Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Marlborough farmer likens herd to building a Super Rugby team

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One of New Zealand’s oldest stations keeps a lookout for dispersal sales at prime studs, ready to buy in the country’s top genetics.
Greg Crombie has been the stud manager for five years on Leefield Station, a 2300ha property that carries 270 Angus cows, 2100 Romney ewes and includes a 17ha bull finishing unit.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

Leefield Station in Marlborough is already home to some of New Zealand’s top genetics, thanks to its policy of buying high quality cows at the dispersal sales of long-established studs that are being wound down.

“I liken our Angus registered cows to a Super Rugby team,” stud manager Greg Crombie says.

“They buy players from other regions to field a superior team. We have bought some amazingly good cattle and that has leapfrogged us decades.”

Crombie has overseen the stud’s growth from 30 registered cows to 100, with the aim of selling 20 two-year-old bulls a year. With about 30 years’ experience breeding hill country cattle up and down the country, including the East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Southland, he reasoned the best way to accelerate genetic improvement in the herd was buying the best available cows.

Some of the oldest Angus studs in the country, including Mātauri, Rangatira, Te Whanga and Oakview, have closed in the past few years – bringing to market the cows they had spent decades breeding.

“Good dispersals don’t come up every year, so we were just absolutely lucky.  We’re not buying registered cows that are other studs’ culls, we’re buying the best of the best and we’re fronting up at auction and paying what we have to on the day to buy those cattle.”

Leefield Station has 650ha of flat land that is devoted to winemaking. It produces a range of Leefield-labelled wines.

The 2300ha Leefield Station is located in Waihōpai valley and all of the property’s 650ha of flat land is devoted to winemaking. Alongside the grapes, 1000ha of hill country is farmed, carrying 270 Angus cows, both stud and commercial animals, and 2100 Romney ewes. The remainder is mostly bush and includes some QEll covenants.

“When I started five years ago [owners] Brent and Rosemary Marris wanted a genuine integrated livestock and viticulture business so we’ve definitely done that,” Crombie says.

The 17ha bull finishing unit, placed in gullies that couldn’t be planted, is surrounded by grapes, and they also run Berkshire pigs, an old breed with marbled meat, which run inside the vineyards too. In winter lambs are finished among the vines.

But while it’s the perfect place to grow grapes and make wine, Marlborough is a challenging place to farm, Crombie says.

“I’ve managed businesses all over New Zealand and without doubt, this would be the most uncompromising place to farm livestock. You get 600mm of rain a year, you’ve got light soils that don’t hold on to moisture and you just get the blazing heat.”

But despite that, Crombie’s proud of the bulls they’re breeding.

Leefield Angus bulls are bred to be structurally sound, quiet cattle that have above average EBVs. About 20 are sold each year.

“We don’t chase fads, we don’t want the highest or lowest of anything, we want good, structurally sound, quiet cattle that have above average EBVs and we know that our people who’re buying our bulls are gaining from that.”

And while the bulls might not be the fattest around on sale day, they have something Crombie reckons is more important – they thrive on steep hill country like Leefield Station.

“They just bowl up and down hills like there’s no tomorrow, they’re just so surefooted.  We have clients put them out and they go, ‘They just go straight up the hill and out with the cows, they don’t wait at the gate at the bottom,’ and it’s just because they’re used to it.”

The only time the cattle aren’t on the hill is when the stud cows come in for calving for a week.

“I bring them off the hill, calve them and tag them at birth and they’re put straight back on the hill.  The paddocks the bulls are in are all hill paddocks too, there’s nothing that’s flat. To survive at Leefield Station, unless you walk up the hill, you’re out the gate, you end up getting sold, and it’s as simple as that.

“They’re genuine cattle even for the dairy guys; everything’s pre-tested here.  If it’s not up to speed, it goes. We steer bull calves at weaning if we don’t like them, so it’s a pretty brutal set-up.”

Leefield Station is located in the picturesque Waihōpai valley. The vineyard is located on the flats but the cattle are run on the steep hills, which is challenging for stud manager Greg Crombie.

Leefield Station is among NZ’s oldest stations, having been purchased in 1840 by Constantine Dillon, who served as military and civil secretary to Governor George Grey and later as commissioner of Crown Lands and Land Claims in Nelson. In those days the station covered 20,200ha and it stayed in the Dillon family, albeit gradually getting smaller, until 1988 when it was purchased by Danish couple Pier and Linda Rold.

They sold it to Auckland businessman Greg Oliver in 2006 and in 2013 the Marrises of Marisco Wines bought the station.

“It’s been mainly sheep and cattle over the years and that didn’t change until the conversion of 650ha into grapes,” Crombie says. 

 “Anything that can possibly be suitable for grapes gets planted.

“I look after the livestock part of the business and that certainly keeps us busy and we also have a vineyard manager and there are two wineries on the property as well.”

More: Leefield Station held its first on-farm bull sale last year and will do the same again this year on June 19, with another Angus breeder, Ben Maisey of Blacknight Stud.

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