'Massive gains' by NZ sheep farmers

New Zealand's sheep farmers should take a bow. Collectively they have received a well-earned pat on the back from industry leaders for their outstanding improvement in productivity in the last 25 years.

The accolade came from agricultural research scientist Dr Peter Fennessy, now managing director of the Dunedin-based company Abacus Bio, at Beef+Lamb NZ's final farming road show at the Invermay Agricultural Centre near Mosgiel recently.

Fennessy told an audience of about 150 people that the sheep sector's overall productivity in terms of kilograms of meat sold per adult ewe had increased 86 per cent in the last 25 years.

He said productivity drove profitability and the sheep farming sector's increase in productivity was " an extraordinary story with a compounding rate of increase of about 2.5 per cent a year."

In an earlier address, Taupo cattleman Mike Barton said, despite declining returns for sheep farming, no other farming sector had had the same increase in productivity. During the same period the productivity of dairying had increased by 31 per cent and beef farming by just 3 to 4 per cent.

Overall, Fennessy said the productivity of ewes measured as kilograms of meat per ewe mated had increased from about 12.5kgs in 1986 to 23.5kgs in 2012.

Lambing percentages had risen 29 per cent from just over 100 per cent in 1986 to 130 per cent in 2012. Lamb carcase weights had risen 0.2kgs a year to an average of 18.6kgs in 2012, an overall gain of 37 per cent.

Cull ewe carcase weights had risen a similar 0.21kgs a year to 25.3kgs in 2012, a gain of 27 per cent over 25 years.

"These are extraordinary rates of gain ... massive," Fennessy said.

He attributed the gains made to improvements in genetics and management.

"Our estimates are that about half the gain in lamb growth weight and carcase weight is genetic and about half is management," he said. "In adult ewe lambing percentages, about two-thirds of the gain is genetic and about one third is management."

"So a lot of this gain is being driven by genetics," he said.

That genetic improvement had come about through consolidation of the ram breeding sector and larger ram breeding flocks. Commercial farms had taken up new technology to identify better rams and had improved pasture management.

Fennessy said it was a fair question for farmers to ask why so much emphasis on productivity when they were not getting enough for their lambs now.

Productivity was one aspect of their business farmers could control behind the farm gate and the gains made had enabled many to keep farming.

"I venture to suggest if it wasn't for the increase in productivity it would be a much smaller crowd here today," he said. "Even if things are bad, they could be a hell of a lot worse."

The challenge for the industry now was to increase the productivity of mixed age ewes by 40 per cent from 23.5kgs of meat they currently produce to 33kgs over the next 15 years.

"It sounds really daunting but I think it is realistic," Fennessy said.

Techniques to do that included increasing ewe weights, increasing hogget mating, putting more ewes to terminal sires and reducing the "disappearance rate" of ewes from an unacceptably high 10 per cent through better management.

Any technologies had to offer farmers clear values that "you can see with your eyes closed" and needed to be practical and profitable when applied on farm. They also needed to be simple to understand, simple to implement and readily transferrable on a larger scale.

As for opportunities in future, Dr Fennessy said farmers needed to know where they were making money and what was costing them money, such as how many of their ewes were dying and when. 

Higher lambing percentages offered opportunities to put more ewes to terminal sires, to mate ewes at different times of the year and to use scanning data for better stock management.

He said the recent drought over much of the country had raised the possibility of using more deep-rooted plants such as willows, shrubs and lucerne to feed stock during times of drought.

Soil moisture and temperature recording technology offered farmers an early warning system of drought in future.

Looking at future trends, Fennessy encouraged his audience "to farm like customers are watching you" and to turn compliance costs into a profitable opportunity.

"The one thing we can be sure of is the future will be both surprising and challenging."

Straight Furrow