Thursday, December 7, 2023

It was all done on a handshake

Neal Wallace
Stud breeding has enabled the Robertson family from Southland to settle family members onto farms. But Neal Wallace discovers that is only part of the formula for successful farm succession. Being a tight knit, focused and strong family unit also helps.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It might be dismissed as a cliche but the adage that an apple never falls far from the tree is applicable to the Robertson family from Southland.

The Robertsons farm Duncraigen Farm at Mimihau near Wyndham and the cornerstone of their business are stud Hereford cattle, Romney and Dorset Down stud sheep and various crosses of those breeds.

Stud breeding and stockmanship is in Bruce and Carolynn Robertson’s blood.

Bruce’s parents, Frank and Sue, were stud breeders near Greytown in Wairarapa; Carolynn’s father had a reputation as an exceptional stockman and now their two adult children will be the family’s third generation of stud breeders.

Frank and Sue bred Romney and Dorset Down sheep and thoroughbred horses, including Melbourne Cup winner Rising Fast.

The horse was the first ever to win the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate races in the same year, 1954.

The following year Rising Fast ran second in the Melbourne Cup and won the Caulfield Cup for a second time.

Bruce and Carolynn bought Duncraigen off the estate of Carolynn’s parents Harry and Jean Anderson in 1987 and have been breeding stud stock ever since.

While it is a passion and an interest it has played a far more important role, allowing the Robertsons to grow their business to the point where they own two farms on which to settle the next generation.

They are now in the process of assisting their son Marc and his wife Jolene and daughter Casey and her husband Luke Caldwell onto the farms.

Bruce says it is possible because of the success and income generated from more than 30 years of stud breeding.

Succession isn’t an easy process with Casey describing a recent day with an accountant as exhausting.

The fact the Robertsons are in this position also reflects a strong family bond that has been cemented around the discipline and love of farm work and farm life, the challenge of breeding stud sheep and cattle, involvement in breed societies and from showing stock at A and P Shows.

“The kids went everywhere we did,” Carolynn says.

Otago and Southland Dorset Down breeders send their top ram lambs to Duncraigen to be monitored for growth rates and eye muscle for three months.

This year they are going to hold an on-line video bull sale through PGG Wrightson and Bidr. Previously they held a joint on farm sale with another breeder but Bruce says he wants to try something new.

Three years ago the family was one of the first in Southland to align with the NZ Merino Company’s strong wool programme.

Frustrated with the poor prices and the performance of existing selling methods for crossbred wool, they committed to supplying NZ Merino with lamb and second-shear wool.

Each shearing they are visited by a NZ Merino field officer who instructs shed hands on how they want the wool prepared and for which the Robertsons get a guaranteed price.

“So far it is going well,” Bruce says.

“They’ve got a passion for strong wool and believe it has a future. If we had kept doing what we were doing we were only going to keep getting the same result.”

Similarly, they are trialling the merits of crossing Beltex rams over Dorset Down ewes with the first lambs born last spring.

“You should never be frightened of doing anything differently,” Bruce says.

Since taking over the home farm in 1987, the Robertsons have steadily added more land. It is a similar story for Lauder Falls, a 120ha farm when bought in 2002 has grown to 370ha.

Combined, the two farms run 5000 ewes, of which 1500 are stud, 1500 ewe hoggets, 650 ram hoggets, 60 stud Hereford cows, 130 Hereford-Friesian steers and heifers, which are finished to 18 months and sold at 260kg carcase weight, and 110 yearling and rising two-year dairy grazers.

The average weight of commercial prime lambs is 19.4kg, stud ewes lamb at 156%, cows calve at 94% and ewes average 5.8kg of wool.

Marc says everything they sell they would happily use over their own stock.

“What we sell we’d comfortably use ourselves. I think that gives people surety that they are getting decent stock.”

Their breeding philosophy doesn’t waver and reflects the reality their clients’ commercial sheep flocks and cow herds are being pushed further into Southland and Otago hill country, including some very dry areas in Central Otago.

“We need to service their requirements and breed animals that will survive but which are also fertile, have good constitution, a quality carcase and thriftiness,” Marc says.

With Casey and Luke likely to have their hands full with three children under the age of two Bruce and Carolynn will continue to run the farm for some time yet, a prospect that does not worry Bruce who says he still bounces out of bed each morning excited about what is in store.

Bruce says he will never retire and is likely to continue running the studs but Marc and Casey are both optimistic they can still grab new opportunities and squeeze more production and productivity out of the business.

“There is still room for incremental improvement and I am keen to try new things,” Marc says.

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