With wool worth so little, King Country farmers Graham and Karianne Wills decided to give fleece-shedding Wiltshires a shot. Russell Priest details their experience. Photos by Emma McCarthy.

Sadly, wool has become a liability on Karianne (44) and Graham (49) Wills’ Ongarue farm, Puketui, 27km north-north-east of Taumarunui. So much so that they’ve decided to genetically peel it off their Romney-based flock using shedding Wiltshire rams.

“Wool governs your life from dagging to shearing to crutching to dipping, so we went searching for a model that avoided having to do all these labour-intensive things especially now that wool is worth so little,” Graham said.

Karianne likened their preferred model to the sheep equivalent of a beef breeding-cow herd with a minimum of labour input.

Their search became more urgent after they bought bidibidi-infested Puketui as a development project in 2014. Bidibidi is a prostrate native plant with hooks on its seed coat that attach strongly to wool significantly lowering its value.

The solution to their problems lay close by in the form of shedding Wiltshires bred by his late neighbour Grant McMillan. Grant’s 20-year focus breeding Wiltshires had been to concentrate the shedding genes in his flock so that his sheep would completely shed their “wool” once a year.

This is what the Wills aspired to achieve.

“The previous owner used to overcome bidibidi contaminating the wool by shearing everything including lambs before the end of November in spite of them carrying little wool.”

The Wills have carried on this tradition but shear only the ewes at this time. However, being tied to a shearing date significantly affects management, particularly with regard to marketing the lamb crop.

“I want the flexibility to be able to wean when I want to and not be governed by a shearing date.”

Graham maintains that mustering ewes and lambs for ewe shearing then turning them back out until weaning is not an option on their farm, so he weans most lambs at ewe shearing.

Initially, Puketui was set up as a breeding/finishing farm running ewes all mated to terminal sires because it is earlier country than their nearby farm, Kohunu at Waimiha, and tends to dry out badly in the summer, particularly the pumice flats.

“This is a simple system and runs well except that wool is a bloody nuisance, so four years ago we decided to give Wiltshires a go with a view to removing wool from the equation.”

Graham had known Grant for years and had held many a lengthy roadside conversation with him about the breed.

“Grant was incredibly enthusiastic about Wiltshires having worked with them for 20 years and completed an in-depth comparative financial analysis of their performance (see Country-Wide April 2019).”

Not wanting to go in boots and all, Graham decided to do a test run by mating about 650 Romdale two-tooth ewes on Puketui to McMillan Wiltshires in 2017. These ewes were predominantly dry hoggets from his hogget mating programme so were not his best sheep in terms of fertility.

With initial impressions being favourable the Wills decided to mate a larger number of ewes the following year while also mating their first crop of 350 half-bred Wiltshire ewe hoggets.

After running Wiltshires on Puketui for 18 months and struggling to find any significant faults with them the decision was made to mate some of their ewes on their Waimiha farm mainly to generate enough replacements for Puketui. Graham was looking forward to the results of this mating because genetically his best (A flock) ewes are run on Kohunu while his poorer ewes, which he initially mated with Wiltshires, are run on Puketui. There are now 900 half-bred hoggets on Kohunu.

The Wills continue to be impressed with the hybrid Wiltshires and at this stage are continuing to grade up to purebreds.

“I have talked to a number of people who won’t run them because they think they’re nutty but we haven’t found that at all. I’m used to Perendales and blackface lambs and they’re not as bad as them.”

‘We’d have to dag 600 of our 1500 Romneys while dagging only six of our 1100 half-bred Wiltshires.’

Graham says they are “quite intelligent”, which is contrary to how most sheep farmers describe their sheep. He claims that having become accustomed to the yards they will “draw” through them like no other breed he has farmed, and he’s farmed a few.

“Our yards are poorly designed and don’t have a good lead, however, in spite of this they ‘draw’ very well and that includes going through the drafting race.”

Karianne claims you can stand three pens back from the drafting race and they will still move freely through it.

