Barry and Liz Gray

November 2007
The Grays farm at Owaka, in Southland, comprises three blocks: the original family farm of 248 ha, fairly steep and exposed to the south; another block of 47 ha where the Grays now live, easier land that has improved and now grows grass even in winter; and the third block of 87 ha about eight years ago. A total of approximtely 383 ha.

When Barry Grays father farmed the land most farms had a mixture of dairy, sheep and beef. Today it is not considered to be suitable for dairying.


About 3150 sheep comprising 2450 ewes, 660 hoggets and about 550 rams and lambs carried over.

Over 100 cattle including 48 breeding cows and 13 calving heifers, about 30 rising one-year heifers and about four rising one-year steers, two bulls and seven other cattle.

The cattle are used very effectively as groomers of pasture for the sheep, but rather than just an adjunct to the sheep operation they are a valuable profit centre in their own right.

Barry has bred for conformation and temperament very successfully, so much so that his calves invariably get the top price at March sales and he has won a number of regional carcass and conformation competitions.

Over the years he has continually experimented with putting various breeds of bull across his breeding herd, going with the ones that do well and changing the main bull breed about every 5 or 6 years.

When I was still at school we had Hereford and Hereford/Friesian stock and my father purchased his first three-quarters Simmental bull. At that stage we fattened our own stock and the Simmental blood certainly gave an impressive gain, says Barry.

Some years ago I had a mate who liked the Maine-Anjou, and so just to humour him I got an AI technician to inseminate five cows with Maine-Anjou semen. They were among the poorest performing cows and yet they had the best calves ever, and one calf was highly placed in a competition.

The friend lent Barry a Maine-Anjou bull for several years, which he mated to a mixture of cows including HerefordXFriesian, half Simmental, and Angus. The calves were impressive so Barry bought the bull, and his calves went from good-medium to good-top in the saleyards.

I used the Maine-Anjou for some years, but old-timers told me not carry on too long with one exotic breed so I was looking around for something else. I experimented with getting cows AI inseminated with various types of bull, and I would then see how their calves did in the Otago beef carcass competition, he says.

I tried different traditional breeds, Piedmontese, Belgian Blue and a few others just to see what they did. One-year I used Gelbvieh because I had read that they had performed very well in trials in North America, and I kept one of the bull calves that was stocky and was from a small cow, and thought he would be good to put over heifers. He turned out to be one of the best calving bulls Ive ever had. One drought year a couple of his calves were the highest yielding animals in the carcass competition.

So six years ago when it was time to change sires and instill some hybrid vigour into the herd Barry chose Gelbvieh, and now most of his cows are Maines Anjou/Gelbvieh crosses, which is quite unusual. This season he went back to a Maine-Anjou bull again.

I still like the Maines Anjou. Their calves look better, and that is an important factor at the sales. I am selling the calves at about seven months old in March rather than finishing them, and I get well paid for them and I have regular buyers who keep coming back, he says.

I have seen how well the calves do on finishing properties one buyer said they gave a 7% better yield that some other lines but I would be hard pressed to achieve that growth rate here.

Barrys stock have fared well in the Otago/Southland beef competitions for many years, and this year he was a finalist in the Steak of Origin competition with a Maine-Anjou/South Devon cross.

To make his own life easier Barry has also selected for temperament so that he has a quiet herd he can work with easily in paddock or yards. He liked the temperament of a South Devon cow he bought, so he tried a South Devon bull across some of his heifers and was pleased with the result. He has kept some heifer calves and is keen to see how they go with the Maine-Anjou bull.

Winter is a limiting factor on the property, and although baleage has improved the conservation and feeding out processes he would be hard pressed to finish calves profitably.

Wintering them on the south-facing home farm would be expensive, so I am better to sell them and winter more cows there on some rough pasture that is not suitable for sheep, he Barry.

They calve in September so there are extra mouths to graze the spring flush later. In summer they run around those steep hills being toppers and controlling worms, and putting condition on their backs which it comes off in the winter. This system improves pastures and has really improved the sheep operation.

Again, Barry has taken an experimental approach to see what works in his environment. He has had Coopworths for a long time, and one year put 200 2-tooths to Texel rams, 200 to the Kelso and 200 to the Coopworth and another hundred to a terminal sire.

I did that for two or three years and compared the offspring, and the Kelso produced the best so I have gone that way. Everybody tells you their breed is best but you can only know for sure if you try them for yourself, says Barry.

I do a lambing beat on the 2-tooths, the older ewes do their own thing. If I have to assist a 2-tooth it gets an ear tag, if it's not cull tag they go to a terminal sire so I don't breed from them. I am breeding easy-care sheep.

Lambing percentage has been quietly creeping up last year it was 156% at tailing, 153% to sale or survival. Barry have been on monitor farm committees for the last three monitor farms, and says he has learnt a lot there and is certainly trying to apply it.

Shelter is important to lamb survival in this country and in recent years Barry has put a lot of effort into finding species that suit the conditions.

Things have gone full circle my grandfather arrived here over 100 years ago and cut the bush down, and now I am putting some of it back as shelterbelts, he says.

Many people use flax, which is a very effective and cheap shelter belt, but I think when it matures and the ends of the leaves get chewed and hang over your electric feed-out wire, it becomes a bit of a problem and is unsightly. I have looked at different species that have that same density low down for low shelter but are a lot more attractive, and if sheep can trim it if it pokes through the fence so much the better.

One of the species I am looking at now buds up in August and flowers in September or October and has an attractive berry afterwards, it is just nice to look at.

Some of the older shelter belt species lose density low down, and this creates a wind tunnel underneath. If sheep with newborn lambs try to shelter under them in a storm the wind chill factor is phenomenal, so Barry has actually used wind-break cloth to improve the situation temporarily.

To avoid the problem longer term he has planted several types of Viburnum under eucalypts to give both low and higher shelter.

To give a more natural look I have intermingled the species instead of just planting separate rows of the two species. A lot of these belts are quite young so it is early days yet to see how well they are going to do, says Barry.

I was telling a farm forestry discussion group how I hoped these varieties would perform better than flax but look a lot better, and I got rubbished. So I invited the guys to come and look at the flax and the new shelter virtually side by side, and they were quite surprised.

I like to experiment and be open to new possibilities. If I see something nice in a park or a botanical garden or on the side of the road I will try it. Funnily enough, the ones that are doing well are the old hedging plants that have been in the old shrubbery right under by nose for most of my life.

People recommend species, for example Photinia for hedging, but it has done very poorly here. We have harsh winds off snow and ice in winter, and some species that do quite well in one place don't do very well somewhere else, so it is worth experimenting because the plants have got to last.