Lying roughly half-way between Napier and Taihape, Otupae Station has been home to Garry and Mary Mead for 40 years. Sandra Taylor speaks to Garry during his final weeks at the helm of this iconic sheep and beef farm.

Forty years after Garry Mead (68) stepped into the manager’s role on Otupae Station, his enthusiasm for the 8632ha farm and its future potential has not waned in the slightest.

Rather than retiring, Garry would love to be starting again, although this time he would be starting from a place that better fits his values and farming style, unlike when he first took up the reins in 1982.

Garry and Mary Mead have made Otupae their home for nearly 40 years.

In those days of Muldoon-era subsidies, it was a numbers game and the most important figure was the number of stock on hand, July 1.

With a focus on wool production, fertility and carcase attributes were of little or no consequence. For Garry who insists on feeding stock as well as possible all year round, it wasn’t a way of farming he particularly enjoyed.

There was also the uncertainty of getting lambs processed due to ongoing industrial action and often lambs were either unable to leave the farm or were returned.

“It was a period I didn’t enjoy, it wasn’t my way of farming.”

Incentives allowed the development of some of Otupae’s hill country and strong wool returns were the only upsides of that era.

“I remember selling lambs at the works and getting $7 for the pelt and $3 for the carcase.”

Stock numbers have dropped back under Garry’s watch, but stock performance has leapt ahead. Ewes were lambing 98% when he first started working on Otupae, last year they lambed 144%.

Lambs used to be finished to 11kg-12kg, now they are averaging 18-19kg carcaseweight. This year with uncertainty around supply chain disruptions due to Covid-19, they have drafted slightly lighter just to fill any processor space available.

While they finish the majority of their lamb crop, they will sell a proportion store depending on climate and markets. All lambs must be gone by April 1.

Garry says the difference in livestock performance is a result of a combination of genetics and feeding. Both have been a focus throughout his career, although farm supervisor James Williams has been the main driver behind changes in genetics.

“We used to just judge a sheep on how it looked, now the data and genetics we have available are marvellous.”

It’s in the genes

To get the genetics they need to perform in their environment and produce the meaty carcase they are looking for, Garry and his team breed their own Romney Texel-type rams, buying two very high genetic merit rams (based on SIL figures) every year as their seed stock. Recently these have been sourced from Nithdale and Wairere.

Three sires (two new and one retained from the previous year) are put to their “stud” flock of 500 ewes. They typically have about 300 ram lambs which are gradually culled to 150 ram hoggets. These are DNA tested and from there, 50 are selected to be used across the commercial flock of 20,000 ewes.

Stud ewe hoggets are run with the commercial ewe hoggets just to test their constitution and their ability to foot-it in Otupae’s challenging climate.

“We want her to survive through the winter and produce and feed a lamb.”

Garry describes Otupae’s 20,500 ewes as the engine room of the business, although he credits the relatively high cattle ratio to driving this engine.

“The cows are the most important driver of the business, the sheep only perform well because of the cows.”

The Station winters 2000 mixed-age Angus and Angus cross cows, 440 R2 in-calf heifers, 143 dry R2 heifers and 80 bulls. All weaners are carried through winter on forage crops.

All adult sheep and cattle are wintered on grass and while Garry is staunch about maintaining the ewes at an optimum body condition all year round, he uses the elasticity of his cows over winter and values their ability to harvest the spring flush to regain body condition and groom pastures for ewes and lambs.

“The cows have a job to do, but the sheep are fed well all the time.”

Grass comes away at the end of October and Garry says the spring flush on Otupae can be explosive which results in a surplus over summer, hence the value of the cows in controlling that standing hay.

The cows will go through every paddock over winter so that come spring, the paddocks are growing high-quality grass for lambing and lactating ewes.

The bulls don’t go out until January 18 so they are not calving until November. Because they retain all the weaners, weaning weights are of no consequence, rather the focus is on feeding the cow and her weaned progeny as well as possible.

The weaners and the hoggets are wintered on 120ha of crop; the first year of the rotation is swedes, the second year it’s kale and the third year it’s new grass.

Surplus cattle are sold in spring and autumn.

Strengths and challenges

One of Otupae’s strengths is its easy contour and access. The main hub of the station is in the middle of the farm with main road access through it.

Thanks to its multi-generational owners, the Williams family, infrastructure is excellent on Otupae, with permanent fencers continually maintaining and renewing fences. All houses, buildings and yards, which include five sets of sheep yards and three sets of cattle yards, are well maintained.

The station’s greatest challenge is winter. It is high and cold – the lambing country is 900 metres above sea level – and Garry says some of their biggest snow storms have been in April and October.

This climate highlights the importance of having stock in good condition year round because, as Garry points out, it is just too expensive to try and put condition back on ewes once they have lost it.

Over recent years they have planted two to three kilometres of shelter belts every year and Garry says although still quite small, these trees are already offering some protection on a cold, windy day.

A team effort

Garry leads a team of two general hands and their partners, a cook, 2IC and four single shepherds.

The farm team is really important to Garry and is the one aspect of his tenure of which he is most proud.

“I might not teach them everything they need to know about farming, but I teach them to be good people and to have good standards.

