Monday, April 22, 2024

Sheep beat dairy temptation

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North Canterbury sheep and beef farmer Ben Ensor planned to take a year out after leaving school then head off to university. He hasn’t got there – yet but who knows what might happen, he says. Meantime, he’s passionate about the challenges of farming in the close-knit rural community of Cheviot. Annette Scott visited him to learn what drives him.
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Ben Ensor grew up farming in the Cheviot district where the family name is synonymous with the small rural community in North Canterbury.

On leaving high school he looked forward to a year out of study before heading to university but that year grew to several as he first worked with a shearing contractor them worked his way around New Zealand on sheep and beef farms, climbing the ladder to stock manager status.

Then with a couple of years overseas and university fallen by the wayside Ensor returned to the family farm in 2000 as managing director of the sheep and beef business.

He and wife Jane have been farming on their own account since 2008 the hill country breeding operation, Jedburgh, taking in 1300 hectares of mainly hill country complemented by Willow Grove, a 120ha flat, irrigated property on the south bank of the Waiau River.

The Ensors run 5000 breeding ewes and 1600 ewe hoggets with 250 Angus cows plus replacement heifers.

Calves are usually weaned to the finishing block in February with the yearling cattle wintered on fodder beet, finished and off the property by the following January.

The lambs are finished on straight clover, mainly red with a fresh of white.

“No grass, that works well for finishing for us. 

“We start weaning at 60 days with average weights at 23kg, get them onto high-powered feed and away they go. They can grow just as fast off the mother because of the quality of the clover feed.”

It also takes the pressure of the hills as the summer sets in and it helps ewe condition as North Canterbury tends to get dry from November.  

Now running a 50:50 breeding flock of Romneys and halfbreds Ensor is transitioning back to the halfbreds to capture the better returns in the fine-wool market.

“The halfbreds do better and suit our hill country and what we enjoy doing. 

“I’ve got fine wool in my blood so there’s definitely a bit of personal preference but right now it’s far more profitable when we’re netting $40-$50 a head off them.”

The halfbreds are also good in terms of lambing and longer-term opportunity.

“There’s good potential to lift the125-130% lambing and returns using Merino genetics focused on growth and fat cover as well as lamb production.”

While the Cheviot district is a great place to farm the really healthy stock country, it is in the heart of drought-prone North Canterbury and that has its challenges.

“The biggest challenge is the weather but that’s what I really enjoy, making a system that’s adaptable enough to cope both climatically and economically with it each year as it comes around.

“If every year was the same I’d probably get bored with it.”

Seven years ago the Ensors invested in irrigation on their 120ha finishing block.

“That’s been a big investment but a good investment. 

“It’s given us certainty in our planning and a guarantee of what we can do and what we can produce and with that we have been able to build relationships with meat companies and contract supply.”

While it’s been a long and slow process Ensor is confident he will soon have his time back to get back to business on farm.

The zone committee is getting close to putting together a plan change that by the end of next year should be approved and will be a good outcome for all, making non-irrigated farming a permitted activity provided less than 10% of the area of the property is in winter crop.

“And we think that is a good result in that one of the messages we have tried to get across is that dryland farming in North Canterbury is constrained by the weather and you can’t ever carry high stocking enough to have detriment to water quality because quite simply you can’t carry the numbers to do it, therefore farming systems are conservative to withstand the extremes we get.

“It’s not possible to go crazy and do stuff and that’s a hard concept for people to get their head around.”

Despite its challenges the district is a great place to live and farm.

“It’s a great community with a lot of younger farming families coming through that bring enthusiasm, new ideas and new ways of doing things so it’s a great place to live.

“Geographically, being more isolated than many, it’s maintained a very strong community and Cheviot is really holding its own for a small rural town.”

When he’s not farming or advocating for farmers and the environment Ensor likes to take time out jet boating on the nearby Waiau and Hurunui Rivers while Jane follows her passion for horse riding, also shared by their six-year-daughter Samantha who, together with Jane’s horses, shares the small only bit of flat land on the home block for her pony, Wondy.

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