Better genetics, feeding and staff input are contributing to improved performance on Marlborough’s Bluff Station, as Joanna Grigg reports. Photos: FMG.

Hamish and Jess Murray pushed on with pasture subdivision, fertiliser and improvements started by his parents, Chid and Sue. Now they are seeing results.

Merino ewe body weight at Bluff Station has increased from a traditional 50kg, with the average now 56kg. Weaning is 20days earlier at 75 days following an October 5 lambing. Despite less time with the ewe, lamb weaning weight has lifted from 23kg five years ago to a 27kg average.

Hamish is excited to see how well stock are doing on the red clover both during and after lactation, and enjoys having more options to feed better. Genetics, feeding, and staff input are all playing a role.

“We are moving into a phase of feeding stock better by providing better quality feed and building pasture covers ahead of them.”

Lambing at an 85% to 90% five-year average has the greatest potential for improvement. He is trying to do this by feeding the twinning ewes better before lambing. During the phase of rebuilding stock numbers after the 2014 drought, lambing percentage flat-lined.

“We now have specific areas of clover and pasture we use to provide high quality feed prior to mating, and then again for the feed pinch in late winter.”

This season, small mobs of 60 ewes were set stocked on red clover blocks at 15 ewes/ha on October 5. Hamish is delighted to see clover is outstripping demand. Tailing is late November and, in December, ewes will be mobbed up and rotated around blocks before being turned out onto the limestone country. Mob size is 800 to 1500. This spells the lower country. Hamish has the paddock rotations to run the two-tooths separately this year.

Rams have been sourced from both Middlehurst and Muller for seven years. Hamish chooses rams with higher than average fat EBV to try to build body weight and survival. He has noticed an increase in wool clip.

“I can see an increase in frame size too.”

The target length is 75 to 95mm for the Icebreaker contract. Hamish said the challenge is keeping two-tooth fleeces under this.

“So the next idea is to try to shear the ewe lambs in February, again late November as a ewe hogget, and then again to line up with ewes as a two-tooth.”

The poorer Merino ewes go to a Romney ram. Footrot is a challenge and ewes are troughed at weaning. Offenders are put in the B mob and kept handy for further treatment. The clean sheep are sent to the Mead country beyond the river.

The 1600 wether lambs are taken through a winter, shorn and sold store – on to a neighbouring property for the past three years. Two-tooths are mated but heifers are not put to the bull. Calving is about 89% from the 950 Angus/Hereford cows but calf weaning weight has lifted in the most recent season.

“Our sheep produce more money per stock unit than cattle but labour drives down the difference.”

Cold winters and drought have seen a few tough seasons. Other battles include keeping wild sheep running against the Clarence out of the flock, to keep out lice.

“These sheep have been here since 1860; letters in Kaikoura archives refer to them when people first settled at Coverham.”

Hamish and Jess Murray.

Five years ago, the Murrays built a new set of sheep yards at the Mead River and then another, beyond, at the Dee. This meant they can now graze 2000 ewes with lambs in this isolated area of the farm rather than be restricted to grazing cattle or wethers, as in the past.

Job travel time has been cut down from about six to two hours a trip. The back of Mead Hill has extensive limestone country which responds well to sulphur while the Cabbage Tree block is warm country ideal for mobbed-up ewes and lambs, cows and calves over summer.

The Coverham outpost now has a new stock manager’s house (post-earthquake) and a refurbished shepherds’ quarters. This valley of broken plateaus, between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, carries 95% of total stock.

The 35km track to the Branch, and onwards to the boundary with the Muzzle, has been improved and the travel time shortened by adding lanes and cattlestops in places. Instead of droving calves and weaned lambs back to SH1 for trucking, they can now be carted in good weather using an eight-wheel truck. A second-hand tip truck carts gravel for the road and a 20-tonne digger keeps it in good shape. Improved access allows more timely attention to stock jobs and greatly improves speed to market.

“This is still one of the most limiting factors,” Hamish said.

TB remains a threat but it was bovine viral diarrhoea arriving in 2008 that had the most recent impact on cattle. A vaccination programme for all heifers (twice) and a booster to mixed age cows has calf health protected. Being a Murray, Hamish can support the family and get excellent genetics right next door with Herefords from Matariki and Angus from Woodbank studs.

In 1963 (before Chid’s time) 30 tonnes of white and red clover were sown, and this legume base has been topped up with subterranean clover over the years. With the luxury of small fenced-off blocks, Hamish has drilled 85ha of straight red clover. This is stitched in with annual ryegrass in year three.

To prep the block, he root rakes and giant discs the area. He sprays it in spring for a summer fallow, then puts it through a cereal in autumn/winter. This deals with weeds and poorer pasture species. Red clover seed is drilled late November and is not grazed until February/March. Water is gravity fed to troughs.

Mentor rather than ‘boss’

Hamish Murray is keenly aware that he is just one cog in the wider family and team of nine contributing at Bluff Station. His Nuffield study in 2019 looked deeper into the skills important in creating productive farm teams and the approaches necessary to build engaged and motivated employees on farm.

He explored the different natures and ways people operate and like to give and get instructions. His report recommends the “boss” acts more as a mentor, allowing others to work to their strengths and giving them the confidence to step up and develop their own skills.

