Mt Linton Pastoral Development and Genetics

June 2017

Pastoral development on hill country at Mt Linton Station and the Mt Linton Genetics programme produces success at the Sheep Industry Awards.

Mt Linton Station is one of the significant sheep and cattle stations in NZ, covering 13,365ha of rolling downs and tussock-clad high country. It was first settled in 1856 and has been farmed by the current owners since 1903. It is the largest privately owned property (in terms of livestock numbers) in New Zealand.

The current general manager is Ceri Lewis. When Ceri was growing up in Wales he never imagined that one day he’d be running one of New Zealand’s iconic sheep and cattle stations in the heart of Southland. Ceri initially came to New Zealand to work on farms in the Gisborne area. Immediately prior to Mt Linton he was a manager with Brownrigg Agriculture in Hawkes Bay. He’s been general manager at Mt Linton for the past twelve years.

As a farming philosophy, Ceri aims to produce high quality food using nature, genetics and the latest in farming techniques. The station aims to produce a niche product from animals that don’t require too many inputs.

The property has all land types and systems from intensive finishing systems to native pastures. Currently the station carries 107,000 s/u - comprising 3,000 Angus breeding cows plus replacements and 42,000 Texel-Romney ewes plus replacements. 

As a general philosophy, Mt Linton has focused on looking for animals that perform consistently. Even though winters can be pretty harsh, Ceri says Southland probably has the best climate for farming in New Zealand. “It’s reliable farming country. It’s summer-safe and grows a lot of grass because we get rainfall pretty consistently all through the summer. We never get droughts so we don’t have to irrigate.” 

There is 20 full time staff – 12 are on stock and the balance on what they call the “ag team”. It’s a large staff by most farm standards but the stockmen and women are flat out most of the year with a ratio of about 1 person to 5,000 stock units. Ceri says there’s no trouble attracting young keen shepherds to the property. 

Lambs are the biggest income earner at Mt Linton – 65% comes from lamb finishing. From November through to January the property will wean in the region of 60,000 lambs – finishing around 45,000 – and if the season allows they’ll buy in lambs and finish them as well. 

Ceri says they used to have several finishing farms but they now on finish stock on station. One of the challenges in recent times has been clover root weevil, which affected their ability to finish lambs on rye grass and clover. 

To combat the weevil they’ve put in red clover, which is not as susceptible to the pest, with (Ceri says) fantastic results. They now have 300 ha which they use to finish lambs that are averaging weight gains of 240gm/day over the season. 

Around 12,000 ewes are mated to the terminal sires. All lambs born to terminal sires are weaned in late November at about 70 days old. Three different weaning periods are scheduled to spread the workload. The sheep on the hill country lamb a lot later than they do on the downs. So while they’re still weaning on the later country, a fair chunk of the terminal lambs have already been sent to the works. 

The improvements offered through the Station’s genetic unit have helped with the excellent growth rates. Ceri says the genetic improvement has also meant there’s a meat yield premium built into the lambs they send for processing – and they are able take light liveweight lambs and still get good carcass weights. In terms of meat yield and growth rates, he says the station performs very well. The one area they’d like to improve on is lamb survivability. 

Ceri believes they have a system that works really well. He says the biggest challenge is the climate, although he believes their ability to manage that is getting better as weather forecasting accuracy is improving. 

The property has about 3,000 ha of hill country that is native – so there’s plenty of scope yet to expand. Mt Linton is developing as much as 300 ha per year – taking country that was capable of carrying 2 or 3 su/ ha – through to 8 to 10 su/ha. The programme has been running over the last 10-15 years on uncultivatible blocks. Initially hill country was sprayed out over autumn, grazed over winter and then sowed it back into grass in the spring. The problem with that system was that it was reverting too quickly. Through trial and error they’ve developed a system they believe works very well and growing crops from 8 up to 12 tons on the hill country. 

Nowadays they spray out in the autumn with a metsulfuron product, to kill brush weeds like matagouri, manuka and ringfern. It is fallowed over winter, leaving a thatch cover to carry the fire when it’s burnt off in spring. Following the burn-off there’s an application of glyphosate followed quickly by an aerial drop of coated seed. From then on it is a matter of applying fertilizer and subdividing. 

Ceri says timing is crucial. As soon as the glyphosate is applied, the seed needs to spread. “The longer you leave it the more chance you give the weeds to come away. You wanted to give that seed the best chance you can.” He adds the fact that Mt Linton has consistent rainfall means good crops can be established reliably. 

On newly developed country they generally sow turnips in the first season – in the second year they will sow swedes or kale and the third year they are back into grass. Once developed, the hill blocks are used for grazing calves over the winter. They get wire trained after weaning on the downs. They spend mid May to mid-September on the hills and can achieve growth rates of 600 – 700 gms a day through that time.

Mt Linton is continuously trying to improve its stock performance and looks to benchmark against other properties to see how they stack up. Ceri says the station sits above national averages in both sheep and cattle. “The goal is trying to maintain and improve as much as we can.” 

Re-development of the hill country has also been a rewarding challenge. “I guess the aim here is to continuously improve the property and with the work we are doing in redeveloping the hill country – that makes it very satisfying.” 

For the future Ceri says they are very interested in adding value in both sheep and cattle. A focus for the station is in offering an improved eating experience for the end consumer and get out of the commodity market. The station wants to be ahead of the market in anticipation of a premium for good eating quality meat. To that end they are looking at ways of lifting the marbling and tenderness attributes of both classes of livestock. Work is quite advanced in the cattle marbling scores and a similar project is being run with the sheep – which includes work at the genetic unit on the station.