Keeping themselves and their livestock fit for purpose are key features of Eric and Sally Smith’s management of their Awatere Valley sheep station, as Joanna Grigg found out.

Eric and Sally Smith should have been mountain biking through outer Mongolia. Instead of mustering alongside nomadic tribes and helping break in Mongolian horses, the Marlborough couple has been kept at home by Covid-19.

You could say that work on their Awatere Valley station, Awapiri, is actually not that different to their proposed holiday. The Smiths use mountain bikes and horses to get around the 7000 hectares although it’s definitely steeper than the Mongolian steppes. Horses take gear to the back-country huts and are used to bring the wether mob to and from the Chalk Range. The Swale Hut is a step up from a Mongolian ger perhaps, with timber walls and a log fire.

And you are more likely to get served rum or tea than mare’s milk at Awapiri.

While Mongolia is on ice, the Smiths continue to focus their energy towards home. They have combined their farming and sporting passions in a very successful way.

They regularly mountain bike as a way to check stock and they have marked out tracks for visiting tourists, who enjoy the scenery and exercise for a small fee. Being fit and active is a huge part of the Smiths’ life, with Sally starting mountain bike racing in her thirties and Eric mountain running from a similar age. He’s a more recent convert to mountain biking, to preserve his knees.

Good fitness is a base requirement to handle the farming jobs with the 5000 plus stock units spread over a long narrow strip stretching 25km and climbing from 350-1500m.

The Smiths do all the crutching, sheep handling and mustering themselves, spending only $4000 a year on extra labour. Vehicle costs, including fuel, were only $11,000 in 2019 and the station has four horses and two mountain bikes. Why use a truck when you can bike, walk or ride?

This low-cost farming model is a necessity when income is largely from one source, Eric says. It’s lower risk.

“We are quite happy to be this way, with lower inputs.”

The farm business has Merinos at its heart. The flock generates 87% of farm income (56% wool and 31% meat). Half of the flock are wethers (1750 mixed age) and they are extremely cost effective in terms of labour. In 2019 they clipped 6.4kg of wool and grossed $84.80 per head on average. Eric calculates they only get four weeks of labour input a year. They graze 5000ha enclosed within the natural boundary of the Medway River and the Swale (Chalk Range). Half of it is covered with native shrubs, trees, or bluffs and there are no fences.

The cash put into the pastoral lease land is minimal. No fertiliser is spread here and wethers get one anthelmintic capsule and feet checked annually.

Eric says they don’t clip as much as the 1800 ewes, which manage 6.65kg/head, but ewes get better pasture. The annual draft wethers weighed 70kg, which has increased since anthelmintic capsules have been used. A Johnes vaccination programme was started two years ago on the advice of locals and the Smiths’ vet.

“We have suspected a touch of Johne’s since we came here.”

The ewes returned $82.50/head at an average wool price of $12.50/kg greasy, sold on contract. This includes oddments and crutchings. Surplus lambs are sold as light stores at weaning or taken through winter to be heavy stores. At 101% lambing (including two-tooths) there are about 700 surplus lambs each year. The stud flock weaned 119% from a 127% scanning in 2019.

The couple ran some figures on converting the whole flock to wethers. This would have been slightly less profitable and riskier due to the buy-in price for Merino wether lambs.

“Plus buying in wethers means we lose our own breeding for footrot resistance, which we’ve worked so hard on,” Eric says.

They have moved away from grazing replacement hoggets on vineyards as it was costing $12,000 a year, excluding labour, and they wanted to put the money into improving the arable land at home. This has been done with five paddocks subdivided into nine, allowing better rotational grazing.

Sally says twin survival improved from 115% to 140% after lambing twinning ewes on the hills rather than the improved pasture flats. She puts this down to stock density and tussock cover, which is a more natural habitat for a Merino.

“This is what we saw happen at Mt Arrowsmith.”

“We keep the flats for grazing pre lamb or for young stock.”

Scanning of commercial ewes is done purely for management purposes. When wethers are mustered for shearing in late October they have to come through some lambing blocks to get home. The Smiths scan out the first cycle lambers and lamb them in these blocks, so they know when they have finished lambing.

This allows them to safely clear them out of the way.

One of the joys of owning a long narrow property with access issues.

They didn’t do this their first year at the station and had to wait for lambing to finish in mid-November before they could go and muster wethers for shearing.

Scanning out the earlies also gives flexibility at tailing time. They can begin tailing the early mob while the lates are still lambing. If the weather is rough around pre-lamb shearing, the ewes closer to lambing can take priority.

The 140 mixed-age Angus and Angus/Hereford cows and heifers are there to stomp on sprayed scrub to keep tracks and scrub faces open, improving access for sheep. Progeny are sold as weaners and make a handy $75,000. The pack track from the Awatere to the Chalk Range was cut in the 1920s and is single file in places.

“It would have been a massive undertaking and is an amazing piece of work, which we take great care to preserve.”

Fit for the home farm

Awapiri’s ram breeding programme is self serving in that it aims to create the best ram for use over Awapiri ewes.

Eric Smith describes this perfect sheep as medium framed, not too rangy as they have to walk a long way, and with really robust feet in the presence of footrot.

As a helpful bonus the Smiths have a committed group of farmers who also seek this type of sheep.

“About 25 rams are sold a year and this helps pay for the EID and foot scoring costs,” Eric said.

