The Morton family may have achieved two milestones in recent years, but they have no intention of resting on their laurels. Russell Priest discovers what the family has planned for the future. Photos by Brad Hanson.

Tucked away on steep hill country in the northern Manawatu on the road between Rangiwahia and Ohingaiti is Paki-iti farm, home to one of New Zealand’s oldest surviving Romney ram breeding businesses.

In 2015 the Morton family celebrated 100 years of ownership of Paki-iti and in 2020 a century of breeding Romney rams.

Established in 1920 by Archie Morton, the great-grandfather of present guardians Stewart (47) and Andrew (45) Morton, the business now services 160 clients a year nationwide and now not only breeds Romney rams but also Romtex, Suftex and Suffolks.

“Nowadays we don’t consider ourselves just Romney breeders but breeders of what the market requires,” Stewart said.

What the market requires presents the ram breeding industry with huge and ongoing challenges not only with regard to improved performance, constitution and soundness, but also the price of crossbred wool and tolerance to diseases like facial eczema.

“We have a huge responsibility as ram breeders because we provide 80% of the genetic improvement to the commercial farmer,” Stewart said.

The Mortons take their responsibility seriously, with their entire business aimed at replicating as closely as possible a commercial operation. This goes a long way to ensuring the genes they generate in their environment are more likely to fit seamlessly into the flocks of their clients.

Paki-iti Farms Ltd is a predominantly ram-breeding business, owning an 850ha (800ha effective) hill country block (Paki-iti) in the northern Manawatu plus three easy contoured farms totalling 460ha in the Kimbolton area.

Paki-iti (637m at its highest point) is subdivided into about 80 paddocks, 20 of which are used for single-sire mating.

Soil fertility important

Paki-iti farm buildings in Rangiwahia district in northern Manawatu.

One farm asset the Mortons are aiming to develop further however is soil fertility. At present the Olsen P levels range between 9-16 with the pHs in the mid-5s. An annual dressing of 250kg sulphur super is applied in the autumn, with a third of the farm getting 800kg/ha of lime every year.

“Our biggest soil issue is the pH but it’s pretty expensive applying lime to hill country,” Stewart said.

The predominantly steep contoured farm has soils that consist mainly of papa and sandstone, and lost 9.1% of its grazable land in the 2004 weather bomb that hit most of the lower North Island. The scars have taken years to heal but an annual poplar pole planting programme is helping ensure such damage will be reduced in the event of a similar storm.

Stock water is supplied mostly via dams, although there are a couple of streams that flow through the farm. Three-quarters of the dams dried up during last summer’s drought, allowing diggers access to clean them out.

“We are doing some research at the moment into setting up a reticulated water scheme based on our natural water courses,” Andrew said.

Paki-iti is home to 1500 SIL-recorded Romney and Romtex ewes and their progeny, 1700 commercial Romney ewes of which 1000 are mated to terminal sires, 180 MA cows, and 50 R2 in-calf heifers (mainly Angus).

The 460ha of easy country runs the terminal ewe flocks, the sale rams after they have been wintered on Paki-iti, and is used to grow out the weaner heifers, calve the R2 heifers, finish trading cattle, and graze dairy heifers.

“The recorded terminal ram lambs wean at more than 40kg and by April average 55kg. If allowed to continue to grow at this sort of rate they would be too big by sale time so we send them up to Paki-iti for a couple of months to harden them up and to sort out the ones with poor constitution,” Stewart said.

The weaner heifers are sent down to the flats on July 1 and wintered behind a hot wire to get them up to weight to mate as yearlings. They return to Paki-iti to be mated to bulls with low birth weight EBVs and return to the flats for calving behind a hot wire.

“We don’t have any significant calving issues with our heifers, but in saying this we are conscious not to overfeed them,” Stewart says.

Ram team selection

Sheep mating is a busy time of the year for the staff at Paki-iti, taking about six weeks to complete. It starts by taking weights and measurements from the various breeds, analysing the data and viewing the progeny of the rams used for mating the previous year. The ram team is then selected and individual matings determined based on mating the best to the best and corrective mating, which is a long but interesting process.

“Corrective mating results in the progeny being like peas in a pod.”

The Mortons are strong believers in the concept of handling and observing their animals as much as is practical rather than simply plucking their numbers out of a computer.

