After decades of sheep breeding, David Wyllie has learned to put his trust in Mother Nature.
That faith was put to the test when a rising north branch of the Ashburton River broke its banks and washed on to Gatton Park farm just west of Ashburton.
After a big cleanup, all that remains are high tide marks on the pump house, wool shed and farm buildings.
He shrugs his shoulders, knowing those upriver had it far worse. Nature takes and nature provides.
The 83-year-old pivots his quadbike down the laneway where floodwaters once lapped above engine-level and down to a low-lying paddock framed by specimen trees.
Stud Romney ewes are rounded up and nearby replacement ewe hoggets watch on to see what the commotion is about.
Their genetics represent nearly 70 years of breeding by the Southdown and Romney statesman, guided into breeding at a tender age by his father.
"I don’t think I was born to play bowls or do anything else and like to think I can still achieve until the day I die. Mother Nature blessed me with stockmanship. On saying that I’m a great believer in Mother Nature and always work with it."
Gatton Park has been home for him and wife, Sarah, since 1993 when they down-sized from their Lauriston farm for a new start. Another seven blocks, each of eight hectares, were sold and they have just the single title now.
"I don’t call myself a retired farmer — I call myself a mini-farmer as we’re sitting on an 8ha block here. We used to have 102ha and I’ve reduced obviously because of my age. I had a knee problem and went to the Rugby World Cup way back in 2011 over in France and I had this crook knee and I thought time to give up in my 70s so we’ve just got a small stud of 41 ewes we lambed this year."
A Southdown stud was sold in 1997 as it was a "young man’s breed" and he wanted to concentrate on the Romneys.
The exit put a full stop on a lifetime of achievements with the breed.
Over the long stint he exhibited 16 Royal champion rams, 24 ewes in the same category as well as 18 supreme champions and the commercial ram class a record seven times.
Exported to far-flung countries such as the United Kingdom, Unites States, Uruguay, Canada, Japan and Indonesia, Pakistan and Australia were 67 registered rams and nearly the same number of pedigree ewes.
In the show ring, he’s had the honour of judging Southdowns at Royal A&P shows in Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Christchurch, among other centres, as well as the Melbourne show in 1976 and 1984.
Naturally, he was a long serving member on the breed’s council, president and life-member.
The honours board reads much the same for Romneys — exporting rams, topping Gore and Christchurch sales and judging at the World Sheep and Wool Congress in Tasmania.
So he could be forgiven for putting his shepherd’s crooks to rest and settling into the sofa.
Something was nagging at him, however, when he retained several older ewes left off the dispersal sale catalogue after bowing out of the Romney stud too in 2016.
"The 13 [ewes] we threw out were getting like me, old crocks and we didn’t think were good enough for the sale. So when I came home that night after selling all the 270 lots I thought what the hell am I going to do. So I put the ram lamb out with the good old breeding ewes and got where we are today. I thought I’d done my dash, but I always like going out in the morning and having a look at the sheep and just witnessing what I achieve. They are good to look at and I’m happy with them so I didn’t stop."
Mr Wyllie was born and bred in North Canterbury’s Omihi Valley.
Wyllie senior never used to keep records as he missed out on a secondary school education, but always knew which ram went to which ewe.
In stepped his son, then aged 12, who had heard his father’s friends talk highly of sheep recording and unsuccessfully urged him to follow suit.
A near photographic memory, only just now fading, played into his hands. So documenting the stud’s parentage was added to his list of duties on top of milking the house cows and feeding the chooks and pigs before leaving for school.
Born into farming, Mr Wyllie wanted to be a veterinarian when he took to the books at St Andrew’s College.
His oldest brother went down with rheumatic fever and after completing the fifth form in 1956 and weighing just 39 kilograms, he got the call to come home.
That dashed hopes of making the first 15, but he went on to play representative rugby at Canterbury sub-union level.
Corriedale commercial sheep were run on the family’s 190ha mixed farm as well as the Southdown stud, beef cattle and a cropping mix of milling and feed wheat and barley, grass seed and white clover.
Born in the middle of World War 2, the aftermath of the war years shaped his thinking in life.
His eyes well up at the memory of seeing maimed soldiers.
