Len Gilbert, his lean, tanned face belying its cap of silvery grey hair, pauses at the sheep yards gate to cast an experienced eye over the waiting two-tooth rams.
He smiles with anticipatory pleasure. "These are good sheep these fellas."
Then he opens the gate and he and his son Matt, accompanied by stock agent Damian Clarke and the rams' owner, Tom Abraham, walk in to begin the work on which will hang the financial success of their year to come.
The sheep are coopworths, a fertile and meaty breed developed by Lincoln University scientists 50 years ago. The Gilberts, sheep and beef farmers at Pungatawa near Taihape, are there to choose the best to take home.
It's a day both buyer and seller look forward to with relish each year.
For Abraham, who took over the Puketauru Stud, near Turakina, from his father David in 2001, it is the start of a hectic few weeks when clients come from across the North Island to select new rams.
For the Gilberts, particularly Len, who has been coming to the stud for 35 years, it is the pleasure of having first pick of the best rams, a privilege he prizes highly.
"We'll get these home and then watch their growth explode," he says. The rams are 14 months old and still cutting their adult teeth.
Abraham hands a sheaf of cards to Clarke, an Elders agent there to advise the Gilberts. "There's some new sires there for you this year, some new bloodlines," he says.
The cards show each ram's vital statistics calculated by Sheep Improvement, a Beef + Lamb New Zealand genetics service. This values the ram on how many lambs he is likely to produce, how quickly they will grow and how much wool and meat they will produce.
Abraham has two small mobs ready to choose from - an elite group of his best rams and a second- level group. Pricing is to match, with the elites selling for $900 and the others at $675.
The Gilberts, who want 10 rams, start with the lower-priced.
Clarke and Matt Gilbert study the data and choose which rams they want to take a closer look at. Clarke explains they are mainly interested in growth rate and fertility, which Matt interprets as: "The more lambs we can get on the ground and grow, the better - that's what we look for."
He remembers coming to the stud as a boy 20 years ago and watching his father and David Abraham spend hours looking through each ram's fleece to make their choice.
"Now wool is something that's on the sheep's back we've got to get rid of," he says.
With the best fertility, growth and meat traits identified, they make their final decision on how the ram looks to their practised eyes. "We're looking for nice-looking big-sized rams with the coopworth traits of open face, clean legs, long body and big rumps," Matt says.
Their choice of the best eight is put aside and they move on to the elite mob.
These are met with an appreciative low whistle from Len.
"This is an entirely different kettle of fish," he says. "They're bigger and better-looking, and they've got a bloom. You can see it in the colour of their wool."
They consult the cards and settle on three they want to look at more closely. The top-ranked ram is a surprise. He is noticeably smaller than the others.
This sparks deep discussion. "It's hard to fathom," Clarke says. "He's so small, yet he's No 1."
Abraham points out the ram is a triplet, which could explain his size. "The ranking is not just about him, it's about how well his relatives have done and the generations that have gone before. It comes down to dollars and cents, the money the figures say this ram will give you."
The Gilberts go into a huddle with Clarke and eventually make their choice. The No 1 ram is not taken. "He's too small, we can't get over that," Clarke says apologetically.
He points to one of their selection. "Look at him, the way he carries his head, it shows pride. He looks keen to do the business and there's the promise of vigour that he will transfer to the flock."
The rams are loaded onto the Gilberts' old truck and over a cup of tea the talk is about how they will be used. Each ram is expected to mate with as many as 100 ewes.
"You put the young ram with the older ewes and they will teach him what to do and the older ram goes with the younger ewes where he will be dominant," Clarke says. There's a hint of a smile as he expounds this scientifically unproven theory.
The Gilberts have spent $7200 and say it is worth the expense to get reliable rams. On the strong Taihape hills they are getting 141 per cent lambing from their mixed- age ewes and 70 per cent from their hoggets.
Last year was exceptionally growthy through summer and autumn. "Weights were up and yields were up," Matt says. "They were getting good feed."
Abraham adds with a smile. "Well, I'd like to think the breeding had something to do with it, too."
On clay country near Turakina, his lambing percentage among 550 ewes has been 165-178 per cent for the past 10 years while the pregnancy scanning rate for the past two years has been more than 200 per cent.
One of the requirements of the Coopworth Society, of which he is president, is that all registered breeders must cull ewes that haven't had twins by their second lambing. Another is that 20 per cent of all weaned ram lambs must have their eye muscle - the meat chop on the ribs - scanned.
"We do twice that," he says. "That's about 200 lambs. It takes all day to scan them but it's essential to be able to prove our rams have meat in places that aren't evident to the eye."
Another breeding trait he takes pride in is facial eczema tolerance. This fungal disease can severely limit production and can be devastating to an affected farm.
He and his father have been breeding tolerance into the flock for 13 years, with rams coming from David Hartles, at Maungaturoto, Northland. Farmers from various North Island eczema hot spots are regular buyers, including the Auckland Council, which runs coopworths in its parks.
The flock is rated 0.45 for eczema tolerance on a scale that has 0.6 as its peak. He hopes to move up a notch to 0.5 this year.
"It's slow going but you're talking about one gene. We don't want to compromise other traits we have taken years to strengthen."
His biggest critic is his father, now in his 70s and taking a back seat. "He's my peer review. He's hard to impress, and that's good."
On the back of the Gilberts' truck, the rams have settled down for the drive north. Matt gives the cage a last check before climbing into the driver's seat. "It's not a hard life ahead for them," he says. "They'll have a cruisy six months putting on weight and then we'll put them to work."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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