Farming sheep in dairy stronghold
While just about all the neighbouring farms have been converted to dairying, the McCulloch family of Glenavy, South Canterbury, have stuck with sheep and have no plans to change. They talked to Tony Benny.
Bruce McCulloch farms the 240 acre block his grandfather took up in 1899, with his son Ross, 27. The irrigated property is one farm away from the South Canterbury coast, east of Glenavy, and the McCullochs run 1700 coopworth ewes, 450 hoggets and 30 beef cattle.
The farm was once part of the 19,000 ha Waikakahi Estate that was bought by the Government in 1899 and then balloted, creating 122 farms and 11 grazing runs, all on 999-year leases.
"The rent was £112 a year so we were paying $225 in rent, fixed for 999 years," laughs Bruce. "It was costing them more in administration than they were getting in rent."
That changed in the 1980s when the National Government offered a new deal that if 10 years' rent was paid in five years, effectively doubling the rent, then the farms were freeholded.
"Only one guy we know of didn't do it, he reckoned they should keep to the original agreement. We thought it could be worse if Labour got in so we took it. It wasn't a bad deal."
Enormous changes started in the district in the mid 1970s when the Morven Glenavy irrigation scheme, that takes water from the Waitaki River to the south was constructed.
"The Ministry of Agriculture said you'd be able to run three times as many sheep, eight to the acre. Some people tried and it didn't work. The fertility and the soils weren't there for that."
By the 1990s farmers were finding more profitable ways to use irrigation and a mass conversion of the district's sheep farms to dairying began and today only Bruce and Ross and Bruce's brother David (best known by his nickname Digger) are still serious sheep farmers.
"There was one agent who knocked on my door and I said no and then another agent rung me and I said, 'Have you got any farms around for sale, I might be interested in buying a bit more,' so that shut him up."
Bruce and Digger took over the original block, plus other farms their uncle and father had added, and farmed together for 30 years until they split their partnership a decade ago.
Both dedicated sheep men, they set up four sheep studs which they still run in partnership today, dorset down, coopworth, border leicester and texel. But as sheep farming has declined, so too has the market for stud rams.
"We used to sell 100 rams in total each year but now we're probably about 50. There's just not the farmers around anymore. We used to be able to just sell locally but there's none of those farmers left," Bruce says.
Today Ross does most of the day-to-day farm work, especially since Bruce injured his back last year; he was on crutches for 10 weeks and is only now getting better
"We've had the highest scanning this year we've ever had and I put it down to him not hanging round," jokes Ross.
They scanned 180 per cent and 100 ewes are carrying triplets. They'll be lambed on a 20ha plantain and clover block the McCullochs sowed last year.
"That's made a huge difference, it's like rocket fuel. Grass doesn't give ewes enough to feed three lambs. If we lamb them on that, they're not having to eat as much grass," Ross says.
So impressed are they with the results they've already achieved on plantain they intend to put in another block this year. This winter for the first time they've also grown fodder beet and they've grown lucerne since the 1960s.
The property, called Gibberslea Farm (gibber is Gaelic for stone, as in stony ground) is irrigated by border dykes that cover 180ha. They're sparing in their use of water, usually only irrigating every second time they get their rostered water every 17 days.
The only irrigate when there's a moisture deficiency and only when the soil warms up after Labour Weekend.
"Some people irrigate in September when it's too cold. They think they're short of grass but they have too many animals," Bruce reckons.
Their lucerne gets irrigation water once a summer, between cuts. Bruce believes low-cost border dyke irrigation works well and doesn't like what centre pivots have done to the local landscape. "What I hate is they cut down all the trees. People planted trees around the whole area through the 70s and 80s and now they're all being chopped down and burnt."
Like most sheep farmers, the McCullochs are feeling the effects of lamb prices being too low and wool being even worse.
"In June last year I sold our best ewe wool for $5.92 a kg and now that same wool is $3.20. It's a hell of a drop, I reckon it's the fastest I've seen in my life."
As a sideline they have a small flock of coloured sheep and have their wool woven into ponchos, scarves and baby blankets by an Oamaru business called McLean and Co which uses 100-year-old Hattersley looms to weave the traditional way.
They also sell knitting wool and use TradeMe and markets as outlets.
"We're trying to build business," says Ross. "But we need to know how to market the stuff – if we could find a girl who knows how to do marketing, that would be the idea."
This year Ross was a finalist in the Mystery Creek Fieldays rural bachelor competition.
"It was a free week up north, with flights all paid for and prizes including clothes, boots and shirts. She was a good week," he says, though he's still a bachelor.
"There are too many crazy girls out there at the moment and I haven't found one to bring home yet," he laughs.
His mother Kathy interrupts. "Not that he's telling us anyway!"
Ross has had great success in stock judging competitions and last year won the event at Mystery Creek, adding to wins at the Young Farmer event in Timaru, the Christchurch show and the Royal show in Hastings last year. His prizes have included two trips to Australia to compete in similar events there.
Clearly, he has an eye for stock. "Yeah, I get it from my uncle I think!" he says, mostly to wind up his dad who mutters good-naturedly at the other end of the table.
Ross has 30 beef cattle on the farm. "That's my wages," he says. He buys dairy-hereford cross calves at four days old, rears them and takes them through to two years. But prices for calves are now making it more difficult to make that pay.
"I've heard of people asking $220 for white-faced bulls, at four days old, and $180 for heifers. You would be better getting them out of the bobby truck than paying $220, especially when you don't know what's going to happen in two years time."
Bruce wants to stick with sheep but accepts Ross may have a point when he says he'd rather have more beef cattle on the farm. "We probably will have to buy more beef cattle unless the wool thing gets going."
"There aren't too many flat-land sheep farmers left," Ross says. "Strugglers' Flat, I tell the boys."