"I feel the soldiers don’t get the respect as they fought for us, our freedom and our democracy and they just get overlooked today. I believe the general public just don’t appreciate what they did for us. I was on a rugby tour with the Canterbury sub-unions in the North Island and went to the Levin War Veterans Home and that really cut me up. Even now I get emotional about seeing people with half heads and it just changed my life. It affected me so much we had a team meeting that night and I was vice-captain and said my piece as half the team played golf. Everyone should have gone to that war veterans home and learnt a lesson."
The early 1950s coincided with the Korean War and a golden spell for strong wool that’s been on a steady decline since.
The Wyllie boys plucked every sheep they could get their hands on — including the neighbours’ dead sheep and got into hot water over that.
"The amount of money we made and banked selling wool and old dry sheep skins that were hung over the rail really feathered our nests. I started up a saving bank account. In those times there were quite a few deaths and the neighbour had a self feed lot and about 17 sheep smothered and we pulled them all out to dry because they were in a damp spot and plucked them two days later. Soon after later he rung up the phone and said ‘there were a lot of nude sheep down there’. He wanted the money, but like hell he was getting that back."
His father insisted his four sons put hard-earned wages working on the family farm into a trust account and this helped all of them get on a farm.
One brother remained at Burnfoot, and wanted to retain its name and a quarter of the stud.
In Mr Wyllie’s case he left, age 34, to go out on his own at Lauriston in 1974.
With $60,000 saved up from wages — and wool plucking loot — he put a decent deposit down and weathered interest rates reaching 27%.
Arriving with three-quarters of his father’s stud ewes, he considered and dismissed Lutton Hoo and Sandringham for a stud name before settling on Gatton Park. The UK trio had benefited New Zealand studs by contributing Southdown rams in the early years.
On the newly named Lauriston farm of 182ha, including neighbouring leased land, he ran crops, a stud flock of initially 364 ewes and commercial sheep to produce prime lambs — peaking at 1000 ewes one year.
To make this work, every waking hour was spent on the farm, to the extent the Farmers Co-op manager bankrolled a farm hand for him, worried he was working too hard. Often he would plough to midnight in his first marriage and get up the next morning without seeing his children in the morning.
This work ethic can be attributed to him seeing the resilience of war veterans.
Mr Wyllie thought the least he could do was work long and hard uncomplainingly to get ahead and use this as a motivating force on the farm and rugby fields.
In time this work ethic and a gift for breeding paid off.
"Mother Nature was fortunate for me in that we got to a good standard and got good prices for our rams and that got me out of the debt we had, so much so that we exported quite a few sheep. I don’t want to sound boastful in saying this, but I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s exported more rams — 67 in total and I’ve done two Romneys since."
In the peak export years of the 1970s and 1980s 352 recorded ewes were mated and 498 lambs tailed, with 24 registered stud rams sold including nine exported and a further 130 flock rams sold for commercial prime lamb production. Another 58 mainly first shear ewes were also sold including 26 for export.
Continually fine-tuning his flock by culling the weak and keeping the strong paid dividends.
Mr Wyllie swears Southdowns have the best tasting lamb with its fine textured meat threaded by linings of intra-muscular fat and it was a family favourite in his younger years.
Back then the breed, like others, was found lacking in other areas and they’ve come a long way since the early post-war years.
"When I was a primary schooled child Dad would come in the morning and say ‘we’ve lost another two Southdowns and one was hung’ (lamb’s head out of womb). I took it upon myself to set the alarm and get up every three hours at night and we still lost them. I can remember being such a small bloke catching a ewe that had a lamb hung that she carted me all around the orchard until I wore her down and put her in the shed with the lamb with her and in the morning the lamb was dead, she’d just bunted it to death. They were poor mothers, poor milkers and I think I took it upon myself to do something about it."
Ewes producing only singles were lucky to get a lambing rate of 100%.
This was where his interest in animal recording came to the fore — any mother producing a hung lamb or poor at looking after its young was out.
Furthermore, Burnfoot ewes showing any sign of footrot had a target on them at their new home and were also bred out. Twisted and poorly structured feet tended to lead to foot rot and abscess problems which stopped ewes looking after lambs unless treated.
By improving the conformation of their carcass — more meat, less fat and a finer shoulder — and raising their milking ability the lambing percentage increased dramatically. When the stud was sold it was near 200%.
Sheep breeding is about progress, he said.
The stud flock got to 400 fully recorded ewes with the best of them heading to the show ring.
With his father, he attended all the local shows, including the Canterbury A&P Show and followed the Royal A&P Show circuit around New Zealand for four years.