Clean and mobile

Dagging is a chore no farmer can get enthusiastic about. Graham claims the crossbred Wiltshires require little attention on this front.

“We’d have to dag 600 of our 1500 Romneys while dagging only six of our 1100 half-bred Wiltshires.”

Graham also enjoys shifting them. Having crossed a Perendale flock with Romneys he was finding the mobility of the second-cross Romneys frustrating. Wiltshires have restored the mobility of the Perendales.

Graham is not the only breeder who has used Wiltshire rams and who claims the lambs are deceptively heavy.

“We were pleasantly surprised at how the lambs weighed after viewing them in the yards and thinking few if any would reach our 35kg cut-off weight.”

Soundness of feet is always an issue that arises when farmers are considering a breed change. Graham maintains that so far they appear to be no worse than other breeds, and his oldest Wiltshire rams (four tooths) all appear to be sound to date.

“At this stage they appear to be a reasonably fecund/fertile easy-care breed.”

In selecting his rams Graham looks for a more blocky, well-muscled type with a good spring of ribs and hind end. They must have correct leg structure and sound feet and be devoid of horns. He avoids the tall, long, poorly muscled types.

While he is keen to achieve a full-shedding flock as soon as possible he is not prepared to do this at the expense of the phenotype outlined above.

Before introducing Wiltshire rams Graham had two reservations about the breed, the first being their reputation for being difficult to handle. This reservation has been dispelled since farming them and he even claims there are some significant positives to their nature.

Tolerance to facial eczema was Graham’s second reservation because Puketui is an eczema-prone farm. However, he believes their crossbreds have already developed a reasonable level of tolerance. Last autumn was a bad eczema period on the farm during which 900 ewe lambs were exposed unprotected to the disease. According to Graham, 100 of these were not mated as hoggets as they had either died or been culled as showing signs of clinical eczema. Of the 800 mated to Wiltshire rams 82% became pregnant, which was a pleasant surprise as Graham claims that in a bad eczema year the hogget and two-tooth conception rates take a significant hit. Only a handful of half-bred two-tooths were culled with clinical eczema.

The Wiltshire crosses on Puketui delivered another pleasant surprise at scanning this year by exceeding Graham’s expectations. The 300 half-bred four-tooth ewes and 800 half-bred two-tooths with a handful of three-quarter Wiltshires scanned 160%, which was only 5% behind the MA ewes mated to terminal sires. Kohunu’s two-tooth Romneys scanned 166% and the MA Romneys 169%.

“What excites me about the breed is that it is already ticking most of the boxes in spite of there being only a small population of purebreds in the country that have probably been subjected to minimal selection pressure.”

Another of Graham’s concerns until now is that he’s had to keep most of his female crossbreds to build his flock, hence his culling rate has been minimal. He’s looking forward to this changing next year.

Graham credits Grant for the success he is having with Wiltshires and will be forever grateful to him for introducing him to the breed.

“He was a visionary and a great mentor for me, and the sheep he bred were a tremendous credit to him and his wife Sandy.”

Grant was almost single-trait selecting for full shedding with considerable emphasis on phenotype, and leaving the genetic selection to David Arvidson, from whom he bought most of his sires.

One of his greatest concerns with his selection policy was whether he was stripping too much wool off them although he conceded that their significantly thicker pelt would give them improved insulation. His aim was to have them carry 30mm of wool growth into the winter.

Graham riding through bush on the farm.

“Grant left me with the impression after visiting him once that there were few if any time and weather constraints associated with the breed, and this was almost entirely due to the fact that they grew very little wool.”

The Wills family comes from Te Pohue on the Napier-Taupo Road where Graham’s father was farming in partnership with his brother before buying a 908ha farm (Kohunu) near Waimiha (about 40km north of Taumarunui) in 1979. This is where Graham grew up. Graham is a cousin of ex-national president of Federated Farmers, Bruce Wills.

“I always wanted to go farming, however, I was told there was no future in the industry so went off to Massey and completed a degree in business studies in 1990.”