The selective mating process results in about 40 mating mobs with a maximum of one ram to 140 ewes (averages one to 80-90). Mating begins on April 1.

The maternal hoggets (minimum cut-off weight of 40kg) are mated to Romney rams in mobs with one ram to 50 hoggets. Mating starts on May 1. No progeny are retained for breeding out of hoggets. Normally they scan 100% with 70%-80% normally in lamb.

Unlike the maternal hoggets, 50% of the progeny of the terminal hoggets are retained for breeding. Mating begins in mid-April with a minimum cut-off mating weight of 50kg.

Ram selling in November is another busy time of the year for Paki-iti staff, requiring two people full time for three and a half weeks.

Single sire mating using a mating period of 34 days is a major impediment to generating a bank of feed for the winter.

“After mating we mob the ewes up and go into a rotation, however by August we’ve got to bail out because we can no longer push feed ahead.”

Traditionally the Mortons have tried to farm commercially using nitrogen only to increase lambing covers, but now they’re looking to drop their stocking rate, lamb 10 days earlier, and maybe use nitrogen to build winter covers.

‘We are now selling and leasing more than 500 terminal rams and ram hoggets annually, which tells me we must have a reasonable product that is working.’

An earlier mating will enable them to enter their winter rotation sooner, and combined with an autumn nitrogen application, should generate enough of a bank of feed to take the ewes through to lambing without having to abandon the winter rotation prematurely.

“This strategy will also allow us to wean at 85 days (early December) instead of 75 and increase our average weaning weight to 34kg,” Stewart said.

Lamb parentage identified

One of the long-standing traditions on Paki-iti has been to identify a lamb’s parentage at docking. This tradition continues today and is a time-consuming exercise that normally takes seven weeks and involves the entire Paki-iti team.

The alternative would be to use DNA technology, which requires taking a tissue sample from each lamb and getting this analysed to determine its pedigree.

However, the cost of this would have to be passed on to their clients, which they were not prepared to do at this stage.

“We DNA test all our sires though, so they are 100% correct.

“We think our system is a good compromise but we owe it to our clients to get it as correct as possible because they are paying good money for their rams.”

The present team at Paki-iti Farms includes Ross Geary, Angus Gibb, and recent arrival Erica Ernshaw.

Paki-iti is well served with satellite yards that are used for docking and parent identification. Mobs of about 20 ewes and their lambs at a time are quietly mustered into holding yards and allowed to mother up. Once this occurs each individual family unit is moved one by one into smaller pens where the ewes are identified, lambs tagged and docked, and the pedigree information recorded.

Children’s involvement encouraged

One of William’s many legacies was to set up a business called SAV Enterprises (SAV being short for Stewart, Andrew, Victoria) when Stewart was 10 years old to encourage his three children to experience breeding sheep. SAVE bought 10 Paki-iti ewes for $10 each. The children were involved in the whole gamut of events associated with breeding rams, from selecting mating combinations to selling the progeny and the wool.

During the 1990s the recorded ewe numbers increased significantly as the stud took advantage of the publicity generated by the two record-priced rams (see box) and the trend towards more recording.

In 1995 in response to increasing interest in the use of terminal sires Paki-iti established a Suffolk stud. The old stud card-recording system was replaced by a computer-based system to cater for the extra ewe numbers. Paki-iti also underwent a large development programme aimed at dramatically increasing the number of paddocks, primarily to accommodate the increasing number of single-sire mating mobs.

In 1999 at the ages of 26 and 24 respectively, Stewart and Andrew assumed managerial control of Paki-iti and soon began changing the type of sheep being bred to a more efficient, hardier type.

In 2008 a Suftex stud was established to offer a more meaty terminal option to the Suffolk, and in 2011 a Romtex breeding programme was started to offer a higher growth and more meaty maternal option to the Romney.

The brothers added a terminal ram leasing option to their business in 2010. Ram hoggets are able to be leased for one mating season only and are then killed, avoiding the possibility of introducing brucellosis into the Paki-iti flock.

“We are now selling and leasing more than 500 terminal rams and ram hoggets annually, which tells me we must have a reasonable product that is working,” Stewart said.

In 2020 the Paki-iti recorded ewe numbers were 1500 Romney and Romtex and 1300 Suffolk and Suftex.

