Merino Excellence 2020 Tour Report

By Ross Macmillan, Farm To Farm Tours

Home > Merino Excellence - a fine look at the South Island

Merino Excellence - a fine look at the South Island

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The recent Merino Excellence 2020 tour and conference has to be one of the most satisfying New Zealand programmes I’ve been involved in over the last 32 years. Visitors and hosts made up a great bunch of merino growers and wool industry professionals, the weather was superb and the scenery stunning.

Our tour kicked off in Christchurch with delegates arriving from Australia, Argentina, Russia and Kazakhstan. From here, we travelled to Cheviot, North Canterbury to meet our first stud merino breeders. The Stevenson family at their renowned Gums property provided an excellent display and warm hospitality - a great introduction to New Zealand’s merino industry. Later, we headed north along the coastline to Blenheim, Marlborough for the night.

The next day took us far up the Awatere Valley to the spectacular and progressive high-country merino studs of the Satterthwaite family’s Muller Station, Macdonald’s Middlehurst and finally to Blairich - property of NZ Stud Merino Breeders President, Ron Small. Stock from the studs were penned for display along with the garments this superb soft, fine, white fibre ends up in.

The names Icebreaker, Smartwool, ZQ Merino and Devold were prominent in the branding, as were the companies Boehringer Ingelheim, NZ Merino and PGG Wrightson Wool as leading sponsors. Stock from other local studs joined in with sheep displays at Blairich including Isolation, Glenlee, Awapiri and Upcot - so there was no shortage of high-quality Merino stud stock to check out. After convivial chatter over a beer or two, we finished a superb day with a tasty barbecue with the hospitable locals.

The next day we started our journey southwest from the dry east across to the more humid environs of the South Island’s rugged West Coast. Stops at Murchison, Westport, Punakaiki, Hokitika broke the journey then finally to Franz Josef, Glacier Country, for the night.

The morning saw us checking out the Franz Josef Glacier, then over the Haast Pass to Cromwell, Central Otago. This was our home for the next few nights as we enjoyed the magnificence this beautiful region has to offer. The Merino Excellence 2020 Conference itself occupied a full day and included both international and local delegates. It was informative and fun and speakers covered off a range of subjects crucial to the fine wool industry. These included on-farm issues such as some promising genetic research on breeding sheep for foot rot resistance (a significant issue for many fine wool producers) and interesting branding and marketing stories from end-product users such as Barkers NZ and Devold of Norway.

The next two days saw most heading to the superb Wanaka Show - it gets better and better and bigger and bigger each year. Set in such a beautiful lakeside location, with a huge range of stock and all things rural, it is a ‘must-see’ for farmers far and wide. Our international group were naturally attracted to the Merino entries and displays with some involved in the judging itself.

The weather was brilliant so some of our international friends chose to fly to and cruise on Milford Sound whilst others couldn’t get enough of the rural southern vibe and returned to the Show for a second day. That Sunday was a free day and nearly all took the opportunity to visit Queenstown - a few even throwing caution to the wind to bungy jump and jet boat! Others rode the gondola to Bob’s Peak or enjoyed the more tranquil TSS Earnslaw steamer cruise on Lake Wakatipu.

After the weekend, we were back into the Merino Breeders’ stud visits with a day trip to the Maniatoto. One farmer told me that if there were no fences in NZ, all sheep would migrate to that beautifully spectacular farming environment - North Island sheep excluded I guess!

We saw some wonderful award-winning sheep at ex All Black, Andrew Hore’s farm, then it was on to the home of the Wanaka Supreme Champion Ram at the Paterson’s Armidale Stud. These international visitors of ours must have broken a Guinness Book record for the number of sheep that had their wool parted for closer inspection, followed by learned comments and conclusions about its relative merit and suitability (or not) for their particular environment back home - be it outback Australia, Patagonia or the valleys of Kazakhstan steppes of Russia!

After a final night in Cromwell, we headed north again to Nine Mile Stud near Tarras. The emphasis by the Lucas family was on breeding their Merinos as a dual-purpose animal producing both superb 18-19-micron fine wool but also a good lambing percentage and lamb weights – especially in the current economic environment with both good fine wool and lamb prices. We continued to the Sutherland's Benmore Stud, combined with Ahuriri and Clay Cliffs stock, Martin Murray and family’s Maryburn stud and, finally, to the Ivey’s Glentanner stud for the day’s big wind-up and barbecue.

Across these studs, not only the terrain varied but also the annual rainfall – 600mm near Benmore to 2000mm at Glentanner lying in the shadow of Aoraki Mount Cook. To me the merinos all looked great and somewhat homogenous but, to the experts, the subtle differences in size, wool staple, length, nourishment, feet and stature coupled in some cases with a plethora of breeding records, means it is very much horses for courses or rams for ...!

Our final day saw us off to Balmoral Stud near Tekapo where the first frost of the season welcomed us along with the Simpson family, their stud sheep and a tasty smoko. Some of the sheep handling equipment was of particular interest, as was the amazing progress being made with irrigation - as we had also heard on other studs in this region.

Our final visit was to Will and Emily Murray’s Glenmore property in behind Lake Alexandrina. Will’s dad, Jim Murray, kindly guided us to the Station and shared his profound local knowledge and history with us. In addition to the irrigation, which complements the vast dry areas of the property, the use of high protein, edible, forage lupins for stock was noteworthy. The general ambience of this visit was stunning with the sheep, the trees and landscaping, the lake and especially, the surrounding mountain and lake vistas.

Before heading back to Christchurch for our final night, we enjoyed a picnic lunch in a potentially ideal self-isolating spot. Where better to reflect on the recent friendships made and the positive future ahead for wonderful Merino wool, than on a warm, sunny, Mackenzie Country day with magnificent views of the river valley and mountains of the more remote parts of Glenmore.

By Ross Macmillan, Farm To Farm Tours

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