Hamish spent two years studying economics at Cambridge University (2006-2008) and five months travelling, including eight weeks with the Nuffield Scholars in 2019. This honed his analytical and business management skills.

“It’s been a tricky process at times, taking on the family farm, trying to keep everyone happy – parents, staff, close family.”

“In the past I tended to try and problem solve everything for everyone and it became exhausting. After a while I shut myself off and didn’t really want to socialise.”

After a suggestion from his sister he saw a business coach and made a plan to become more of a mentor to staff rather than try and solve all the problems. This interest in team dynamics spurred his Nuffield research.

“Now I try to learn something new each day – reading or chatting to someone, as this keeps me happy, and I try to allow others do the problem solving themselves while I encourage.”

His new stock manager, Matt Wise, has experience in feeding Merinos in intensive cropping and subdivided systems.

“We’ve hired him to help me with that aspect.”

“The biggest limitation to success is often our own egos, knowing when to get out of the way to let others thrive, or step into that space – that’s really the trick.”

Staff keep in touch with radio links and via a Messenger group where photos and requests can be loaded up. This is a great way to keep communication flowing throughout the day, he said.

Hamish is on the production science group of the NZ Merino Company and was a farmer representative on the post-quake farming project after the Kaikoura earthquake. He enjoys being a member of the local RMPP Action Group on Business Development, and Jess Murray is a member of the Marlborough Women’s RMPP Action Group.

Wool and meat from the 9500 Merinos ewes are just two of Bluff Station’s saleable products. They also sell 35 tonnes of honey, and store cattle.

Wool and honey equal earners

Quite by chance the wool clip and the honey extracted from Bluff Station in 2019 were almost the same weight – 35 tonnes of honey and 40t of wool. They also earned the same income per kilogram – about $12.

Hamish Murray would like to see Bluff Station honey (sold via Weederspoon in the United States) have more of a New Zealand sales pitch and differentiation around it. Also be marketed as multiflora honey at a higher price.

“Multiflora kanuka, manuka, clover, matagouri and beech honey is really superb,” he said

“I tried many types of honey in the US and around the world on my Nuffield trip and the quality from here is far superior. Most honey in the world is produced as a byproduct of pollination from monocultural crops but ours comes from a wide but a variety of sources, really adding taste.”

“There are almost 200 different New Zealand honey brands competing and we need to work together rather than compete for sales as honey in a jar.”

Producing more of both honey and wool are goals for Hamish, although there is some trade-off between them. With about half the station in scattered or patches of kanuka/manuka, beech and woody species like Tauhinu, it offers bee feed but regeneration also threatens pasture production. Fertility is improving (pH 5.6) but fertiliser applications also increase scrub growth.

Hamish feels that his wool, marketed through the NZ Merino Company, has a better marketing story attached to it than the honey. Hamish signed the 10-year term Icebreaker contract in 1996 and said the price is essentially a smooth mean.

“This was a natural progression after 20 years of supplying with shorter-term contracts.”

“The more wool we can contract the better as we can’t contract our beef price or honey in such a way.”

Gems from Nuffield experience

Hamish Murray is keen to share his findings from immersion in different workplaces around the world and how they could be useful to New Zealand farm businesses. In his Nuffield 2019 report he picks four key elements that emerge strongly as significant factors in successful businesses and teams.

The first is alignment of members on the culture, values and purpose of a business creating shared belief, expectations and responsibility. It works when there is real clarity from team members on what that looks, sounds and feels like as actions, Hamish said.

Second, adopting processes, tools and methods used in design thinking, lean and agile ways of working. Hamish describes this as, rather than farmers dictating what should be done onfarm, they use a process that involves staff being given opportunity for input, which strengthens the result and levels of enjoyment with the task.

Third, giving and taking feedback.

“Often feedback is a gruff expression when something is wrong or in a performance review once a year – if at all.”

“No wonder we are struggling to attract younger people to agriculture when they are so used to getting feedback as part of the constant everyday lives through phones, social media and even the changing education system.”

Fourth, strong leadership from farm owners and managers. He describes this as a shared and supportive style where all members of a team exhibit greater awareness and are able to help each other solve their own problems, handle conflict and monitor performance. Not the traditional lead- from-the-front command approach but rather, one of a coach.

Hamish suggests farmers try a coaching course to learn the coaching approach (one of creating awareness, responsibility and self-belief in staff).

“I completed a course through Coach Approach some years ago and it has been the foundation for changing my thinking.”

“Coaching has a real focus on questioning and discovery rather than telling.”

Hamish has put his lessons into action at Bluff Station. For Hamish Murray’s full report Future Farm Workplaces, see HERE.

Bluff Station, Clarence

  • 13,800ha farmed by Hamish and Jess Murray, Chid and Sue Murray
  • Winters 9000 Merinos (4300 mixed age ewes, 1400 two-tooths, 3300 hoggets)
  • 40 tonnes of 17.5 to 21.5 micron wool
  • 85%-90% lambs weaned/ewes mated
  • 950 Hereford/Angus cows, 89% calving
  • 750 Beehives producing 35t honey
  • 130 blocks, from 40m to 650m above sea level
  • Gateway to extraordinary geological features
  • 40 minutes on gravel track to key production area Coverham from homestead
  • Rainfall 850mm homestead, 950mm Coverham.