Business beats nostalgia for Elsthorpe sheep breeder Rick Lee

A Central Hawke's Bay farmer has moved away from his dual purpose roots to breed stud sheep focused on meat production. He talks to Kate Taylor.

Rick Lee with stud poll dorset ram hoggets on his Elsthorpe farm.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Rick Lee with stud poll dorset ram hoggets on his Elsthorpe farm.

It's hard to see the motorbikes from the mud as Rick Lee and his father Charlie pull up to the sheds on their Elsthorpe farm.

It is a wet winter after a dry summer, but there's a smile on both faces under their woolly hats.

Charlie has been fixing something in the yards and Rick has checked the stock. A team of dogs have also done their duty for the morning and are tied up at the woolshed. It's morning tea time.

Poll dorset stud ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Poll dorset stud ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.

Charlie and Margaret Lee have retired and still live on the farm, although Charlie is still the general shepherd-come-tractor driver when needed. Rick and his wife Anna have a son, Hamish, 17, in Year 12 at Havelock North High School and Anna has a daughter, Pip, 27.

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Poll dorset stud ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Poll dorset stud ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.

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Rick and Anna Lee farm 601ha at Elsthorpe in Central Hawke's Bay.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Rick and Anna Lee farm 601ha at Elsthorpe in Central Hawke's Bay.

Rick Lee is the new chairman of the national poll dorset breed committee. He has had romney and poll dorset stud sheep on the property since the late 1990s but has dropped the dual purpose romney in favour of the poll dorset's meat production.

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The Leelands Romney Stud was wound up a few years ago and Lee is slowly introducing a poll dorset-romney cross to the ewe flock.

They lamb 2250 ewes including 300 poll dorset stud ewes and an increasing number of the poll dorset-romney cross ewes.

Heading dog Guy photobombs a photo of stud poll dorset ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Heading dog Guy photobombs a photo of stud poll dorset ram hoggets on Rick Lee's Elsthorpe farm.

He says the change was driven by the emphasis on meat production as opposed to wool.

"The poll dorset-romney has earlier, heavy lambs. The ewes and hoggets are easier to feed when they're not growing so much wool. Easy maintenance and plenty of lambs with good quality weights. It's amazing how much work is involved with the wool when you move to the meat breeds. It's just coming through with the hoggets how much less crutching and dipping we have to do. I think on this warmer drier country it's a good fit," he says.

"On my reckoning, at $4.50-ish or more for wool there's a strong case for romneys but at under $4.50 greasy for ewe wool… I sat down and worked it out, that was about the change-over point for us. They had a good run a few years ago and it got up to $5 but then there was resistance and the market swung back to synthetics.

Poll dorset stud breeder Rick Lee and his father Charlie Lee on the farm at Elsthorpe.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Poll dorset stud breeder Rick Lee and his father Charlie Lee on the farm at Elsthorpe.

"I'd been mindful for a few years that I should be leaning more towards meat production but having had such a strong background in the romneys I was reluctant to change any earlier. It's the end of an era for me. I'm sad about the change. That nostalgia probably postponed me from doing it sooner but it ended up being a business decision."

The 601ha farm carries 5500 stock units. It used to be 6000su but Lee says the lower number feels more comfortable with continuing summer dry spells.

"We've just had three out of the past four years that have had that drier patch and I've found it's easier to button back overall and not be under pressure."

The farm produces about 3200 lambs most years although a dry autumn or difficult lambing can cut that back.

"The first cut goes off mum and the rest go on crops and go out in the following few months at 21 kilograms. Sometimes in the dry it's less than that. It depends on the season but we finish everything most years."

All stud rams are eye-muscle scanned and SIL-recorded.

"A good number of the flock rams sold on the place have indexes up over 1000 now with some of the high ones over 1100," he says.

"My own preference is for thick, strong sheep with good growth. We keep a strong component of fertility in the poll dorsets because I'm mindful they're used as a maternal sire as well as a terminal sire.

"All stud sires are foot-score DNA tested and have to score 3-3 or better to be used in the stud, which has given us a flock that's managed just like a romney flock for feet."

All rams are sold with breeding values (BV) for weaning weight, 200-day weight, eye muscle, fat, survival and fertility.

The stud was part of a Beef + Lamb NZ progeny trial at Maraetotara last year involving about 30 rams run with a large flock of ewes.

"Our ram sired the most number of progeny in that trial. He got the most number of ewes in lamb out of every breed. He had a very condensed or tight standard deviation – his progeny were a very tight group – in the middle of field."

About half the Leelands rams are sold within Hawke's Bay with the rest sold throughout the North Island.

The cattle side of the business is a trading-finishing operation. The farm buys steer calves to finish every year and trades others as feed allows.

"Before this last run of dry spells we ran about 300 cattle at any one time, but we're less than that at the moment. Most of them are traditional breeds with a hereford or angus base. We have sourced a good percentage of them from James Gollan (from Wimbledon, Tararua) who used to buy bulls from my parents' hereford stud. The rest come from wherever I can source them from at the time."

The last two lines killed by Lee weighed in at just over 400kg carcassweight.

"That's as good as I get when feed allows," he says.

"We're a bit wet at the moment, which makes it a bit difficult for wintering cattle but it has been a pretty good season overall. We've had good rain since March. We were about two weeks away from having to make some hard drought decisions but things turned."

The farm has 46ha of pine forestry ranging from 21 years old to some harvested and replanted this year.

"We plant the pines mainly in the less productive pasture country. There are also one or two smaller native areas around creeks and we also have poplar poles scattered around the farm.

"Most years we do some native planting or the poplar poles each year for hill stabilisation and shade in summer. They make a difference too," he says.

"I feel when they get to several years old they reduce the slipping and help provide an environment for stock to stay in in summer months. On those hot, dry faces the scattered planting helps to cool the soil and helps the microbial activity in the soil. They lower the extreme heat of those faces.

"There's also a small but limited value from the leaves they eat."

The family shifted from Marlborough to a property under the ranges at Tikokino in Central Hawke's Bay in 1993 but moved to the less winter-dominant area of Elsthorpe in 1996.

When they bought the Elsthorpe farm it was just under 400ha. With additions over the years it has grown to 601ha.

"About every five years there's been another addition. It's taken a while but it's now all one nice block, plus we have 34ha in Otane where we finish cattle and make a bit of supplement. We regrass one paddock there every year after a fodder crop and also bring some baleage home from there."

Rick's experience with stud sheep goes back to when he was a boy – he had his own heading dog and six stud ewes when he was 10 years old.

"They changed the rules of the Romney Association to allow you to have a minimum of six ewes," he says.

"So I had six ewes when I was 10, another six when I was 11 and then another two top ones when I was 12. By today's standards kids probably trade in that much equity on a weekly basis but that was probably 12 months' work for me," he says, laughing.

"Those first animals came from Tug Burrows, who was a bit of a legend."

His parents had the Leelands Hereford Stud and ran commercial corriedale sheep and were full of encouragement for the budding young breeder.

"My father loved that sort of thing and they supported me all the way."

"I was born and bred at Ward in Marlborough and went to university in Canterbury so I stayed working there for a while. But I put off my OE when I was 21 to buy half the Kelbrae flock from Kelso (West Otago)."

He has a number of New Zealand supreme champion ribbons as well as a letter from the Governor-General when he was in his 20s for being the youngest person to win the New Zealand Royal Show All Breeds Supreme Champion.

 - Stuff

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