Words and images by Annie Studholme
A family legacy of forward-thinking coupled with careful planning, world-class breeding and a proud agricultural heritage, will ensure the McKerchar family’s Shrimpton’s Hill in Cave, South Canterbury, remains at the forefront for generations to come.
Twenty years ago, John and Liz McKerchar made the decision to switch from breeding bulls for the beef industry to dairy industry, ultimately setting Shrimpton’s Hill's Hereford breeding programme on a new path focused on short gestation length (SGL).
Today, the 1420-hectare Shrimpton Hill’s Herefords are New Zealand’s SGL specialists, servicing the dairy industry. Through an exclusive breeding partnership with Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) to supply semen and embryos, they became the world’s first Hereford stud to sell more than 1.5 million semen straws since SGL semen entered the dairy industry with their semen sold all over the world.
The McKerchar’s remain committed to their SGL breeding programme, but with changes afoot in the dairy, and the wider agriculture industry they are looking for potential to diversify income streams while ensuring the property is in a better state than they found it to pass on to future generations.
Together with son Hamish, and soon-to-be wife, Abby Shaw’s help, they’re in the process of setting up a hunting business on their tussock country to control wallaby and fallow deer populations, while moving down the regenerative route, lowering farm inputs and switching away from using synthetic fertilisers.
The McKerchar family has a long, proud farming history in New Zealand. It’s not lost on John and Liz that Hamish’s recent return to the farm marks the sixth generation to be involved in farming pedigree stock since the first McKerchars arrived from Scotland in 1864. “It’s a huge privilege. Our history and heritage are very important to us,” says John.
The McKerchars started out farming in Southland, where John’s great-great grandfather established one of the early Border Leicester sheep studs in 1869. During World War 1, John’s great grandfather sold the home farm and moved north to South Canterbury. His grandfather later purchased Shrimpton’s Hill in 1927, with John’s parents, Hamish and Jean, taking over in 1952. John’s parents established Shrimpton’s Hill Hereford Stud in 1969 purchasing stock from the Maungahina Trust (Wairarapa) dispersal sale.
When John and Liz took over the stud in 1990, the stud had 200 cows. Originally a horned Hereford Stud, they introduced Polled Herefords to the breeding programme.
Though straight Herefords had long been popular with high country farmers, numbers were in decline. It didn’t take long for John and Liz to realise that if they wanted to expand the business, moving into the dairy industry was the way to go.
“There are only 300,000 beef cows in the South Island and Angus is the dominant breed. That’s about the same number of dairy cows in South Canterbury alone,” explains John. “We could see the growth in the dairy industry, especially in the South Island. It was more by good luck than good management.”
Herefords were already the preferred choice for the dairy industry as every Hereford-cross calf has a white face. Not only was it an easily identifiable marker, but white-faced calves typically fetched a premium at sale time. “AI a cow with an Angus straw and you can’t tell whether it’s Angus or Friesian. But it’s easy to tell a white-faced Hereford beef calf.”
In the early 2000s, talk of induction being phased out of the dairy industry got the McKerchars thinking. With a passion for genetics, John and Liz recognised there could be a huge advantage in producing shorter gestation genetics over average or longer genetics. So, they started experimenting with SGLs as a sideline to the main stud.
“It gave us the point of difference we had been looking for,” says John. “We sourced the shortest gestation bull we could find on Breedplan, in the Hereford world, and started breeding from there single-trait selecting for SGL.” That included buying in semen mainly from Australia and some from the United States.
For more than a decade, the McKerchars worked tirelessly on developing SGL genetics with little financial reward. “There were plenty of times there that we nearly gave it all away because the market wouldn’t buy anything, then you’d get the odd sale to a company and that would keep us going,” explains John. “It took a while for people to catch on. People didn’t equate shorter gestation with more days in milk, which equals more money,” adds Liz.
But in 2012, the McKerchars got a call out of the blue from LIC, which persuaded them they were on the right path. For 15 years the co-op had been doing their own research on SGL, and when they went looking for the leading SGL genetics in the country, that led them straight to Shrimpton’s Hill.
“The semen contract [with LIC] was a huge vote of confidence in our breeding programme,” says John. “We were just ticking away doing our AI programme, but it gave us the confidence to crank it up and invest heavily in our genetics. With the LIC supply agreement in place, it was easy for us to commit the whole herd down the SGL path.”
Working in partnership with LIC, the McKerchar's were able to make significant gains through embryo transplants. Though costly, the genetic gains were massive, says John.
The first year of calves from the new breeding programme was 2014, and the McKerchars’ top cow had 12 calves through embryo transplant from four different bulls. She produced one bull and one heifer that was born 30 days earlier than the normal gestation for dairy cows (282 days). They were not premature but born with normal birth weights and were extremely healthy. It was considered a massive breakthrough for the programme.
John says the key is more days in milk at no extra cost. The revenue implications alone were in the tens of millions of dollars for the dairy industry due to increased productivity. Dairy farmers were also looking for low birth weight, high calving ease and high growth rates.
It is coming up 10 years since the McKerchars joined forces with LIC. Through that relationship, the stud has sold more than 1.5 million straws. Currently, they have 15 bulls with LIC. Each year 10 bulls go to Excel breeding to be thoroughly tested for calving ease and SGL. The aim is for each bull to be put to 1000 cows all over the country.
“We have an amazing relationship with LIC. The feedback we get from them is incredible. All that information helps us make those breeding decisions. We soon see which bloodlines work and those that don’t,” says John.
