Major changes to farming operation over six decades

When Alan Stewart's parents moved to a farm in the Leithen Valley, near Gore, in 1949, times were tough.

That first year, his father ran 1500 ewes, which lambed 59%, and about 25 cows that "had a few calves as well".

There was a dirt road and they had no electricity, let alone a washing machine, he recalled.

As a child growing up, Mr Stewart remembered there were no fences and he could ride his horse all over the property and not have to open a gate.

More than 60 years later, things were vastly different on the Stewart family's extensive farming business.

The increased production in their sheep and beef farming operation and diversification through a successful trophy hunting business made it an ideal property for the nearly 400 people attending the recent New Zealand Grassland Association conference to visit.

The conference, titled Opportunities in Changing Land Use, included field trips to both the Stewart family's farm and Nithdale Station, where Andrew and Heather Tripp have both sheep and beef operations and a dairy unit, as well as a farm stay.

The Stewart family's property now comprised 2698ha, additional land having been bought over the years.

The farming side was looked after by Alan and Sue Stewart and daughter Bee, while another daughter, Rachel, ran the trophy hunting with her husband, Olly Burke.

Son George was on a cattle property in Australia's Northern Territory, where he ran a business hunting water buffalo, wild boar and scrub bulls.

The farming operation comprised about 9000 ewes, with a Wairere Romney base and some Perendale and Coopworth genetics, and about 2600 hoggets.

There were also about 300 mixed-age breeding cows and about 1500 deer.

The ewes lambed between 135% and 140% and they were a good hill sheep, free-moving and not too big, which suited the country, Bee Stewart said.

They tried to finish all lambs, getting them to 18kg, but that depended on the season.

When it came to farming, Alan Stewart likened it to a good rugby team. "You do the basics right, that's what we try and do ... and everything takes care of itself.""We believe we are pretty good shepherds. We don't do anything fancy - we're pretty basic farmers," he said.

One thing they had always spent a lot of money on was fertiliser, especially lime.

"Fertiliser is vital to us up here.

If we didn't have it, nothing would happen."

Mr Stewart had always been keen on hunting and had had a dream to attract paying customers to go hunting.

The area had always had a good feral deer population, but during the helicopter capture years the feral population was hunted keenly, so the Stewarts shut down helicopter-hunting on the property to ensure there would still be some deer around for their children.

Numbers built up and, to both preserve them and capture more deer, 400ha was ring-fenced.

The first few years were "really stressful", but they learnt the trade from other hunting guides and found out where to market the business.

They now catered for between about 60 and 70 hunting parties a year, sometimes reaching as many as 100.

The deer herd had a red hind base. All spikers were taken through to hard velvet in February-March and then culled (50%-60%) in the early autumn based on antler size and style.

They were then culled by 50% again based on the velvet they cut as 2-year-olds the following January, those remaining entering the mixed-age velvet herd.

Stags were velveted for the final time as 6-year-olds, and, at 7, were grown out as trophies. A final cull occurred before the stags were released into the safari blocks.

The Stewarts aimed to give hunters "the experience of a lifetime". It was not all just about hunting, but also about New Zealand "and showing them what we have to offer", Rachel Burke said.

An average hunt was between five and seven days, although could reach up to nine or 10 days, and they specialised in red stags, fallow deer, tahr and chamois.

A new lodge was built in 2000, which had been added to over the past 10 years, while a Wanaka lodge was also used as a base for hunting.

They preferred people to book a year in advance and had one hunter booked until 2016. They were proud of the number of word-of-mouth referrals, Mrs Burke said.

Each year, the family attended trade shows in the United States.

The first hunters arrived in February and then it was "full go" until about June and "pretty much done" by August, Olly Burke said.

It was a year's worth of work in half a year and, while people thought it was a glamorous job, it was in fact "really hard yakka", Mr Burke said.

Hunting and farming worked "pretty well together", and there were no real clashes, Mr Stewart said, while Mrs Burke said they were "pretty proud" of being a family business.