By this time Graham’s father had had enough of farming, so after graduating he returned to the farm to help. Two years later he was managing Kohunu and after five years was leasing it. He bought it from his parents in 2000.

Graham married Karianne, who is Norwegian, in 1997 and in 2006 the couple spent two years in Norway before returning to Taumarunui and buying a small lifestyle block near the Taumarunui hospital where Karianne worked. Graham commuted to Kohunu. The couple have three boys Henry (22), Filip (21) and Edwin (18).

In 2011 they took up the lease on a 600-hectare farm next door to their lifestyle block and farmed it for eight years. Negotiations to buy this farm and consolidate their business fell through in 2019 but not before they bought 1248ha (640ha effective) Puketui in 2014, which meant they were now farming three blocks totalling about 2770ha (2090ha effective). The cashflow from the lease block was used to fund the development on Puketui.

The lifestyle block was sold in the autumn of 2020 so now the Wills are left with two farms, Kohunu and Puketui, totaling 2146ha (1480ha effective).

Kohunu is a more developed, easier-contoured, wetter farm than Puketui, with heavier soils. Graham classes it as strong hill country. Its higher elevation means spring arrives later than at Puketui and its rainfall is significantly higher. These features mean the two farms complement one another well, and the fact that they are only 20km apart is an added bonus.

Kohunu is not only home to the A flock breeding ewes but also a herd of Stabiliser breeding cows.

Puketui was bought by the Wills in September 2014 in a semi-developed state. The previous owners had erected 12km of mainly boundary fencing and installed a water scheme, and farmed it with well below optimal fertiliser levels, particularly for phosphate, and at a conservative stocking rate.

Since arriving the Wills have increased the stocking rate by about 25% and lambing percentage by 24% (last year 149%) with a significant increase in stock sale weights. Most of the internal insultimber electric fences have been replaced, an internal lane to the back of the farm has been created and a lot of new track work has been completed. Attacking weeds like blackberry, inkweed, tutsan, small totaras and scrub is the current focus.

Having all their boys home during lockdown has been a huge help in tackling this project and other farm chores.

Two heavy applications of capital fertiliser have been pivotal in achieving significantly higher production.

“The response to the capital fert and rotational grazing has been better than expected and we’ve got a lot of rye in the pastures now.”

Soil tests taken in November 2019 show the average pH is about 5.8, Olsen Ps ranging from 8 – 26, average potassium levels 5 – 6, sulphate sulphur levels 5 – 12 and total sulphur levels 465 – 966.

Puketui ranges in altitude between 200 and 600m with about 90ha of it being flat-to-rolling, 130ha medium hill, 420ha steep hills and 644ha covered in native bush and gullies. Having a lot of north-facing country means the farm dries out badly, particularly the pumice flats.

These flats and the ash soils on the hills interspersed with patches of sedimentary soils receive an annual rainfall of 1500mm. This comes mostly from the west and is warm. Its distribution in recent years has been somewhat unpredictable with summer droughts no longer being uncommon.

Puketui gets little wind but does get the odd light fall of snow on the higher peaks.

The Wills’ farming policy has traditionally been to lamb hoggets, calve two-year heifers and aim for high lambing percentages while running a low stocking rate over the winter (without supplementary feeding) and a high stocking rate in the summer. After a number of dry summers Graham has had to rethink this policy and intends to reduce stock numbers in the spring and carry fewer stock over the summer. As a possible change in policy he’s carrying a few winter lambs this year to see how they go.

“I have talked to a number of people who won’t run them because they think they’re nutty but we haven’t found that at all. I’m used to Perendales and blackface lambs and they’re not as bad as them.”

“I’ve never had a summer feed surplus before, however, a combination of fewer stock and a wet summer may generate one and I’m not sure how I’ll deal with it. Summer fallowing (deferred grazing) may be an option.”

Much of Graham’s success in lifting stocking rate and production on Puketui can be attributed to his winter grazing management.

“I’ve got this down to two mobs with roughly a 50-60 day rotation.”