Though their focus has been on SGL, John says they’ve been careful not to lose sight of those special traits that the Hereford breed brings to the market. “At the end of the day Shrimpton’s Hill Herefords are run commercially and they have to work on our tussock hill country. We are always conscious of what works in our environment. To run our cows, we need them to be good-doing cattle, with good survivability.”
John says the “Achilles heel” of their breeding programme is securing new genetics. They’re always looking for something new to pop up on Breedplan. Breedplan is the main performance recording programme for beef cattle in Australasia, and they swear by it.
Through Breedplan, they have imported a lot of semen from Australia. They are currently getting semen from the Wirruna Polled Hereford stud, which is known for its low birth weight, high growth rate bulls with good carcass data. Occasionally, they throw up the odd SGL bull and those are the ones the McKerchars are after.
Today, Shrimpton’s Hill consists of 1420-hectares spread across three properties, ranging in altitude from 200m to 1100m above sea level. There is a big variance between the properties in terms of climate, but they complement each other. The home block has safe summer rainfall, while spring comes earlier on the flats and rolling country down the valley, but tends to dry out more in summer, explains John.
Currently, their herd consists of 750 females and 750 support stock, with all the stud cows wintered on the 900-hectare native tussock hill country block. Heifers are mated in April for February calving, meaning there is less pressure on feed supplies and they’re six months older at calving. By weaning in winter, John says it gives them the opportunity to AI them again in the spring, and any they don’t like can still be culled and graded as heifers.
Each September the McKerchars have an on-farm bull sale where up to 200 R2 bulls go under the hammer. Some are also sold privately to winter mating herds in the North Island that can’t wait for the sale.
The McKerchar’s also still run the Border Leicester stud, making it arguably one of the oldest flocks of any breed in the country, still in the same family.
Though they’ve kept it going largely for family reasons, Border Leicesters were once New Zealand’s “go-to” breed. Originally from the Borders between England and Scotland, the Border Leicester was bred from a cross between the English Leicester and the Cheviot. The breed was first introduced to New Zealand in 1859. The advent of refrigeration in the 1880s saw the Border Leicester used as a crossing sire to produce heavyweight lambs and whether muttons.
A dual-purpose breed, they were known for their milkiness, superior fertility, and strong maternal qualities. While the popularity of the Border Leicester has waned in recent years, they played a huge part in the development of many of the more favoured, composite breeds on which New Zealand relies heavily.
The McKerchars have retained a stud flock of about 70. Liz’s family had also had a Border Leicester Stud, so she too had a soft spot for the breed. “It’s here because of family linkage and it will stay here. It’s given us a lot of fun over the years, and we are just retaining it for family reasons,” says John. “It’s not as though we are waiting on the ram cheque,” laughs Hamish. “It’s a pretty cool history. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
For the Mckerchars, the new focus is on regenerative farming with the view to becoming carbon zero in the future. Hamish believes the family’s strength has always lain in its ability to be forward-thinking and adaptable, and that’s something he’s committed to continuing. “We know we can’t always do what we’ve always done. You have to be willing to try new things.”
He says the purchase of a neighbouring property a few years back gave them the “open slate” needed to try going down the regenerative route. “It had a lot of old, tired paddocks on it, so we had to do something,” explains Liz. “We wanted a farming system that improved what you can’t see, rather than just what you can see.”
“We sort of fell into it [regenerative farming] a wee bit, but we have all grasped it,” says Hamish. “It makes sense to us, and it’s something we are passionate about.”
They have since stopped using synthetic fertilisers in favour of making their own compost, using a tea-bag system where water is added and it’s sprayed on as a liquid fertiliser or by grinding it up and spreading it on. They have also trialed multi-species pasture crops, helping to build plant diversity on-farm with combinations that can naturally counter pests and diseases, with great success. They’re heading into their third winter without using urea, and the results speak for themselves. “We wintered 4500 cattle - we are very proud of that,” says John.
Having Hamish and Abby home to take over the Shrimpton’s Hill ensures the future of the property is in very safe hands, says John. “It’s amazing having them home. We never really expected it. Now that they are, it’s our turn to let the next generation do what they want to do. My father allowed us to do that. I just think it’s so important to give them a fair go and let them get on with it. Liz and I can’t wait to wind down.”
Hamish’s sister, Fiona, lives in London and works in the IT business. It was Hamish who always showed an interest going farming, but his first passion was flying. “Since I was about three years old, all I wanted to do was fly.” After finishing school he trained as a helicopter pilot, spending seven years in Australia mustering and shooting for the Government, before landing a job with the Helicopter Line in Queenstown doing heli-skiing. With COVID-19 looming, in early 2020 Hamish and Abby packed up and headed home to the farm.
“I love flying, but the drawcard of coming home was pretty big. I love the history and the family,” says Hamish.
Though Abby grew up as a “city girl” in Christchurch, she has embraced her new life on-farm much to the surprise of her family and friends. Having been a national representative swimmer in her younger years, Abby went on to study sports nutrition and became a registered personal trainer. She had her own business in Christchurch, before joining Hamish in Queenstown where she worked as swim coach at the Millbrook Resort.
She currently works part-time for Sport Canterbury, based out of Timaru, and has also converted an old woolshed on the farm into a home gym where she runs local group classes and private sessions, as well as taking the odd swimming lesson. Abby says starting the gym had made her transition to farm life so much easier. “It was really important for me to keep part of what I did.”
Together, Hamish and Abby are determined to see Shrimpton’s Hill continue to be at the forefront for generations to come.