Returning to the family farm in North Canterbury after a spell in Western Australia, Stuart and Jo Fraser have no regrets about their change of lifestyle. Sandra Taylor reports. Photos by Lucy Hunter-Weston.

Stuart and Jo Fraser made the life changing decision to leave Perth three years ago and take over the management of North Canterbury’s Mt Benger.

Regrets? Not one.

Since returning to the farm where Stuart grew up, the couple have welcomed the arrival of their son Jock (2) – whose first word was tractor – and by the time this goes to print, will have had another addition to the family.

It is the opportunity to bring their children up enjoying the lifestyle Stuart and Jo both had as children that was one of the drivers behind them leaving successful careers in Western Australia, Stuart as a diesel mechanic working in the mining industry and Jo as a sustainable building consultant.

While they had always intended returning home, it was to set up their own business servicing diesel machinery. When the management position on Mt Benger became available, they took the opportunity to return to an industry and a lifestyle they were both familiar with, but had not worked in for many years.

It was a risk, but one that has paid off in spades as the couple have embraced the challenge and applied the skills and knowledge gathered over years in non-farming industries to Mt Benger.

They also approached the role with open minds and a willingness to give things a go, while surrounding themselves with a support team, many of whom have had a long history with Mt Benger.

For example, their relationship with ANZCO Foods and Luisetti Seeds has spanned two generations and both reps know Mt Benger and the Fraser family well.

Of the 2750ha station, 80% is hill country and the 400ha of river flats is irrigated by K-line.

All stock bred on the station is finished, although cattle will be sold store in years when feed is short.

The lambs are all contracted to ANZCO which provides certainty around pricing and cattle are sold through ANZCO, targeting Five Star Beef.

One of the changes Stuart and Jo have made since returning was to introduce Shorthorn genetics into their 400-strong breeding cow herd.

The cost of Angus bulls was a factor in the decision to introduce Shorthorns, but the breed also provides hybrid vigour, good milk production and because Shorthorn is a British breed, the progeny is accepted by Five Star beef.

The other focus for Stuart and Jo is the productivity of their hill country.

Stuart explains that the irrigation development on the flats goes back to the 1970s and has sucked up a lot of capital for what is just 20% of the farm area. While extremely valuable, the water is not reliable in that restrictions apply, particularly in hot dry summers.

Now they are aiming to use legumes to realise the potential of their hill country which will mean more lambs are sold prime off mum at the weaning draft, reducing the pressure on the flats.

It is also more expensive to grow drymatter on the flats than on the hill country, so it is more efficient and cost-effective to use clover to maximise production off the hill country in spring and early summer.

“We love the legumes as they really are the easiest way to get lambs away off-mum.”

“The investors are in it for the love of it, not just short-term dividends.”

Lucerne important to farm system

Lucerne is an important part of Mt Benger’s farm system, providing high quality feed for growing stock and for conserving.

Grown on the K-line irrigated flats, they now have 180ha of the 400ha of flats in lucerne, up from 130ha three years ago.

With its long tap root, lucerne grows well on their stony soils and being drought-tolerant, it copes with water restrictions in the heat of summer.

On the recommendation of agronomist Andrew Johnston, they have recently been growing Raptor, a winter active multifoliate variety of lucerne which has five leaves, making it a good option for both grazing and supplementary feed.

The Frasers lock up 70ha of lucerne in spring for balage, hay and pit silage.

“If you’re going to have supplementary feed it has to be good quality,” Stuart says.

Lambs rotationally graze lucerne stands throughout summer and the forage is supplemented with mineral salts. They also mow and wilt strips three days ahead of the lambs to provide the lambs with fibre.

Stuart says he also noticed that the lambs prefer the drier lucerne than the wet, freshly irrigated parts of the crop.

Forage crops also grown on the flats include leafy turnips, rape, ryecorn and for the first time this year, Upright ryegrass.

The leafy turnips are a summer crop and the heaviest lambs (over 29kg) go on to this crop straight after weaning in November. Throughout summer, lambs are moved on to the turnips from the lucerne as they get close to finishing.

The rape is used for wintering young cattle as is the ryecorn and Upright ryegrass.

Because of the extremely dry conditions last autumn, they were contemplating their winter feed options and Andrew suggested trying a recently released Upright ryegrass. Taking a ‘boots-and-all approach’, the Frasers grew 35ha of this new ryegrass and 25ha of ryecorn.