About 1100 Wiltshire crosses are rotated with the 60 R2 in-calf heifers plus the lighter cows while the 1500 MA Romney ewes mated to terminal sires are in another rotation followed immediately by the MA cows (170 minus lighter ones).

The Angus cow herd running on Puketui when the Wills took over is gradually being converted to a Stabiliser one using homebred bulls from the Stabiliser herd on Kohunu. Cows start calving in mid- October.

The weaner blocks and hogget country are cleaned up in early winter with the young stock being grazed at least two days ahead of the two ewe mobs.

Forty-three R1 bulls go on to their block on the flats in mid-June on a 20-day rotation with roughly two days between shifts.

Graham’s castration policy is to leave entire the better male calves and any that are not black, and castrate about 60 of the poorer black calves leaving an even line to sell store in January at 15 months.

The bulls are killed in January at 15 months at an average weight of about 300kg.

The 60 R1 steers are set stocked in early July on 35ha of easy country at the back of the farm. Around the middle of July the 110 R1 heifers go into a 22-day rotation on some easy ash country, and the 650 mated Wiltshire cross hoggets enter their own rotation on some of the harder and higher country.

Ewes and most of the cows come out of their winter rotation on about August 10 (13 days before the start of lambing). Single-lambing ewe paddocks are grazed last before set stocking. Cows are set stocked at the same time as the ewes at 0.4/ha while ewes bearing multiples are at 6-7.5/ha and singles at 6/ha on the harder country. Lighter cows get paddocked out progressively on twinning paddocks from about mid-July.

Graham aims to set stock twinning ewes on 1300kg DM/ha and singles on 1000kg, and to help achieve this 12-15kg N/ha is applied together with the annual maintenance fertiliser in late winter. He’s not sure whether this will be applied this year because after the drought both farms received 60kg/ha of Sustain (27kg N/ha) with excellent results.

The pumice flats get a split dressing of nitrogen in the spring and autumn with the spring application being blended with potash and sulphur because of the low levels of these elements and their mobility in pumice.

One of the reasons Graham uses nitrogen is to encourage better pasture species.

Lambing percentage last year was 149 and calving 90 (based on cows wintered) with normally 3% empties.

A small draft of lambs is taken at weaning in late November. The singles are weaned in mid-December with 60% being drafted off mum at 17-18kg. A further draft is taken just before/after Christmas, accounting for 30% of the remaining lambs, with a further draft on January 20 accounting for a further 35%.

The remaining lambs are usually shorn (bidibidi included) but were sold store this year. Before introducing hogget lambing to Puketui the Wills used to kill 75% of their terminal lambs by the end of January at 17kg, then shear what was left and kill most of them a month later.

“Wiltshire hogget lambing has presented us with an additional challenge cos now we’ve got hogget lambs to deal with over the summer. The straight terminal system was so simple.”

Graham admits he doesn’t grow his hoggets as well as he would like over the winter, but once they hit the spring feed they stack on the weight and have no trouble reaching 60kg by two-tooth mating. He normally doesn’t like mating them under 38kg but he admitted this year he mated all the Wiltshires including the hogget lambs, and some of these were quite small. The average mating weight of his Romney hoggets on Kohunu is normally about 45kg.

The mating weights for his ewes on Puketui this year were: half-bred Wiltshire two-tooths 61.7kg, half-bred Wiltshire four-tooths and some three-quarter Wiltshires 67.7kg, and MA ewes to terminal rams 64.2kg.

Graham is conscious of over-drenching so tries to avoid drenching ewes. Tail end ewes particularly in January and after scanning are identified, drenched and put on better feed. Sometimes two-tooths are drenched.

Lambs are drenched four weekly after weaning and if the terminal lambs are weaned later they may get drenched in November.


  • Farm 2146ha (1480ha effective) north-north-east of Taumarunui.
  • Own two farms, Puketui near Ongarue and Kohunu near Waimiha.
  • Predominantly sheep and beef breeding and finishing.
  • Shedding Wiltshires appear to be solving their wool problems.