Developing and trading dairy farms allowed a Manawatu couple to build the equity to buy their preferred sheep and beef farm. Russell Priest reports.

Murray and Fiona Curtis of Rangiwahia in the northern Manawatu could certainly not be accused of being conformists. Their common sense, hard work and willingness to step outside their comfort zone have reaped rewards for a couple who started 29 years ago on the bottom rung of farm ownership.

Today they are the proud owners of Riverlee, a 505-hectare predominantly hill country (50ha flat) farm at Rangiwahia in the northern Manawatu and lease another 324ha nearby.
But getting there has been anything but easy with a lot of hard graft and capital required to knock it into shape.

“When we arrived there were no stock-proof paddocks,” Fiona said.

‘I believe pugging creates a lot of damage to pastures, so as soon as it gets too muddy I set stock the ewes and cows together which can be any time between mid June and mid-to-late July.’

“Stock could wander freely from one end of the farm to the other.”
Paddock sizes were large with one being 160ha and another 120ha. The remainder ranged from 40-50ha. Today there are about 100 paddocks.

Scrub was plentiful. The first year of ownership saw 190ha sprayed followed by 50ha the next year and progressively smaller areas until nowadays little can be seen.

The 2004 weather bomb in the lower North Island had created a lot of slips taking out sections of fences.

“To be fair some of the fences didn’t take much fixing,”‘Murray said. “All we had to do was rejoin the fences across the top of the slips.”

From day one the farm could carry only 1200 ewes. Today, 11 years later and with the nearby lease land to help out, close to 7000su are carried.

Pasture renewal, capital fertiliser and fencing have been the main contributors to the greatly improved stocking rate.

“The first soil test we took showed Olsen P levels at 3-4 so we had a lot of work to do,” Murray said.

Today P levels are 10-16 on the hills and in the 20s on the flats.
Sitting at 500-650 metres above sea level and with an annual rainfall of 950-1000mm the Curtis’s farm experiences long, cold (one to two snow falls) winters but is relatively summer safe. The ash soils lying over sediments of predominantly compacted/uncompacted sandstone are mostly free draining.

The early years of ownership saw a lot of stock traded.

“To do well out of trading stock you’ve got to do them well all the time,” Murray said, “so we decided to buy some cows.”

So seven years ago 56 in-calf pedigree Hereford heifers were bought from the Clements family in Northland followed by a further 54 the following year. These were the foundation females for the establishment of Riverlee Herefords which last year sold 30 yearling bulls (average $2250) and 70 R2 bulls (average $2800) to dairy farmers.

This year 18 beef bulls averaged $5500 at their third beef bull sale. Fiona in particular has become heavily involved with the Hereford breed having judged both locally and at a national level.

The Curtises run A (elite) and B (commercial) cow herds with only the former being used to breed replacement females. The A herd is selected on performance, soundness and breed type.

The cow herd is treated like any commercial herd, being run with the ewes in a winter rotation cleaning up roughage with hay supplementation once or twice a week.

“I hate mud,” Murray said,” because I believe pugging creates a lot of damage to pastures, so as soon as it gets too muddy I set stock the ewes and cows together which can be any time between mid June and mid-to-late July.”

Set-stocking rates for the ewes and cows are 7.5/ha and 1/3ha respectively.

Five days before calving is due to start pregnant females are

brought off the hills on to 6ha of saved pasture near the homestead. Cows and R2 heifers are calved behind a hot wire in separate mobs and break-fed grass supplemented with balage. Calves are tagged and weighed at birth and when five to six days old are returned with their mothers to the hills where saved pasture awaits them.

Bull-out date is late December for both heifers and cows. Bulls are left out for 35-40 days and any female not in calf is culled. Calving percentage is normally about 97-98% (cows wintered) with the percentage of dries varying from 3% to 10%.

“This figure is gradually improving as cows are more heavily culled on constitution,” Murray said.

“When it comes to culling I take no prisoners.”

Only 15-month heifers that have reached 320kg liveweight at bull-out date are considered for mating. Very few fail to attain this goal and of those that do only 2-3% are empty. Few calving problems are experienced except the occasional breech birth and leg back.