Today constitution is the foremost of Paki-iti’s breeding objectives, closely followed by structural soundness and performance.

The Mortons’ aim is to breed sheep, including the terminals, that can handle the hill country environment.

“We believe poor structure is one of the biggest issues in the sheep industry, with feet being the single biggest problem,” Stewart said.

“We consider performance to be very important but not at the expense of constitution and soundness.”

Performance traits focused on in their Romney flock are growth, meat, fertility, and survivability, although as Stewart pointed out that while survivability is important, its heritability is so low the ability to make genetic progress is extremely slow. Stewart said breeding for thicker skins has some merit and is a more rewarding option in terms of survivability. No selection pressure is put on wool weight.

Paki-iti has been selecting for facial eczema tolerance in a Romney sub-flock for nine years and is at present testing at 0.4. Strong relationships have been formed with others breeding for the trait.

Dams are a major source of stock water.

Focus on structure and fertility

The Mortons’ have achieved considerable success with their most recently developed breed the Romtex because their breeding programme has focused strongly on the two main weaknesses of the Texel breed: structure and fertility.

“It’s important when breeding Romtex to have a stabilised flock because you’ve got greater control of the variability that results from crossbreeding,” Stewart says.

Besides focusing on improving growth and meat in their Suftex and Suffolk flocks the Mortons are also trying to make the former breed darker to make it a more effective marker breed, and the latter more hardy to improve its survivability.

In order to access outside genetics the Mortons are members of several breeding groups. Stewart is impressed with the willingness of members to share knowledge and genetics for the betterment of not only themselves but also their clients and ultimately the NZ sheep industry. Because of this Stewart believes the industry is well ahead of other livestock industries.

Being a member of the 10-strong Romney NZ North Island breeders group for 15 years has enabled Paki-iti to swap genetics, create stronger genetic linkages, and undergo progeny trials using the expertise of Lincoln University’s associate professor Jon Hickford and the processing facilities of Alliance’s works at Dannevirke.

Swapping rams with other breeders within the group and analysing the progeny information through SIL provides valuable genetic information to both the individual breeder and the group. Each year the top ram from the group is entered into the Central Progeny Test with the top 25 rams being published.

Lambing practices revolutionised

William (Stewart and Andrew’s father) took the helm at Paki-iti in 1972, and not being one for drinking on his own in a small hut out on the hills, decided to revolutionise the farm’s lambing practices.

In 1975 the Paki-iti ewes were not shepherded during lambing, resulting in an immediate drop in lambing percentage of 20% (110% – 90%).

Turanganui Romney stud, arguably the first to introduce easy care lambing in the country in the early 1950s, became the source of Paki-iti’s stud sires until the mid-1980s. Annual ram sales increased to more than 1000, serving an estimated 0.05% of the national flock.

With processors now starting to pay a premium for heavier, leaner lambs; taller, longer rams became fashionable. Paki-iti’s response was to move its ram buying focus to the South Island, paying $35,000 for a Fernvale ram bred by North Otago’s Harry Brensell. William affectionately named him Adonis (in Greek mythology Adonis is the God of beauty and desire) and in his first year he lived up to his name by mating 237 ewes.

It was an extremely successful publicity stunt said Stewart, because the investment was recouped in a short time through additional ram sales.

“It worked,” Stewart says.

He says the progeny were good-looking sheep – alert, upstanding, taller and longer and clean on the points. That’s how rams at the time were being selected.”

William was killed in a motor accident in Australia in 1988 so did not see the fruits of his investment. Stewart and Andrew were 15 and 13 at the time and too young to assume managerial responsibility of the business, so their grandfather Pete was brought out of retirement to retake the reins.

In 1993 the Adonis exercise was repeated when another South Island sire, Edenbank 105/91 bred by Southland’s Willie Mitchell, was bought for a world record price for a Romney ram of $45,000.


  • Paki-iti – 850ha steep hill block (northern Manawatu).
  • Three easy contoured blocks totalling 460ha (Kimbolton area).
  • Ram breeding/ cattle breeding and finishing, dairy grazing.
  • 2800 SIL-recorded Romney, Romtex, Suffolk and Suftex ewes.
  • 930 rams sold/leased annually.