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Stag Valley – home to the Headwaters Elite Ewe Flock

Fifty years ago and about a decade before Simon Saunders was born, Stag Valley was a block at the “back end of a neighbouring station with a few merinos wandering across it”.

Today it’s known for the environmental commitment of its owners and as the home of the Headwaters Elite Ewe Flock. Stag Valley supplies the downstream Headwaters Ram Breeding Flocks on Burwood, Glenlapa, Walter Peak and the progeny test programme.

Half rolling-to-steep tussock and half flats, Stag Valley tests the Elite Ewe Flock’s capability in real conditions. These jewels in the Headwaters crown run with the commercial ewes year-round apart from mating and lambing. Simon and Annabel Saunders say the responsibility of managing the Headwaters Elite Ewe Flock feels like a natural step in Stag Valley’s evolution.

“From the moment Andy Ramsden approached us, we saw this as an exciting and challenging opportunity – and that’s just what it’s proven to be,” Simon says.

The sheer physical hard yakka by Simon’s parents Mike and Jane in developing and enlarging Stag Valley is now starting to give way to a different sort of hard work– understanding the potential of technology and science in an all-natural farming system.

“On certain days I feel I’d rather have been in my father’s shoes, but we’re incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to tweak and refine what he started,” Simon says.

“Science and technology is making the biggest difference in creating a more effective and intensive farming system that puts less pressure on the environment.

“Getting more from less will be the way of the future as farming’s footprint comes under pressure, especially relating to things like carbon, nutrient loss, biodiversity and water quality. We’re determined not simply to do things the same way and expect a different outcome. This is at the heart of the Headwaters philosophy, too.”

With a post graduate diploma in organic agriculture from the University of Wales, Simon believes a lot can be learned from the organics movement’s success in increasing perceived value, and getting growers closer to markets.

“I don’t think our property is suited to organics and it’s certainly not the only way of producing quality produce. But I think we can learn from the job the organic movement has done in branding ‘good farming practice’ and presenting a healthy food that people want to buy. It’s also helped develop great science about how you can farm with fewer inputs.”

The Saunders’ passion for producing more with less impact was rewarded with two Ballance Farm Environment awards in 2004 and by Simon’s subsequent appointment as chairman of the NZ Farm Environment Trust in 2014.

“Putting ourselves to the test like this has been a great way of learning, and hopefully other farmers can learn a bit from what we’ve got right and wrong.” It’s also a way of showing to regional councils and the wider community what good things are happening on farms.

“Environmental considerations are a big challenge for farmers. Sometimes it feels like we’re getting it from all angles when all we really want to do is just get on with farming. But there’s also a lot of apathy among sheep and beef farmers about getting involved and affecting the development of rules and regulation. There’s no point in not having a say and then having a grizzle after the regulations are in place.”

Stag Valley, like all farms directly involved in the Omega Lamb Project, has just been through the ‘Raising Claims’ quality audit.

Simon calls it “a great way of setting a baseline”.

“More and more of the value we create will come directly from our farm stewardship, especially because we’re targeting people who are more aware about what’s going on …. and want to know exactly what they’re eating.

“Rather than see quality assurance as a hassle, we should see it as a way of capitalising on a great advantage we already have. Basically, we have a fantastic way of farming and we’re just building on that. Our challenge is to do this without load ourselves down with cost.”

So what gives him the greatest sense of pride?

“We’re achieving breakthrough product attributes – long chain fatty acids, omega-3, IMF, pH – without compromising other traits. That’s something pretty special, especially when we’re scaling this up to a farm system level across multiple properties. It’s also great seeing our on-farm team rising to the challenge – they’re doing a fantastic job.”

And the biggest challenge?

“Making sure all Headwaters farmers understand that this is a ground-breaking R+D project and that the rewards will come. When you’re dealing with genetics, the environment and creating a new market, you need patience.”