When most people think of Charolais, a large white cattle beast comes to mind, but the lesser-known Charollais sheep is increasingly finding a place in the competitive New Zealand market for terminal sires.

The Charollais NZ stud in the hill country of West Tuapeka, run jointly by father and son Peter and Matthew Ponsonby and their wives, Mary and Konica, is at the forefront of making the breed an important part of the New Zealand sheep sector.

The breed originated in east central France and is used as a terminal sire to increase muscling and growth rate of the lambs.

The Ponsonbys began the development of their Charollais flock with the importing of embryos and semen from Australia in 2010.

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The operation was set up as a partnership between the Rohloff and Ponsonby families, and the Ponsonbys bought out their partner Murray Rohloff in 2016.

''When we started we were unable to access semen and embryos from the UK, so to a certain extent we just had to make do with what was available,'' Peter Ponsonby said.

''While it was a bit of a mixed bag, it provided us with a starting point to build on.''

The semen was used on Poll Dorset-cross-Texel ewes.

Mr Ponsonby said their breeding programme had been a continual upgrade process and the stud had taken up the challenge of adapting the new breed to New Zealand conditions.

''It's been a steep learning curve, but we've stuck to a strong base set of selection policies and this has paid off.''

The primary appeal of the Charollais had been their fast-growing, high-yielding characteristics, and so far the major objectives they had set for themselves as a stud had been met.

The breed also provided for ease of lambing, helped by the Charollais' distinctive wedge-shaped body, as well as heavy early lamb weights.

Mr Ponsonby said the market for terminal sires was a very competitive one.

''The introduction of new genetic stock into the industry and been very positive,'' he said.

''This is especially the case where there is an emphasis on improving the meat characteristics of the New Zealand flock.''

He said breeds such as the Charollais provided a meaty product which was very attractive to the growing Asian market.

However, he said it was still a challenging time for the country's sheep industry, with declining flocks and strong competition for the best land from dairying.

Recent access to additional strains of English-sourced semen had helped the process of continuing to upgrade their animals.

''The introduction of the English semen has been very successful,'' Mr Ponsonby said.

''We've concentrated on sourcing semen from farms with grass-fed systems with similar conditions to New Zealand.''

Mr Ponsonby said his sires are sold throughout the country.

At the last December sale 86 rams were sold at an average price of $1100, which was $30 up on the previous year.

The top price of $3000 was paid by Chris and Annabelle Hampton, from Belmont Station, near Cave.

Besides continuing to improve the quality of their sires, the Ponsonbys have also been working in producing a black-headed Charollais, bred up by crossing Charollais over a Texel/Poll Dorset/Suffolk ewe.

''We're producing this for people who want a black-face lamb for easy identification,'' Mr Ponsonby said.

''We have about 60 ewes that have black faces and are half Charollais.

''Our aim for these sheep is to keep the characteristics of the Charollais and retain the black.''

Southern Rural Life