Meat is an important income stream, but the Taylors at Rata Peaks Station, South Canterbury, are still tinkering with breeding for wool – even after 30 years. Andrew Swallow investigates.

Sometimes having a bet each way works better than putting all your money on a horse to win.

It’s a strategy that’s working well for the Taylors at Rata Peaks Station in the Rangitata Valley, South Canterbury.

To continue the betting analogy, the breed they backed shortly after taking on the 1836ha farm in 1989 is the Merino. Since 2001, the Dohne-strain of Merino, which is where the each-way bet comes in.

“When we’re buying rams we’re concentrating on feet and eye-muscle area,” Sam Taylor says, who is gradually taking up the reins from mother Jan Taylor and her partner Craig Feaver.

Birthweight and weight gain EBVs are also checked; then they look at the wool.

“The wool is coming back into it too. We’re trying to get the best of everything,” Sam admits.

Getting the wool weight up is the main focus on the wool side. The average ewe clip is about 4.5kg from the annual mid-September shearing, and the hoggets 3.0 to 3.5kg, or a bit more for the remaining wethers amongst them.

“We’re doing a bit of culling based on points that are getting too bare and wool length that’s not good enough. The aim is to get the length and weight of the fleece up without increasing the micron.”

Ewe fleece staple length averages about 90mm from shearing with a cover comb and lifter.

Jan recalls telling their wool classer it would take them 10 years to get the fleece style they wanted when they started out using Merinos across the Polwarth flock, which they bought with the station in 1989. The classer retorted it would take 20.

“And here we are 30 years later still tinkering with it!”

The Polwarth flock included about 2000 wethers, which she and her then husband Malcolm sold immediately, and over the next two or three years they culled the ewe flock hard, reducing it from 4800 to about 2500.

“Our first shearing with the Polwarths produced 33 lines with micron from 18 to 33. Basically they were mongrels!”

Now lamb/hogget fleeces are consistently 17 to 18 micron and ewes 19-20.

They market the wool through Mainland Wool, with most of it going to auction. Contracts have been considered in the past but crunching the numbers, after commission and other fees on the contracts, she’s confident on average they’re better off selling at auction.

“We’ve got the option to put it up three times at auction for a flat rate commission. After that there are extra charges.”

Normally they set the reserve at the valuation and put the wool up in March but, with the turmoil of Covid-19 and tumbling prices in the autumn, none of last year’s clip had been sold as of early October.

“In 30 years I’ve never sold Merino fleece with a valuation average that low and it was the very start of the season,” says Jan. She’s confident prices will recover as soon as the disruption of Covid-19 is cleared.

“The market for Merino is strong, it’s just not at the moment.”

That’s echoed by Sam, who notes every outdoor activity clothing manufacturer has a Merino line of products now.

Only three years ago, in March 2017, some of their hogget fleece at 17.7 micron hit the headlines for making the highest price at auction in Australasia.

“It made $31.04/kg clean. We averaged $18.50/kg clean for all our wool that season.”

Lock up and leave

But meat is an important income stream for the business too. The Dohne’s have more than enough fertility for the long-winter, normally summer-dry environment and produce a higher value carcase when finished.

“We only wet/dry scan but we tail about 120% from our mixed aged ewes so they must be scanning at about 150%. Two-tooths tail 100%,” says Sam.

There’s no shepherding. “We have a lock-up and leave policy.”

Two-tooths are lambed on the flats on the south side of the river and the ewes spread round the hill, nearly all of which is north facing.

“There’s one hill block that’s south facing. We put the ewes on to that after weaning to give the north faces a respite. Without that we’d struggle to carry the ewe numbers we do.”

It’s also why they haven’t entered tenure review: it would ruin the balance of the station, Jan says.

Soils are inherently low in sulphur and selenium so, besides maintenance fertiliser, about 150kg/ha of Sulphurgain 30S is flown on to the improved hill. Also, they’ve just started adding selenium to the fertiliser, having used long-acting injections to supplement stock with the essential mineral to date.

A similar approach is taken on the flats, though Sustain Ammo 36N with selenium added was used this year instead of Sulphurgain.

Ewes get a 6-in-1 clostridial vaccine-plus-drench injection at shearing, and a triple-active oral drench at weaning.

With the farm about 20km into the mountains from the Canterbury Plain it can sometimes get heavy rain in summer from westerly fronts pushing across the main divide, so ewes are jetted for flystrike with Cyrex (spinosad + cyrozamine) at tailing and lambs go through the jetter about a month later.

“We do the ewes again at weaning; that’s at the end of January, start of February.”

About 250 to 300 ewes are drafted out of the main flock each year and put to a Suffolk before being culled once the crossbred lamb is weaned. All lambs from that terminal mob have, until this season, been sold at weaning, typically about half going store and half prime, but it’s Sam’s aim to finish them all this year, taking them through to March or April if need be on 28ha of lucerne on the flats.

About 800 bales of balage are taken off that and grass paddocks in spring and used to supplement stock through what is at least a 100-day winter with three or four snows most years. “There’s nil growth mid-May to mid-September.”

About 50ha of kale are also grown for winter feed, but summers can require some supplement feeding too.

“We can get extremely dry because it’s nearly all north facing.”

Barley, for flushing ewes if necessary, grain feeding stags, and topping up rations where needed in winter, is bought in or sometimes homegrown. “This year we’re growing 8.8ha.”

Besides black faced lambs from the terminal mob, the bottom quarter of the Merino lambs are sold store and they finish everything else, taking about 1400 lambs through the winter from which they select their 450 replacement hoggets. The rest have been sold prime on a contract to Blue Sky Meats through local PGW agent, Rod Sands, for the past five or six years.

“They’re good quality lambs, prime, and they yield very well.”

Good growth rates also mean they’re hitting the optimum carcase weight for the contract of around 22kg at what’s usually the peak of the market in October.

“As of the end of October this year 784 had gone, averaging 21.8kg at $7.20/kg excluding GST, with 170 left to go, mostly non-replacement ewe lambs,” said Jan.

“They wouldn’t cut teeth until well into the New Year, but they’d probably be gone in the next three or four weeks (late November) anyway.”

Stock balance “about right”

Having had up to 150 breeding cows at one point, Jan and Craig reined that back to 100 about 15 years ago, and since then feel they’ve got the balance of stock classes about right for the property.

“We were struggling to get through winters with enough feed for the cattle.”

The deer herd, started in 1996, is a good fit for the hill country and climate, and has gradually grown with the area behind deer netting to now include 350 hinds, all reds, replacement hinds and 400 velveting stags.


  • 1836ha on the south side of Rangitata Valley, South Canterbury, mostly north facing.
  • 330ha flats, 770ha developed hill (oversown & topdressed); 736ha native.
  • 2200 Dohne Merino ewes; 100 Angus cows; 980 deer (total).
  • Station altitude 420m, rising to 1500m.
  • Average 6-700mm/year but highly variable.