Physically smaller bulls with balanced EBVs and good calving ease figures are used for heifer mating.

Heifers must get in calf within 35-40 days, calve unassisted, rear a good calf, rebreed as an R3 and attain an acceptable condition score before the winter for entry into the A herd.

Weaning takes place at the end of March when the mean calf age is 160 days. Bull calves average 210-220kg and heifers 10kg lighter.

Older bulls (R2s) are ad lib wintered on swedes supplemented with 1.5 bales/head baleage each while weaners are set stocked on grass.

The Curtises are particularly pleased with their recent bull purchases as they more closely reflect their breeding objectives. Two Koanui (Chestermans) and one Murray (Matariki) Hereford herd sires were bought this year for a total of $49,000.

“It’s impossible to buy the perfect bull,” Murray said, “but we focus on temperament, soundness, breed type and balanced EBVs including positive fats and good calving ease.”

The role of the breeding cow herd is to groom pastures for sheep and younger cattle. Pasture growth on the farm can become rampant over the late spring/summer and with a limited area to shut up for feed conservation the Curtises rely heavily on the cows and to a lesser extent the sheep to control the feed on the hills.

Using shedding sheep embryos

Extremely late lambing and weaning dates for the district enables good pasture control.

This means maximum grazing pressure is applied from ewes with lambs at foot over the period when grass is most abundant thereby maintaining pasture quality for a longer period than would be normal.

For the last five years the Curtises have been using Coopworth Texel rams from the Blackdale Stud from Riverton in Southland. This composite breed delivers a package of fecundity/fertility, milking ability and desirable carcase traits.

“We try to buy the chunkier, meatier types as we find they have better conformation,” Murray said.

“They are certainly a very meaty sheep delivering between 140-145% in a good year.”

A and B mob ewes are mated separately with the latter being mated to Blackdale Suftex rams on April 25 and the former to Coopworth Texel rams on May 2 for about four cycles. After about 21 days the rams are harnessed and any ewes marked are destined for the B flock with no replacements being retained from these ewes. Any marked during the third and fourth cycles are scanned and those in lamb that are likely to lamb after November 10 are culled along with any dries.

Ewes are not cast-for-age under the Curtis culling model. Culling only occurs if their teeth and/or condition indicate they will not last another year. Murray believes this builds longevity into their flock.

“I’d sooner cull a young ewe that’s scungy than a six-year old that’s still producing well.”

Weaning occurs mid-to-late January when on average 65% of eligible lambs are processed off their mothers at an average of between 19.2 and 19.3kg carcaseweight. All lambs are gone by May 1 with the last being the hogget lambs.

“I may even sell some lambs on the store market this year and poke a bit more tucker into the ewes,” Murray said.

Most of the ewe hoggets (650) were grazed off farm this year with only the top 200 being wintered at home. Of these 165 got in lamb. In the future all ewe hoggets will leave the farm from May 1 to December 1 and will not be put to the ram. This will help simplify the operation.

The Curtises, like many other sheep farmers, see little future at present for coarse crossbred wool.

“It’s a great product, however no one’s prepared to pay for it in spite of all the environmental issues associated with its synthetic competitors,” Murray said.

“The cost of shearing plus all the other costs associated with growing wool and the labour involved in things related to wool has made us explore alternatives.

“We are getting quite big now and if we can reduce the labour involved in our business by not growing wool Fiona and I can run this farm quite comfortably by ourselves.”

Ewes are shorn annually just before Christmas and lambs in February.

“We kill as many woolly lambs as possible before shearing those remaining,” Murray said.

Always the innovators, the Curtises last autumn implanted 53 Australian White embryos into 29 recipient ewes. The Australian White is a fully shedding, stabilised, composite white-haired meat breed involving White Dorper, Poll Dorset, Texel and Van Rooy breeds. First released in 2011 the breed is renowned for its fast growth, quality meat and full shedding ability.

