Fact-backed ewe selection takes Glammies winners to the top
A Manawatu farming family is the first to win the country's top taste awards for both their lamb and beef. Kate Taylor talks to the father-son team.
Pohangina farmer Forbes Cameron runs a hand down the back of a ram hogget on the scales in front of him. "That's a good fleece."
It's ram hogget culling time on Ngaputahi Station in the Pohangina Valley.
Shepherds Turnball Thwaites and Scottish newcomer Gordon Graham are pushing the ram hoggets up to the scales for Forbes and his son Angus to cast their eye over.
The one with the good fleece gets the nod. The next isn't so lucky. "This one's 38kg," Forbes says.
"Cull it," replies Angus, whose eyes are focussed on the notebook of figures in front of him and sees a pattern or statistic he doesn't like. Sometimes there's a discussion about the yes or no. Sometimes it's clear cut, especially when a high dag score is involved.
The Camerons record survival, fertility, growth, dags and meat and wool traits. They also concentrate on worm resistance.
"It was a conscious decision we made 10 or 15 years ago," Forbes says.
"So many people got out of sheep farming because there was so much work involved. We dock the lambs and the next time we see them is at weaning. If they have dags at weaning they are culled. If animals are found with dags twice, at any time, they're culled.
"We do no preventative work for fly or lice. If they need treatment we'll cull them."
Angus says with good seasons, the ewe hoggets will only be drenched at weaning.
"Most of our sheep would have a maximum of two to three drenches in their lifetime."
The Camerons' romney sheep stud was started in 1971. It was later joined by an angus cattle stud when Forbes and Christine bought the hilly Ngaputahi Station in the Pohangina Valley in 1999. They have since added other blocks to take the property up to 1953ha and farm in partnership with son Angus and his partner Nadya Craig.
It's a well-known partnership in sheep and cattle breeding circles with national wins in both the Golden Lamb Awards, or Glammies, announced in mid-March in Wanaka, after a previous win in 2008, and the Steak of Origin usually held in conjunction with the Beef Expo in Feilding. They won the Steak of Origin in 2015 after taking the Best of British category three times.
"We thought we'd have a go and we did alright so we kept going," Forbes says, laughing.
"No-one comes here to buy animals because of the wins but it certainly opens doors for us. We haven't really taken that much further though because we're busy doing what we're already doing."
There was some confusion over this year's Glammies win as they only came second in their category, but the categories were judged on a rump cut while the finalists went into the last round with a top side cut.
Ngaputahi winters 900 recorded ram hoggets and sells about 500 rams a year.
"That might be up to 600 this year though," says Angus.
"We are utilising the CARLA saliva tests for worm resistance and all potential sale rams are sampled for worm resistance with wormFec."
Back in the yards, Angus's sister Kirsten Cameron is pushing the selected ram hoggets up another race to Chris Spark from WRS for eye muscle area scanning (EMA). Both are under the watchful eye of Rod McCaughan, who works at Ngaputahi and whose stud is integrated with the Camerons' stud.
Forbes has been using an ultrasound scanner for more than 30 years to get an overall picture of the muscle on the ram hoggets' 12th rib.
"Like having sheep with brains, a lot of people laughed at what I was doing but to me, it makes sense to see which animals are likely to be more profitable and to breed more of them."
Forbes says he has liked "sheep with intellect" and "do-ability" since he started recording the stud animals in 1971.
"We had a storm that year with 200-300 new lambs on the ground. There was a two-tooth ewe that came out of the paddock and lambed in the shelter of a large overhang. Both survived. I thought, 'You'll do me'. Since then I always look for sheep with intelligence. You know how sheep always go into that bit between an opened gate and the fence… well, ours will turn around and come back out again."
The Camerons' recorded sheep are run with the commercial sheep apart from at tupping and lambing. The rest of their lives they are in a big rotation.
"Anything that can't handle the pressure is culled or if they have redeeming factors they may get a second chance in the commercial flock."
They have 6200 breeding ewes – mostly romney, including 1200 recorded romney ewes, and 180 growbulk – and 1800 ewe hoggets. Trade lambs vary from 1500-2000.
The ewes scan at more than 3 per cent lambing for each kilogram of ewe mated. In some years that's more than 4 per cent.
"One lot of two-tooths at 46.5kg scanned 190 per cent," Forbes says.
"Most years we dock around 150 per cent plus across everything with the recorded ewes docking 170-180 per cent."
Ewes are not culled on age.
"We look at their production figures. If they're still having lambs, growing wool and in good health, we keep them," Angus says.
Some of their ewes are still breeding at 10 years old.
Ngaputahi has 600 breeding cows including R2s, which are also mated. There are 240 recorded angus cows, 140 recorded saler cows and 220 commercial cows of both breeds.
Forbes introduced saler cattle to the business in 1988 to get improve carcass weights, which led to the success of the "optimizer", an angus-saler cross.
"Salers are the bovine equivalent of our sheep," he says.
"They calve easily, grow fast, have high fertility and like our hills."
Angus genetics were introduced in 1999.
"The world-wide genetic base basically means we can breed what we want pretty easily."
The Camerons cull heavily on structure and temperament as well as all productive traits.
After selling privately on the farm in the past, this year will mark the stud's first on-farm auction on June 12 with 40 bulls likely to be on offer. They also have a bull in the Angus Bull Evaluation Unit for the second year.
The farm carries approximately 220 R1 heifers, 210 R1 bulls, 200 R2 bulls and six breeding bulls, as well as finishes its own cull heifers.
"We hardly buy in any animals," Forbes says.
"Not even bulls. We buy semen. We swap rams as well for connectivity to get accuracy in the SIL figures although we did get smashed with facial eczema last year so we have bought in some FE genetics."
Brought up on his parents' farm at Weber in Tararua, Forbes went farming with his brother Ken in 1969. Forbes and Christine moved to Manawatu in 1981 to farm 230ha at Kakariki and had increased that to 600ha, plus some lease land and another 233ha near Feilding, by the time they left 18 years later. In 1999 they moved to the 1400ha Ngaputahi Station in the Pohangina Valley to which they have steadily added more land, turning it into the 1953ha farm it is today. It's mostly hill country but the addition of new flats for finishing and calving the stud cows has made it a more well-balanced property.
The farm also has 24ha of plantain, chicory and clover and 27ha of lucerne.
"Apart from this year our summers and autumns have been getting drier so the lucerne is a new thing for us," Angus says.
"We put in our first 4ha last year so we're still learning about what it can do."
The farm is in its eighth season of using Outgro's biological fertiliser – Forbes doesn't like superphosphate or urea.
Back in the yards, father and son duo Adrian and John Graham are tidying up an old fence in the yard.
When asked about everyone's titles, both Forbes and Angus say they don't do titles.
"We're a team," says Forbes.
One member of the team who would have loved to take a day off school for a day's work in the yards is Angus's 10-year-old son Lachlan. He knows the ram stud book and SIL data and can reel off pedigrees of many of the top recorded animals.