The Smiths say they can see the difference in their flock after years of using the Lincoln University foot scoring test coupled with an annual inspection of foot structure using a Hecton sheep handler. All stud sheep retained have better than 3/3 scores. Any flock ewe with scald or footrot has a blacktag and goes to a terminal sire ram.

“We wouldn’t change from the Lincoln Footscore as it’s working,” Eric said.

“With genetics and management we’ve brought footrot to manageable levels. It doesn’t mean we won’t get footrot but it’s all so much easier.”

This autumn only 20 sheep were pulled out with footrot.

Awapiri have supplied the NZ Merino Company (mainly the Icebreaker contracts) since 2012 and are signed to a 10-year contract.

What they like about the contract is that the bulk of the fleece makes the contract price, including the backs, giving a higher overall per-fleece price. Sally is a qualified wool classer and oversees the clip preparation.

“We only have to lightly skirt and take out any scrubby backs.”

“There is flexibility around volume and we get paid four weeks after delivery,” Sally says.

“While last year’s contract price may have been below market, it’s above this year.”

They like being part of the ZQ assurance programme as it proves their welfare standards. HawkeEye is used to map the farm and record inputs and they are working on a Farm Environmental Plan.

Chris Bowman, of Australia, has been classing Awapiri sheep for seven years. The Smiths credit him for introducing greater length (with a shot of Wanganella genetics) via AI in 2014. This has been followed up with Glenmore rams, Tekapo, introduced three years ago adding medium frame genetics with attractive wool style.

The Smiths are committed to following Chris’s advice.

“Why get a classer in if you don’t listen to their advice?”

The Smiths took sheep to the Wanaka A&P Show this year and they did well.

“We created a lot of interest by doing this,” Eric says. “I think our good placing opened a lot of eyes to what we’ve done here, as the flock was perhaps seen as old-fashioned and blocky types, but it’s changed now.”

Home to the Awatere

Sally and Eric were farm managers at Arrowsmith for 10 years before the option came to return to Sally’s home station, Awapiri. For two of those years they found themselves running 14,500 stock units on Arrowsmith on their own – just two labourers.
“We learnt what we were capable of but this sort of intensity doesn’t do you any good in the long term. We were a bit broken and family time suffered,” Sally says.
The move home to the Awatere was tough at the time following the death of Sally’s father Graham, a well-respected Merino breeder. When Sally’s brother decided to step away from the Station soon after, it came as a surprise. Sally and Eric came up with a succession option that they presented to the family, and the family agreed to it. They stepped into ownership and the debt that came with it.

“It seemed logical after starting out as shepherds at Blairich, then Fairlie, then Grays Hills and working up to farm managers, to then step into full ownership,” Eric says. Eric started out at Erewhon and met Sally there, and they started married life at Blairich.

It was 16 months from when Graham died that Sally and Eric took over. Duncan ran Awapiri during that time, with casual staff to help. Sally acknowledges her mother Bev for her financial support.

“We are very grateful to her, and it was great she had her own house just down the road already.”

“We didn’t really expect this move to happen.”

Sally said that what she learnt from it is to chat with the family regarding how everyone is feeling about their situation.

“With teenagers moving into their twenties and beyond, keep revisiting farm succession and keep wills and documents up to date. Talk every year and adjust things as the next generation changes.”

The couple’s children, Alex and Eve, have both been of huge help when they could. Alex has recently started a fencing contracting business in Cheviot, while Eve is a personal trainer in Rangiora.

Initially the business was just about keeping heads above water, Eric said. With improved wool returns the scrub spray programme has been extended and fertiliser has been applied for the first time (lime pellets over 300 hectares).

“There was no point applying fertiliser just to grow scrub,” Eric said.

The front country pH is around 5.8 but deficient in sulphur.

Crucial to keeping Awapiri running as a farm is being able to clear indigenous regrowth, especially on tracks and accessways. At one stage consent to remove scrub from an access way, for wethers to get to the Chalk Range, was being challenged by DOC.

“Not being allowed to keep it clear would have meant we couldn’t gain access to our summer grazing country.”

“There is a lot at stake with indigenous clearance rules changing,” said Eric.

Awapiri and Camden were bought by Graham and Bev Black and Frank Prouting in 1966, and then amicably split between the families. Awapiri ended up with a vast chunk of manuka/kanuka/mountain beech country but probably had a win in getting the limestone chalk country of The Swale. This sits against the Coverham part of Bluff Station and has heavier soils with good fertility and legumes.


The Smiths have run seven open days for mountain bikers since August 2019. The bikers that make the hours’ drive up from Blenheim are let loose on 32km of tracks. It’s affordable for the average family (a $20 fee) and allows urbanites to learn more about high country farming.

Sally has catered for overnight stays in the hut, carting gear out, and serving up Merino chops and wild venison for dinner. The move to a full-blown tourism venture would require a concession from the Department of Conservation and more paperwork and costs. For this reason, the Smiths are reluctant to make the move.


• 7000 hectares, from Awatere River to Chalk Range
• Almost all pastoral lease (350ha freehold)
• 4700 Merinos with 50% wethers, cutting 6.6kg wool
• Eric and Sally Smith prefer to walk, bike or ride. Vehicle costs only $11,000/year
• 56% income from wool, on ten year contract.