“We looked at other breeds and we believe these were the best on offer. They have a great carcase and are full shedders. If they go well for us we will look at setting up a stud.”

Hill country cropping using a helicopter to spray off existing species and sow 10-13ha swedes has been practised for a number of years. This area generally goes back into spring grass or is sometimes sown in rape for lamb finishing.

Three years ago the Curtises installed a stock-water system involving 120 troughs and three header tanks. Water from underground aquifers is pumped from a four metre well near their house to the header tanks and is gravity fed to all but two small paddocks on the farm.

“It has made a massive difference to stock health and performance,” Murray said. “Much bigger than I thought it was going to be.”

Murray is the lead farmer of a local Red Meat Profit Partnership group of eight farmers facilitated by Palmerston North based farm consultant John Stantiall. It meets regularly particularly over the winter months at different members’ properties and on each occasion a different topic is discussed.

Shearing opens eyes and heart

Raised on a rough hill country block in the eastern Bay of Plenty between Opotiki and Motu where his parents owned a drystock farm, Murray couldn’t wait to leave school to go shearing. When the time finally came school became a distant memory and shearing and playing rugby became his new life.

When his father sold up and bought a farm near Whangamomona (Whanga) in the central North Island he found himself briefly working for him until the urge to become a full-time shearer prevailed. Scrub cutting, fencing, harvesting possums and playing rugby occupied his down time before he got a shearing job with Taumarunui-based, ex Golden Shears and World Champion shearer Alan Donaldson. This proved to be the start of his journey towards farm ownership.

Shearing became a year-round job after also joining a gang in Te Anau and following the shearing calendar between the North and South Islands.

It was while he was shearing in Te Anau he met his future wife Fiona who was working in the same gang. Her father was a fisherman living in Blanket Bay in Doubtful Sound which was so isolated she had to be home-schooled.

When it was time to settle down Murray returned with Fiona to Whanga where their first farm of 400ha was bought at auction in 1990 for $210,000. Four years later a further 400ha was bought nearby for $410,000 giving them about 600 effective hectares.

“Living in Whanga was a great place to learn the value of the dollar,” Murray said.

“You worked and played hard.

“The local farmers were very supportive of young people always managing to find a job even if that meant them creating one.

“It helped keep the community together.”

The Curtises realised that if they were to get ahead financially they had to build their equity as quickly as possible so after farming at Whanga for 13 years a small dairy farm of about 100ha was bought, followed by another 80ha irrigated one at Reporoa two years later.

Dairying taught the Curtises how to grow and utilise grass.

“It was easy money and I barely raised a sweat, but it was monotonous and a tie and not much of a lifestyle for a couple with a young family.

It was just a stepping stone for them and on both farms they were able to raise the production significantly and improve their equity.

By 2008 the urge to return to sheep and beef farming saw them briefly move to Tolaga Bay, Gisborne, as a stock manager before securing the farm at Rangiwahia by a phone bid at auction.

Murray had only briefly viewed the farm before having to return to Gisborne to be with Fiona who was heavily pregnant. While it required a large capital injection in the form of fences, fertiliser and scrub removal, in particular, the easy contour appealed to Murray as did the fact that the better land was at the front of the farm.

Murray and Fiona have three children; Aaron (16), Laura (15), and Aiden (11) all of whom are interested in the farm and help when available.


In the 2017/18 financial year the Curtis’s achieved a gross farm revenue figure of $1246/ha and a Net Farm Revenue of $565/ha. A large injection of capital expenditure in the form of fertiliser and a whole-farm water scheme resulted in larger than normal expenditure for the year.

Key points

  • Own 505ha and lease 324ha
  • Farm needed a lot of attention
  • Built equity by developing and trading farms
  • Farm deposit generated by hard work including shearing, possum hunting and scrub cutting
  • Bought shedding sheep embyros, implanted in ewes


  • 3850 ewes
  • 200 ewe hoggets
  • 650 ewe hoggets grazed off farm
  • 40 sire rams
  • 200 pedigree Hereford cows
  • 60 R1 heifers
  • 100 R1 bulls
  • 80 R2 bulls