May 2018

A visit to Stonyhurst in North Canterbury - an historic farm with its eye on the future

Stonyhurst was first settled by Charles Clifford in 1850 and is now farmed by the fifth and sixth generations of Douglas-Cliffords. Brothers John and Peter have worked for 40 years on the property and John’s son Charles now has managerial control, after returning to the farm in 2012, following a career in rural banking. In 2017 the partnership won the Ballance Farm Environment Awards supreme award for Canterbury.

Stonyhurst employs five staff members in addition to family members. The property runs sheep, beef cattle and deer, breeding and finishing, totaling 22,000 stock units on 2950ha. It carries around 10,000 halfbred ewes plus replacements (fine- to mid-micron stabilized crosses of Merino with long-woolled Lincoln breed), 500 beef cows and replacements and 400 deer hinds.

Charles explains Stonyhurst is farmed on traditional lines without much changing in stocking rates and farm management from year to year. All progeny are reared for replacements or finished for slaughter when weather and feed conditions allow. Annual rainfall is only 950mm (40 inches) and drought conditions a regular occurrence.

Farming takes place on 2450ha and 500ha is non-effective, including 250ha of native bush and fenced gullies. The stocking ratio is 70% sheep, 25% cattle and 5% deer, and 40% of the station’s income comes from wool.

Sheep:  Halfbred ewes produce 22 to 26 micron fleece wool, the hoggets 20 to 22 micron, and the fleece weights are 3.5 to 4kg/ewe and hoggets clip 1.5 to 2kg at 8 months.

Wool is sold through New Zealand Merino on contract to SmartWool (of the United States) and has done so for 15 years.

Reproduction performance is 115-120% weaned lambs against ewes mated to rams, and targeted lamb finishing is 17kg carcass weight, over a range of January to late July, with the average date March 31. Stonyhurst also breeds for footrot resistance.

Stonyhurst hosts the nucleus flock of the new Southern Cross developing sheep breed, which aims to have fine wool of 21 to 23 microns, footrot resistance, up to 130% to 140% lamb weaning, fleece weights of 4kg and lamb weights up to 20kg CW. Southern Cross is a joint venture of six sheep breeders and New Zealand Merino. It is based on Merino or ¾ Merino ewes. 

Cattle:  Cows are Angus-Hereford crosses on a Hereford base. Non-replacements are finished to average 270kg carcass weight at 14 to 18 months, to be off the farm before their second winter. 

Deer:  400 Red hinds have an historical reproduction performance of 93-95% fawning, but this has slipped below 90% in recent drought years. Progeny not wanted for hind replacements are finished to 55kg CW at 10-11 months of age.

EID:  Stonyhurst has been electronically tagging sheep, cattle and deer since 2008. EID tagging of sheep is not common on commercial farms. Ten years of information about individual animals has developed into a valuable database. “The uses for the data are endless,” Charles says.

 All aspects of animal management are recorded, including individual fleece weights at shearing. “We work on a ‘capture now, use later’ concept. There is an acceptance here that even if we don’t know it at the time of gathering data, there will be a ‘why’ later. This means you aren’t making stock management decisions following a hunch and waiting for 12 months to see if that hunch was right. “For example, we are able to make sure with our replacements we are not just keeping all the singles because they were the biggest at the time. We are starting to see some real trends now, particularly with how the sheep are performing and with the drought the past few years, how they hold their condition according to their breeding.”

The flock size, history and the use of EID means Stonyhurst is effectively operating a big commercial halfbred sheep stud.

All sheep can be run in mixed mobs but the performance of individuals can be tracked and selected for special treatment.

They were early adopters of FarmIQ, helping develop the farm management system in its early stages. FarmIQ’s purpose is to create a consumer driven integrated value chain, listening to consumers first and understanding what they want, working along the supply chain right back to the farm, delivering sustainable benefits to all involved.

Technology enables the Douglas-Cliffords to demonstrate to consumers the care they take with their animals and their land.

Breeding informed by the EID measurements and database means that Stonyhurst can make progress towards goals defined by the consumers. The wool that meets the SmartWool specifications is increasing every year and the higher micron sheep are being culled out.

Conservation:  The centre of the property contains a 200ha native bush, fenced and allowed to regenerate for several decades. An on-going planting and protection programme ensures the farm will continue to improve for future generations. Riparian retirement and fencing is ongoing, along the water courses that arise on the property and run down to the sea. 95% of 400 paddocks now have water troughs. Deeper, fenced gullies have natives planted in them by previous generations.

Stonyhurst has also invested in a lime quarry and the Douglas-Cliffords have a comprehensive knowledge of all soil types and their fertiliser requirements.