The Upright ryegrass wasn’t sown until the start of April but it came away quickly and was first grazed in early May.

Throughout winter, the grass was rotationally grazed every three weeks by hoggets and calves.

“It was just fantastic, for us that winter activity is a big advantage.

“We’re looking for that winter activity and if we can get more winter active grasses and lucerne then we are less reliant on winter grazing crops,” says Stuart.

He shut the Upright ryegrass up at the end of winter with the intention of making balage out of it, but because of shortage of feed on other parts of the farm due to the dry conditions in early spring, they chose to strip graze it with R2 cattle.

The cattle grew at 2kg/day on this feed during spring.

Upright ryegrass has a big broad leaf that is highly palatable to cattle and sheep. Stuart says testing showed the grass had an ME of 12.4, so it is high quality feed which is so important for young and pregnant stock.

Stuart is using Upright ryegrass as an annual crop and it will be followed by lucerne. He says he will definitely be sowing the grass again because it suits their system in that it can be sown late in autumn yet produce high quality feed throughout winter.

Breeding cows winter on a nearby 400ha lease block while their Longdown Romney cross ewes spend the early part of winter on the flats but are run onto the hill later in their pregnancy.

“We find fit ewes have fewer bearings and less animal health issues such as milk fever.”

Stuart and Jo employ two full-time staff and Lincoln students over summer. Stuart’s father Duncan is a frequent visitor and a much-valued part-time labour unit, adviser and occasional devoted babysitter.

Coming from managing a big team in a high-risk environment in the mines of WA, Stuart takes health and safety seriously and it is very much part of the culture on the farm.

Staff meetings are held fortnightly where they go over upcoming work, what is required and the identification of any hazards.

R2 cattle are finished on Upright ryegrass.

The couple make full use of Farm IQ and Stuart says it’s a massive help, particularly when it comes to audits. They have completed a New Zealand Farm Assurance Programme (NZFAP) and just finished a pilot for NZFAP Plus which includes sections on biodiversity and land-use capability.

Their irrigation sits under the umbrella of Amuri Irrigation and through this they have completed a farm environment plan.

Jo has an environmental management degree and has already made her mark on the farm with native plantings. It is a work in progress, with 11.5ha ear-marked for native plantings.

Mt Benger has been farmed by the Fraser family for 96 years but in 1994, Stuart’s parents Duncan and Jane brought the United Kingdom-based John Sheldon in as an equity partner.

This enabled them to grow their farming business beyond Mt Benger and spread their risk. They have interests in a North Island dairy farm and a forestry block. Hawarden-based farmers Pip and Lucy Hunter-Weston are also shareholders as are Stuart and Jo in their own right.

The partnership is very much based on family, friends and trust and decisions are based on these values rather than short-term financial gain.

“The investors are in it for the love of it, not just short-term dividends. In fact, they have very rarely been paid a dividend, any money either goes back into the farm or into diversifying into other enterprises.”

Stuart produces a monthly report to keep investors updated on what’s happening onfarm and board meetings are held twice a year.

Jo has quickly made a name for herself as the financial gatekeeper and Stuart and the other investors need to present a strong case before buying any farm toys.

Stuart, who admits he has metal disease, says they have recently bought their own gear for making supplementary feed because it does give them more flexibility to cut smaller areas at a time rather than large areas all at once.

The couple do have KPIs and these include financial targets. Stuart says prudent management has seen them reduce farm working expenses as a percentage of gross farm income from 78% to 62%. They have also reduced interest and rent as a percentage of Gross Farm Income from 33% to 13%, helped by the sale of some land to a neighbour.

Hill country development focus

Stuart’s grandfather flew Mt Barker subterranean (sub) clover over Mt Benger back in the 1950s so the clover is now endemic in their hill country pastures, but until now, they have not been actively managing the clover. Now, by encouraging re-seeding, they are seeing sub clover appearing in blocks they thought were devoid of the legume.

“It’s about building that seed bank,” Stuart says.

They are also taking a strategic approach to increasing the sub clover in their hill country pastures by identifying blocks for development. They apply lime to lift the pH (they have applied more than 1000 tonnes so far) and in autumn use chemical topping followed by cattle to break down thatch and open up the sward. They then fly on a mix of Antas, Woogenellup and Denmark sub clovers with their annual fertiliser to augment the existing Mt Barker.

These varieties offer a mix of flowering dates and leaf sizes.

Once established, the clovers are allowed to flower and seed, building the seed bank so the clovers are well-established in the pasture.