Passion for genetics put into practice

Pete Gardyne (left) with his wife Esther, holding youngest son Aaron, 3, and Trevor Potter...
Pete Gardyne (left) with his wife Esther, holding youngest son Aaron, 3, and Trevor Potter inspect rams at the Gardyne family’s home base at Knapdale, near Gore, last week. PHOTOS: SALLY RAE
A driven young Southland farmer has added another string to his already busy bow with the acquisition of a sheep stud. Rural editor Sally Rae talks to Pete Gardyne about his farming philosophy.

When Pete Gardyne selects Poll Dorset rams for next mating season, he will not have to travel far.

Mr Gardyne and his wife Esther, who operate a large-scale farming operation in Southland, bought the Ohio Poll Dorset stud this year from their longtime ram supplier Trevor Potter.

Despite already having a fairly hefty sheep operation with close to 8000 ewes and about 1500 hoggets which were also lambed, the additional challenge of stud breeding has been a desire for some time.

With a passion for genetics and also a very analytical mind, there was an appeal of "getting in and going that step deeper", Mr Gardyne said last week.

The Ohio stud, which comprises 300 ewes, was founded by Trevor’s father, the late Roland Potter, at Pukerau in 1972 and is one of the country’s noted Poll Dorset studs. The Gardyne and Potter families have had a long relationship.

Pete, 36, — a two-time runner-up in the Young Farmer of the Year contest — has been in charge of buying rams for the family group for about 15 years and the only ram breeder he was still buying from from when he started was Mr Potter.

A few years ago, he indicated he would be interested in acquiring the stud if Mr Potter ever decided to sell, so he was the obvious choice when Mr Potter chose to scale down.

To have someone who was both keen and also a very good stockman take over was pleasing, and it was also good to see the stud going as a whole entity rather than being split up at auction, Mr Potter said.

Part of the negotiations — which was not negotiable, Mr Gardyne laughed — was the continued involvement of Mr Potter.

"I’m smart enough to know I don’t know everything," Mr Gardyne said.

Mr and Mrs Gardyne, with their sons Hayden, 9, Nathan, 7, Daniel, 5, and Aaron, 3, farm 1300ha under the name Arkley Farm. Of that, they own about 160ha and lease the remainder.

With home base at Knapdale, near Gore, the properties were spread from Pyramid to Pukerau and ranged from arable flats to fairly hard tussock country.

Their operation comprised predominantly sheep, beef, arable and some winter cow grazing.

Asked whether he preferred livestock or cropping, Mr Gardyne said he was unusual in that he genuinely enjoyed both. Blessed with a short attention span, he was keen to swap jobs around. He enjoyed working with livestock and having a team of dogs but he also enjoyed "playing with tractors" as well.

The Gardyne family has farmed with a balance of livestock and grain for almost 150 years. Mr Gardyne returned home to the farm at the end of 2007 and spent eight years working with his parents, working his way up to managing the property while his father looked after the grain side. In 2015, his brother Michael joined the operation and there was a "rejig".

Talking about succession was something he believed was very important. It was a hot topic and it could be "very, very hard unless the previous generation are excited about it".

The best thing the family did was split up the day-to-day operations but kept "the big picture" together. That meant machinery was shared and livestock was sold within the group but it removed any niggles and day-to-day frustrations. It also was not that hard to do, he said.

It was important to have individual areas of responsibility.

"You don’t go farming to not have freedom. You can have economies of scale without sharing a bank account," he said.

Key to the Arkley Farm operation was its people and the Gardynes were fortunate to have good staff. They had three main blocks and each block had a stock manager.

The Poll Dorset stud was his "baby" and he did the lambing and tagging, introducing electronic identification (EID) tags.

"If they [the sheep] are in the yards, I’m there," he said.

But he was not there for the day-to-day stock-moving side of things, although he would regularly accompany the stock managers around the paddocks to view the stock.

Having scale meant the Gardynes were fortunate when it came to adding a stud to their already busy mix.

"We can throw people at a job when we need to ... we’ve got the people to do that. EID will speed things up a bit on that side," he said.

At this stage, tagging at birth was likely to continue and he really enjoyed lambing, even if it did get "a bit wet" in September. During the flooding in Southland, he was swimming half-day to day-old lambs to get to dry land while his dogs were floating backwards.

When it came to genetics in the stud breeding industry, Mr Gardyne said he was learning fast and he naturally enjoyed that side of things. He also enjoyed seeing what other studs had in their history.

The Potters had always been strong cullers and that was something that appealed to Mr Gardyne who had an on-farm policy of "no passengers".

