During their term at the helm, owners Chid and Sue Murray have made giant strides in making the largely mountain-locked Bluff Station a less risky and more profitable place to farm.

Since taking on full ownership of the Marlborough farm in the early 1980s from a group of family shareholders, they have invested in fences and tracks. This is no mean feat given the steep mountain faces, the broken plateaus, dense bush, mountain rivers and all of this a 40-minute drive over a farm track from the homestead at Kekerengu, north of Kaikoura.

Continued investment in infrastructure to lift stock production, is underpinning succession. Diversification into honey has also helped cash flow. The volume of honey grown each year (35 tonnes) now almost matches wool weight off the 13,800ha station.

A 35-year subdivision programme, using contract and in-house labour, has meant the four large run blocks in 1976 are now divided into 130. These range from 4ha to 300ha, divided with seven-wire fences (non-electric).

“Five years ago I would have thought there wasn’t any land we could crop and now we have 150 hectares of tractorable land that has been developed as well,” Chid says.

The Murrays have also reduced the threat of TB reactor cattle. A full-time pest control manager was employed and, in 1997, the Bluff herd came off movement control for the first time. After thousands of ferrets were trapped and possums culled by TB Free, the main herd at Coverham can now celebrate a C6 status.

Residual infections in pests in the Muzzle/Clarence keep the Murrays on watch.

“We are one test away from change and this has a large influence on stock policy,” Chid says.

To reduce the risk of TB shutting down options and, in recognition of improved pasture quality, cows gave way to 2500 Merino wethers in the late 1980s. Eventually these wethers were in turn phased out and replaced with ewes. When Merino lamb value increased from $25 to $100, even more ewes were added, bringing the tally to 9000 sheep; 45% of total stock units. The cow herd remains at 950 Angus/Hereford cows, with a policy to sell calves as weaners or at 12 to 16 months.

The Murrays arranged with a hunter to shoot rabbits for free, with meat supplied to a pet food company. In one year alone 25,000 were shot and, in combination with the 2018-released Rabbit Haemorrhagic Virus, the Murrays believe rabbits are now at the lowest number since 1980.

“This place was abandoned to rabbits in 1915, so it’s always going to be an ongoing issue.”

This investment of energy and funds has meant the next generation of Murrays at Bluff Station, Hamish and Jess Murray, can now focus on increasing stock performance and, in turn, profitability.

“Five years ago, we were struggling to find options for succession, as we just didn’t have the income,” Hamish says.

“We developed a plan and invested $500,000, and then we were caught in the Marlborough/North Canterbury drought, which cost another significant amount as well.”

“But we carried on.”

Now they are seeing lifts in lamb weaning weights, ewe weaning weights and young stock growth – all creating more dollars at the end.

When the opportunity came to buy their beekeeper’s hives in 2017, the Murrays took it up. Chid had been impressed with the amount of red and white clover on areas where hives had been placed. From 30 hives in the 1990’s to 400 in 2017, the business has now grown into 750 hives, employing two beekeepers plus some casual input from shepherds, when time allows.

Within three years, what started as a diversification now matches the wool clip from 9000 Merinos. Despite price issues with honey (their 2020 honey remains unsold), the Murrays are optimistic about its future. Hamish’s approach is to produce more off existing pasture by improving pasture species, and support ineffective land to regenerate for honey.

“Hives are a natural fit, providing real resilience to the business in a variable climate.”

“The cost to produce a kilogram of honey is about half that of wool but it’s been the infrastructure for wool and meat that’s allowed us to open up the place for bee hives.”

Hamish and Jess are 50% partners in Bluff Station Ltd, which owns the stock and plant. They have three children under six; Lucy, Margot and Jonty. Hamish, Jess, Sue and Chid are directors on the Bluff Station advisory board which oversees the stock and plant business. It meets about four times a year to set and reflect on policies. Tony Jordan is the appointed independent chair on the advisory board and sets the agenda and, in Hamish’s, words, runs a quality meeting.

The land titles are held in a family trust. Hamish’s sister Amanda is in a farm equity partnership in the Wairarapa and his other sister Brigit is a shareholder in a physiotherapy business in Christchurch. Hamish describes farm succession as underway and an ongoing focus for the family and the farm business.