Wiltshire breeder celebrates an end to shearing days
King Country sheep farmer Grant McMillan isn't trying to pull the wool over your eyes when he rattles off some startling figures on the benefits of switching to the wiltshire breed.
Wiltshires don't have wool, they shed it naturally, yet farming life without a regular wool cheque couldn't be better, say McMillan and wife Sandra, who began their breeding journey from strong wool sheep to wiltshires 11 years ago on their 340 hectare (effective) hill country property just north of Taumarunui.
It's been two years since a strong wool lamb has been born on their farm, but up until then the couple had farmed two flocks, wiltshire and coopworth. The breeds were farmed separately.
At an open day on the McMillan property, about 50 farmers, some wiltshire converts, heard that annual financial comparisons of the farm's non-wool policy with wool farming had shown, among other conclusions, that total expenses had reduced $35,000, labour hours shrank by 61 per cent or 232 man hours, sheep deaths had dived 50 per cent and lambs were 1.5 to 2.5kg heavier.
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For the wool option to break even with the returns from these heavier lambs, the price of 13,100kg of wool sold ($3.74 net/kg average) would need to increase by $1.36kg to $5.10 to match the return from an 18kg non-wool lamb and by $2.94/kg to $6.67 for a 19.5kg non-wool lamb. The benefits of the non-wool heavier lamb policy become significant from December.
The McMillan's weren't asking open day visitors to take their word for it. The financial comparison, last reviewed in February, was produced by farm business management consultant Geoff Burton, who was on hand to co-present it.
A third generation farmer, McMillan was at pains to point out the farm had only just achieved 100 per cent shedding sheep - though the goal had always been to reach this – and as a former shearer, he was sensitive to potential repercussions for the shearing industry. It had taken five generations of crossbreeding to achieve 100 per cent shedding standard, and he said more than once he had particularly liked the result of the first cross. "I've had to adapt. I'm learning all the time."
He regretted due to daily farming pressures, meticulously ensuring the two breeds were farmed separately but as similarly as possible, he missed some deeper comparative research opportunities. The McMillans farm 1800 wiltshire ewes, with 500 replacements, 120 hereford-friesian cows and 550 replacement heifers.
The couple wanted a simple farming system, and through wiltshires, they say they've landed it.
Anyone today wanting to make the switch to non-wool sheep has a much easier road in terms of foundation breeding stock than the McMillans who in 2005-2006 couldn't buy ewes and had limited sire options.
McMillan recalled that season wool prices were the worst in his memory. With "a reasonably high" input system and "average" wool colour and quality due to the local environment, it had been logical to turn to shedding sheep. Back then, the strong wool flock was mainly romney/border leicester.
The family considered wiltshires and dorpers, opting for wiltshires because they'd been in New Zealand longer.
"Buying ewes wasn't an option so we had to buy rams and breed our way in. We bought three ram lambs and mated them to 100 ewes. They were pretty average lambs but it was a start. We took a cautious approach to see if it was viable and whether the financial returns performed."
Wool shedding – "it just disappears into the environment" – is seasonal. Shedding starts in spring and grows again in autumn. Lambs, born smaller than strong wool types, had wool at birth.
The benefits of farming no-wool sheep were many and varied, the open day heard.
Body energy spent growing wool converts into growing meat. Fly strike is all but a memory. Shearing costs disappear or are negligible. Dipping costs are halved and drownings become rare. Non-wool sheep do better on dry farms, the data suggests. Wiltshires don't have birth bearings. Lambings are easy. All that said, wiltshire sheep have plenty of attitude, a bonus for survivability, reckoned Donald James of Dannevirke, who has farmed wiltshires for 13 years.
They are "smart, suspicious" sheep, which can be aggressive with humans and dogs, he says. But that's a plus because it means they're survivors. He enjoys wiltshires for the ease of farming and their breeding efficiency. They're also good eating. "You need to give them time. If there's a new gate, let them take a look at it." James says wiltshires have put the joy back into his farming.
McMillan says his wiltshires respond to an eye dog much better than a noisy huntaway.
For all the breeding emphasis on shedding ability, it's not acceptable to McMillan that his sheep have no wool in King Country winters. Usual wool growth is 30-70mm – his ideal would be 20-40mm.
The way to achieve that is to source the best shedding rams, he says. Good feeding also influences shedding ability. The McMillans source their rams from Arvidson Wiltshires of Papakura.
The introduction of shedding sheep meant a new farming system and strict culling rules.
Lambing was shifted to the start of August so the smaller born wiltshire lambs were on the ground growing for longer.
"We want them to shed earlier, so lambing date is critical for us," says McMillan.
This season 600 ewe lambs were retained, 450 of which soon had no wool at all and 90 per cent of the rest soon shed it. "You've got to give them the opportunity to shed. It's hard with lambs, they don't fit into a window so that's why we have advanced our lambing date."
Hogget lambing starts on October. Set stocking is used over mating. Tupping is around March 1 and "the rams we leave in there".
All lambs are finished. "When we first started lambs were 14 to 17kg. Now they're 16-21kg because that's where the premium rate is. We don't kill any lambs under 16kg and we try for 19-20kg."
The business doesn't kill ewe lambs and the McMillans are starting to retain the best ram lambs because they're getting buyer inquiries.
There's a sharp focus on breeding for facial eczema resilience and the McMillans have decided not to dock lambs. As a result there are no health complications from the procedure, no stress on animals, and no check on their growth.
From this season all ewes retained their tails.
Wiltshires are more resistant to parasites and less drenching is required, says McMillan.
"[On faecal egg counts] they're consistently lower on parasites than woolly sheep, though we're not sure why.
"We only drench if we have to and we prefer short-acting. We never use capsules or long-acting drench. We drench adult sheep depending on the season, but it's a monitoring system."
Lamb weight was a popular question time subject and McMillan assured his lambs performed as well as terminal-sired lambs.
"They're good foragers. They eat stuff you wouldn't expect. They don't get hung up in blackberry and they're bloody good mums.
"There's no price on keeping it simple and enjoying farming. There's huge potential in lamb weights. It's about the potential and opportunity and the ease of getting these weights because wool isn't holding them back."