Sheep farmers needed to have the best sheep they could possibly have which made as much money as possible, were as easy to farm as possible, and were killed as fast as possible and at the heaviest weights possible.

Daniel,Aaron,Hayden, and Nathan Gardyne all enjoy the rural lifestyle, particularly lambing time.
Daniel,Aaron,Hayden, and Nathan Gardyne all enjoy the rural lifestyle, particularly lambing time.
For a terminal sire, he found the Poll Dorset "fitted the bill".

"As commercial buyers, we know [the Ohio sheep] have the goods."

When Pete and Esther split their business from his parents, they had 2000 ewes. That had grown to nearly 8000 in eight years and they had bought a lot of sheep in. But there was "genetics and there is genetics", he said.

And in a world where there were so many things out of the control of farmers, including the weather and markets, genetics was one thing they could control.

The Gardynes tended to behave more like dairy farmers than sheep farmers; they earned money by finishing livestock and they wanted to put as much feed as possible into growth, rather than maintenance, maximising that growth. Efficiency was crucial.

When it came to selecting rams, Mr Gardyne said he was big on both eye appraisal and figures. He believed the sheep and beef industry was not data driven enough.

When previously buying 30 rams a year both for himself and other family members, it was most important to pick the ram breeder first. They had to be aligned with the farmer’s vision and breeding objectives.

After looking at the sheep — "a Ferrari on bald tyres is a waste of time, if it’s not structurally sound then it’s dog tucker" — he would compare figures and have a better look.

"I’m very strict on both. If it’s not sound, see you later. It’s got to be both — I don’t want to breed from rubbish," he said.

When they first started farming the Knapdale property, it was in "need of love". After taking over in July, they only tailed 85%. Then they bought ewes from the Hopcroft family and tailed 145% the following year.

"I’d like to think some management but most of that was genetics. We would have been 20 to 30 years breeding that line of sheep we bought. That’s what we’ve done here buying 51 years of the Potters’ good breeding ... I can’t magic 51 years up," he said.

At this stage, Mr Gardyne was continuing to run the stud as Mr Potter had. He would be selling stud rams at the Gore ram fair and he had taken on Mr Potter’s client list and it was "business as usual".

In the future, there were plans to expand. Like anything, expansion provided scale and "grunt" and more ability to reinvest in technology and genetics.

But there had to be balance, there could not be growth just for growth’s sake, the quality had to remain. Both he and Mr Potter were interested in intramuscular fat and eating quality.

Among the Ohio flock was a special 12-year-old ewe who had twins and triplets alternate years until having single lambs the last two lambings. Both mother and offspring were doing well this year.

When it came to the future of the sheep industry, Mr Gardyne said lamb was a "wonderful product" and a lot of land was best suited to sheep.

An example was the Potters’ Pukerau farm where the country was "pretty heavy" and they did not winter cattle there.

"Sheep are the best thing for a lot of places."

On the Knapdale farm, it got dry in summer and sheep’s natural feed demand suited it.

Sheep also complemented their grain operation. They cleaned up stubble after harvest, pushed chaff down into the ground to make cultivation easier, and it was a great way of returning organic matter to the soil.

As far as the current state of the sheep industry, the reality that as much as there was a desire to premium-ise what sheep farmers were producing, they were still selling on the commodity market and commodities went in cycles.

Farmers should focus on what they could control. For them, it had been genetics, regrassing, fertiliser, drainage, fencing and making their farm "as productive as we can possibly make it". Costs should be watched during both good and bad times.

The wool industry was a "disaster" and he believed the problem was the selling system. Every sheep farmer set the reserve price of wool and that gave a weak selling situation.

The Gardynes had been having a small-scale commercial experiment with shedding sheep. But just because they did not need shorn did not necessarily mean they were a good sheep.

"We are cautiously playing in that space with a level head," he said.

Last year, his wool account was negative $111,000 and that, he hastened to stress, was not a dig at their shearing contractor. Anyone who complained about shearing costs needed to pick up a handpiece, he said.

The Ohio stud would retain its prefix ,which derived from Mr Potter’s great-grandfather who imported cattle from Ohio in the United States for his Holstein-Friesian stud.

Mr Potter, who said Mr Gardyne had always been "very good" at picking his rams, said the highlights of stud breeding had been meeting people, including ram clients, and stud breeders from around the world, along with the challenge of striving to breed a really good animal — one that was sound and with really good figures.

Mr Gardyne said he was now looking forward to sitting down with his ram clients and seeing where he could be of help, selling rams that were going to "put money in your pocket" — "sheep that work for you, not you working for your sheep".


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