Winning a Royal Show ribbon was a big deal back then.
In those days there was no SIL, no national recording and no Beef+Lamb New Zealand, so breeders relied on show results to display their breeding prowess.
There was a lot at stake and Mr Wyllie remains contemptuous of those resorting to "falsifying" sheep by trimming wool to lower a shoulder or other part and overfeeding them.
That backfired when younger farmers started losing faith and buying non-showing sheep.
Because of his Southdown success, stock agents tried to convince him to buy a stud of another breed and even bought a flight ticket for him to attend a dispersal sale.
This was politely refused — he wasn’t interested in another terminal sire breed as the Southdowns already fell in this category.
Convincing him in the end was his inability to win an elusive red ribbon in prime lamb competitions at shows. There was no shortage of seconds or thirds for the progeny of Southdowns crossed with Corriedale ewes, but he was always beaten by Romney bloodlines.
So he bought two Romney studs to form his own in 1984, combining 104 Ashburton ewes from the Woolley family’s Everton Stud with 115 ewes from Chris Walls’ Manawa Stud in Manawatu.
They were good "tight" sheep with the Walls ewes more commercially oriented and the Woolley ewes carrying a woollier frame.
"I just blended them together and got what I’ve got today. Through having that influence of that competition I just felt they needed more meat on them and having a Southdown stud I wanted to really make the Romneys a Southdown carcass with good Romney wool on them and that was the basics I worked on."
He also fine-tuned the commercial flock.
Before starting the Romney stud, he’d bought 120 Coopworth ewes from Lincoln University, 120 Romneys at a ewe fair and 120 Corriedales. After putting a Southdown ram over them he found Romneys out-performed the others, even if Corriedales were superior in dry conditions.
So the Corriedales, producing an impressive lambing percentage of 130% to 140% on arrival, but never going on further, were phased out for Romneys.
By keeping twin birthing ewes this has paid off with the lambing percentage going from 135% to 176%, and this year about 15% of the small flock raised triplets.
Eventually, he was able to win the elusive prime lamb title with his Southdown-Romney crossed offspring.
Also in the Romney’s favour was a 35 to 39 micron fleece — a good medium strong wool and better carcass muscling.
"I thought a lot of the leading Romneys of that era lacked muscling in the loin and hindquarter. Through improving the muscling we’ve improved the lambing percentage and everything else has gone with it, including not having bearing trouble or cast sheep for well over two decades. It’s not scientifically proven but I believe it’s because of the muscling as when a sheep gets cast it needs to have muscle to get off its back. I found the subcutaneous excess fat actually anchors them to the ground."
Arriving at the smaller Ashburton farm under border dyke irrigation, since upgraded to K-line irrigation, he was warned he would have a lot of cast sheep, but that hasn’t proven the case.
Since 2010, he’s run his ram hoggets under a CAT scanner at Lincoln University and found their muscling has increased with one ram hogget achieving a meat yield of 72% this year.
While he’s a stickler for numbers, he’s also a firm believer in the human element within breeding.
"I’ve done this to firm up my belief that eye appraisal and feel with your hands is still very important in measuring animals, beef and sheep, and what scanning does is back up your beliefs. Even though it’s a costly exercise, it’s still worth it to keep your focus right on your breeding aspirations. It certainly has refocused my views on it and also backed up my beliefs where the muscle is and how it’s formed and what, shape and form that meat is in and where it is. We want our meat on the loin and hindquarter as they’re the preferential cuts."
Meat processing companies pay farmers a flat rate with the lamb schedule at this stage at about $7 per kilogram whether an animal yields more expensive cuts, or not.
Yet in a butcher shop or a supermarket a lamb rack is up to $74/kg in Australia and hovering between $48/kg to $51/kg in New Zealand with loin meat at $24/kg, hindquarter $18/kg to $24/kg and shoulder between $9/kg and $12/kg.
Inexplicable to him is quality is being overlooked by quantity. Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL) has, according to him, yet to fully define meat quality. Meat companies are more concerned with dividends, rebates and throughput than producing better tasting, "nutritious, palatable and succulent" sheep meat.
Always probing to produce a better animal, he’s working with scientists on changing subcutaneous fat on their frames to intramuscular fat, in the hope one day tasty premium cuts will be rewarded.
Until then, and health permitting, there’s no chance he will retire.