“I really like staff, you couldn’t do this job if you didn’t like staff.”

He hires shepherds based on their personality, not on their experience and tells them at the outset of the 8 rules he expects them to abide by.

After 15 months, he encourages young staff to move on and further their experience. Often they will come back to take on head shepherd roles once they have more experience.

Garry believes if shepherds leave having had a good experience, there will be less need to advertise for staff. General hands tend to stay in the job a long time.

Garry works alongside James Williams who acts as the farm supervisor and is a regular visitor to Otupae. James worked with Garry on the farm long before Garry took on the manager’s role, when they were both employed as shepherds in the late 1970s early 1980s.

James has been in the supervisor’s role for 22 years and Garry appreciates their ability to make on the spot decisions rather than having to consult with a board or outside entity.

When James first stepped into the job his focus was on improving the soil fertility on Otupae with applications of capital fertiliser. This made a huge difference to productivity, along with ever-improving pasture species, genetics and of course management- although Garry is reluctant to admit the latter.

This is reflected in the farm’s financial performance and over the past five years, the gross surplus per sheep stock unit was $103.75, for cattle it was $71.70 while gross farm income/ha was $1043.91. Farm working expenses/ha over the past five years averaged $633.83. The economic farm surplus/ha averaged $410.08 for the same time period.


Garry has embraced technology as it has become available and is excited about the use of tools such as drones and their role in making management easier in the future.

“When I first started, we used horses then we went to quads and now all the shepherds drive around in side-by-sides.

“We use conveyor belts, weighing machines, DNA testing and a number of other modern farming technologies that help with the operation of Otupae.”

Garry’s wife Mary helps with the accounts, computer work and health and safety, but that would be a minor part of her job description.

She is at the heart of the operation, looking after everyone on the farm, particularly Garry.

Garry jokes that he is the high maintenance one in the relationship and he credits Mary for being his rock.

She has spent her entire married life on Otupae and the couple have raised four boys on the farm.

Now it’s time to leave, Garry says Mary is struggling with the thought of leaving her home just as much as he is.

New manager their son

Garry says he decided to retire during a visit to town. He had a coffee, rang Mary to tell her that he thought it was time to move on,

then went to the owners and handed in his notice.

The owner said he had someone in mind as a replacement but no names were mentioned.

Garry and Mary went on holiday and returned home to find out the person the owners had in mind was their son James.

While delighted, they also insisted that James and wife remove any emotion or sentiment from the decision. Fortunately, they still accepted the job.

Garry and Mary had already bought a house and some land near Hastings so will be moving there to start a new phase of their life.

They will be close to grandchildren and Garry would love to find a role that would allow him to remain involved in farming in some capacity.

He will also take his dogs with him so he can still compete at dog trials.

With James taking over the reins, Garry jokes that he is hoping to be invited back occasionally.

Too much information

While Garry has embraced technology he feels there is sometimes too much information and not enough emphasis on old-fashioned stockmanship.

“There is so much information but who is looking at it?”

He lives by his father’s mantra of ‘you can’t tell a paddock by its gateway’.

While he has all the tools that tell him how much drymatter he is growing on a daily basis, he will make the decision to move a mob of sheep by what he sees in the paddock.

Garry’s stockmanship and gut instinct has stood him in good stead over the years and he particularly recalls the crippling drought of 2012/2013.

It was the most pressure he had been under during his time on Otupae and while they cut stock units back by 10,000, he just knew they didn’t need to cut back any further despite the lack of feed.

His knowledge of the farm and its stock meant he was able to protect the performance of their capital stock and they recovered quickly.

He credits James Williams for being very proactive about selling stock when the climate is not favourable.

“That’s why we have such good capital stock, because he’s not afraid to sell stock when we need to.”

“It’s such an important policy.”

Looking back, Garry says there is not much he would have done differently. They farmed to the needs of the market, climate and policies of the day and embraced technologies as they became available.

He believes getting off-farm is very important and they expect all the staff on Otupae to take all of their holidays.

“I think there is a greater awareness of the importance of getting off the property.”

A heart in the high country

As Garry and Mary pass the baton to James and Catherine, they are excited about what the future holds for Otupae.

Garry is particularly enthusiastic about the ongoing environmental protection work with the fencing of waterways and the future installation of a reticulated stock water system.

While Country-Wide couldn’t visit Otupae in person, Garry’s love for the station in such a beautiful part of the country was palpable.

He is immensely proud of the property and his staff. While he and Mary are physically leaving, a large part of their hearts will undoubtedly remain in that high country.

Farm facts

  • Total of 8632ha with 5200ha grass, 500ha trees, rest tussock or Ruahine Range
  • Easy contour and access, good infrastructure
  • Breed own rams for 20,000 commercial flock
  • Ewes lambed 98% in 1982, now 144%
  • 2000 cows, 440 R2 in-calf heifers, 143 dry R2 heifers and 80 bulls.

Financial performance for the past five years

  • Gross farm surplus $103.75/sheep su, cattle $71.70
  • Gross farm income $1043.91/ha
  • Farm working expenses $633.83/ha
  • Economic farm surplus $410.08/ha.