Gibson family at Malvern Downs, Tarras, Central Otago

November 2006
Malvern Downs is 853ha of mainly flat farm land at Tarras, Central Otago. It is not typical of high country farms, because it is much smaller and flatter, and nearly half of the property is irrigated by a border-dyke system fed from the Lindis River.

The farm runs 7000 Merino sheep, 900 Wapiti deer and 60 finishing beef steers. This adds up to 11-12 SU/ha and is only possible because of the irrigation growing ryegrass and clover pasture, plus a large area of dryland lucerne.

The combination is classed as intensive farming for Central Otago, because of its long winters and low rainfall (450mm annually). The Gibsons are dedicated Merino sheep people, but Malvern Downs now qualifies as a property more suited to Romneys or other dual-purpose sheep breeds. For that reason footrot risk in the Merino is a constant factor, and a focus of selection and breeding.

Robert is the third generation of Gibsons to farm the property, and he is assisted by two employees.

Sheep on Malvern Downs are classed as superfine Merinos, between 16 and 18.5 microns fibre diameter. There is now also a line of ultrafine woolled sheep, below 16 microns. For instance the finest ram in use at present has a fleece of 13.3 microns.

Malvern Downs is home to the NZ Stud Merino Breeders Society flock 69, of 700 registered ewes, founded by Hector Gibson (Roberts grandfather and Bills father) in 1924, and the Poll Merino registered flock 1, of 60 registered ewes, founded by Bill Gibson in 1950, when he imported a Poll Merino ram from NSW. The balance of 6000+ ewes are commercial Merino superfine.

Merino sheep were first bred on Malvern Downs and the adjacent Malvern Hills in 1858, through until purchase of both properties by Hector Gibson in 1917.

When the studs were founded the Merino sheep were more strong and medium woolled, and because of premium prices available for superfine wool, the breeding of the Malvern Downs sheep has emphasised superfine fibre. Over the decades since 1950s the whole Malvern Downs flock has moved into superfine or ultrafine categories.

A superfine ewe will clip around 4.8kgs of fleece each year. They are all shorn in August, when because of the cold weather cover combs are used in shearing, to leave a warm covering of wool on the sheep. Wool is classed carefully at shearing to eliminate faults, to skirt the bellies and oddments and to categorise into different microns. This is because the prices receive at auction vary according to the average micron of the fleeces in the bale. For instance, a tested 17.5 micron line might bring $15-$20/kg and a tested 15.5 micron bale up to $35/kg.

With around 30,000 to 35,000kgs of superfine wool produced annually, Malvern Downs earns the majority of income from wool, in contrast to most NZ sheep farms which now earn more from finished lambs. NZ Merino wool has a worldwide reputation for clean, white, long-staple fleeces which are sought by European and Asian manufacturers for high quality clothing mens and womens.

Malvern Downs finishes all lambs which are not wanted for flock replacements, sires and stud breeding. These finished lambs will be about one year old and are killed by Canterbury Meat Packers. Merino lamb meat has a reputation for taste and texture which is different from the normal dual-purpose or terminal sired lamb.

The Merino ewes achieve a 100% lambing, which means mainly singles and not as many twins or triplets as other breeds. On Malvern Downs the rams go out to the ewes from April 25 onwards, for two cycles (34 days), and lambing begins at the end of September and continues through October. Docking is done from mid-November onwards. Southdown rams are used over the Merino lambs after the second cycle of Merino rams, to make sure as many ewes as possible conceive. However the Gibsons do not want late Merino lambs born (after October). Any crossbred lambs are finished for slaughter. All commercial male Merino lambs are wethered while the stud male lambs are kept entire.

The purpose of the Malvern Downs studs is to breed rams which can be used over registered and non-registered Merino ewes to achieve or maintain superfine fleeces, and to provide the option of Poll Merino if desired. The stud breeder is always striving to produce strong, healthy rams which breed true to wool type and have the right conformation. They must be sound on their feet and capable of serving ewes, and getting them pregnant. Every sale ram is checked by a vet and comes with a money-back guarantee.

Malvern Downs sells at the annual Central Otago Merino Ram Fair in Wanaka in January, and from the property during the summer. In 2005 the stud sold eight rams at Wanaka for an average of $1200. The annual production of rams is 250, from which buyers can choose their preferred wool micron range.

All lambs born to registered ewes must be recorded. During lambing season the ewes which give birth are shed off each day and Bill visits the farm three or four times a week to tag the newly-born lambs and record their ewe and ram numbers. All rams are used as single-sire matings, which means they get between 30 and 70 ewes each. The ewes have a coloured tag which identifies the sire. At docking, the temporary plastic tags for the lambs are replaced by permanent brass tags if those lambs are to remain in the breeding flocks.

Selection and culling goes on all through the year, from docking onwards. One-third of lambs born to the stud ewes are rejected at docking as being unsuitable for breeding. Later, selection will be made on fibre diameter, wool weights and yields.

Sheep are rejected for breeding in the stud flock for many reasons: teeth and jaw structure, woolly faces, wool length, feet structure and stance, frame size, conformation etc. The experience and skill of the stud breeder is required to select sheep which will breed the rams that clients will want in the future.

Robert and Bill Gibson are keen sheep show participants, attending three or four each summer. Bill has attended 70 consecutive Upper Clutha shows (Wanaka) since he was a boy. He says there are more sheep shown at Wanaka than at Christchurch some years. He has also attended 50 Canterbury shows, at Christchurch.

Robert has attended 25 Canterbury shows. Robert is president of the NZ Stud Merino Breeders Society and Bill served five years as president. The Malvern Downs sheep are champions in the superfine Merino division in most years at Canterbury. This year (2006) is the Royal Show at Canterbury, which carries extra status for the exhibitors.

Robert took 12 sheep to Canterbury, being rams which have been used last mating (autumn) and then selected around June as show candidates. They are kept inside at nights during the winter and were not shorn last August. They will have a full fleece for showing, usually before a visiting Australian judge with a lifetime of Merino breeding experience.

Bill and Robert are also keen to pass what they can about sheep breeding and judging to the younger generation. The Society runs an annual young Merino judges contest at Canterbury, with contestants from the three main Merino regions: Otago, Canterbury and Marlborough. These are usually sons and daughters of Merino farmers.

Bill, aged 78, says he continues to learn about sheep judging and breeding. You keep your eyes and ears open and there are no magic formulas to judging or to sheep bloodlines.