Stonyhurst.

"We've imported semen from overseas and worked with leading sires around New Zealand at a merino to ¾ merino level, so a little bit finer than what traditionally we've had," says Charles.

The aim is a sheep with a valuable 20 to 23 micron fleece, footrot resistance and high fertility, with ewes weaning 130 to 135 per cent lambs that will kill at 20kg carcass weight at seven months.

"Over three years we did some intense outsourcing of genetics via dams and AI in Australian and New Zealand. Our genetic pool is pretty far and wide. Now we're just trying to rein it in and concentrate on what we've got and improve it.

"Footrot has been a bigger challenge than we originally thought with some of the outside genetics, but it is something we have been working very hard on, and also using some linking sires that have been used at the central progeny test run by New Zealand Merino.

"The change wont happen over night, but it will happen!""

Southern Cross rams are now being put over Stonyhurst's halfbred ewes in an effort to improve production.

"The Southern Cross flock is moving very fast. To get those breeding objectives to flow through the Stonyhurst commercial ewes, it might be five or 10 years till all of those bloodlines starts coming through."

All ewes have electronic eartags and they're tracked and recorded throughout their lives. At shearing, every sheep's tag is scanned and a barcode printed off that follows the fleece through the shed as it's weighed, classed and put in the appropriate bale.

"We're treating the whole mob almost like a stud," says Peter.

Adds Charles, "It takes time and it's labour intensive and you get out as much as you put in so if you're half-arsed in getting the data in, you get half-arsed data back at the other end. If you put time and focus into doing it, you get results."

Until recently Stonyhurst supplied lambs to Silver Fern Farm's Silere programme, the niche merino meat business, but since Silver Fern pulled out of Silere and it was picked up by Alliance Meat, they've ceased supplying the programme.

Charles says they have a long established relationship with SFF and are also involved involvement in the company's Reserve Meat programme.

The deer operation on Stonyhurst started in the 1980s with wild animals trapped on the property and once hind numbers were built up, improved genetics were introduced.

"It's only in the last five or six years that it's started to pay actually, thanks to the breeding and genetics," says Peter.

In the past as many animals as possible were finished early enough to get the higher prices paid for the chilled trade to Europe but last year, due to contracts, that was relaxed and more animals were killed later, having benefitted from more feed to grow bigger.

"That actually worked out to be quite efficient, not only for workload for us but also in returns," says Charles. "Sometimes a lower price is more economic than a higher price if you can supply more of it."

The Douglas-Cliffords find angus-hereford cross cattle do well on Stonyhurst.

"Generally, once they start getting completely black, we cross back to a full hereford bull again. That suits our environment and the growth rates of animals and keeps that bit of hybrid going in there for finishing stock. It just gets the best of both breeds really," Charles says.

Most male stock is kept for a bull beef operation using a techno system. "We start killing them around 14 months old for a 300kg carcass and usually everything's finished by about 18-20 months of age. Everything was finished this year at 18 months and we averaged 290kg carcass-weight for all the bulls."

The family has now been on Stonyhurst for 167 years and succession has been secured for future generations. Long-term ownership of the land rests with family members and the farming business leases the land.

Peter and John, the fifth generation, and Charles, the sixth have now been joined by the seventh, Charles and his wife Erin's four-year-old son George and one-year-old daughter Lilly.

"It's not only the environment but the heritage of the place as well, the two run side by side," says Peter. "It becomes more of a responsibility as the generations move on, I hope."

 - Stuff

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