Shifting lambing dates proves a success for young Southland couple

Tom and Nicola Wylie with Hunter, 2, Georgia, 4, and Alex, 5 months, on their Lora Valley farm.
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Tom and Nicola Wylie with Hunter, 2, Georgia, 4, and Alex, 5 months, on their Lora Valley farm.

What a difference 10 days can make to farming.

Shifting their lambing date back by just 10 days has paid off for Lora Valley farmers Tom and Nicola Wylie's sheep operation.  

Within a year of adjusting their lambing to September 10 to better fit the pasture growth on their Southland farm, they have seen improved lamb survival and growth rates.

Ewes at Lora Valley Farm.
BRITTANY PICKETT/FAIRFAX NZ

Ewes at Lora Valley Farm.

The lambing tweak is just one of the management changes Tom and Nicola have made as part of their involvement with their processor Alliance Group's Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) programme. 

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Tom says he first had the idea of reviewing their lambing after hearing what high producing farmers were doing on their farms during RMPP meetings. He wanted to match the grass growth to suit his ewes.

Ewes at Lora Valley Farm.
BRITTANY PICKETT/FAIRFAX NZ

Ewes at Lora Valley Farm.

"You're never going to guess the weather, but it was mainly that 10 days later suited the area."

Last year, the mixed-age ewes lambed 156 per cent, up from an average of 150 per cent, but the biggest lift occurred in the hoggets, which lambed 102 per cent, up from an average 87 per cent (survival to sale). The hoggets lambed on September 20 and were mated subsequently as two-tooths weighing an average of 72 kilograms. 

All lambs are finished to 19kg carcass weight. 

Tom Wylie and Jane among the forage crops planted on the farm.
BRITTANY PICKETT/FAIRFAX NZ

Tom Wylie and Jane among the forage crops planted on the farm.

Undoubtedly a kind spring contributed to this improvement in lambs surviving, but better aligning the lambing date with pasture growth has allowed the couple to make better use of the spring flush to drive lactation and lamb growth rates before they are weaned from their ewes.. 

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Alliance Group livestock technical officer Shona Frengley says even though the lambs weren't as old when it came to their kill date, they were able to make up for it in growth rates.

"A lot of farmers do it, lambing on [such a] date because that's what we've always done. [They are] scared to shift it forward because then your lambs don't get as long to grow, without realising that, hey, if the ewes are getting fed better they milk better and then the lambs just grow better."

When the Wylies first joined the programme in 2015, they were leasing 280 hectares in Lora Valley and helping to manage a 200ha deer farm. 

They were running 3000 composite ewes, 750 mated ewe hoggets and 350 dairy cows which were wintered for nine weeks. In a typical season, they finished their trading lambs and cattle. 

The big benefits for the couple to be involved in the RMPP programme is it has allowed them access to high performing farmers, as well as being able to benchmark against other farmers.

For Tom, being able to benchmark from a financial perspective and not just a production one was a big plus.

The pilot programme also gave him the means to try new trials, which he says he would never have done to the same extent without it.

Opportunities to improve pre and post-weaning lamb growth rates were identified through a critical analysis of the business. 

While their texel coopworth ewes were lambing relatively well, Tom and Nicola were only selling 300-400 lambs prime at their weaning draft in early December. 

It was a serious infestation of clover root weevil in 2014-2015 that gave the Wylies the impetus to use the RMPP programme and assess their management and forage options for growing and finishing lambs. 

"It's just given us more confidence in finishing lambs ... they do take a bit of managing to get right," Tom says.

In 2015, they planted five blocks of just over 3ha each in different forages – to get an idea of what specialist mix worked best for their system. 

These treatments included one stand of pure red clover, while the remaining four were different mixes of clovers, herbs and grasses. 

Lambs were weighed on and off the paddocks and while the red clover proved the best at growing lambs, from a farm system point of view, the chicory, plantain, clover and tetraploid mix proved to be the best fit. This mix has better shoulder-season production and is hardier than the pure red clover. As well as improved lamb growth rates, the forages lifted the kilograms of lamb produced per hectare.  

This year seven paddocks were sprayed out and sown in the specialist forage mix. 

The key things he has learnt is selecting paddocks and getting the timing right with controlling thistles.

"We're just putting our top cut of lambs on there each time. We just keep the tops moving."

Tom uses the forages as a finishing product rather than a growing one, and puts the lambs on forage for about a fortnight before being sent for processing. Before shifting to the forage for finishing, lambs are grown out on a ryegrass/clover mix.

He says he steered away from any brassica forages to ensure there were no animal health issues, and has so far seen no issues with transitioning the lambs onto the forage.

"It's given us the ability to grow more lambs to heavier weights."

The couple draft lambs fortnightly throughout the season and keep the top lambs moving onto the specialist forages. 

The project has also helped with the genetics side of the business. A presentation on ram genetics helped shift the focus for the Wylies when selecting their breeding rams from their ram buyer.

Genetics and feeding are the two drivers behind the Wylies' business. Genetic records have become far more important when he goes to select his rams, he says.

"It's changed the way we look at rams. We get more into both the look and the genetics behind them."

Throughout the year Tom keeps a keen eye on his ewes, and over summer tries to maintain their body weight.

However, he has had a learning curve when it comes to getting hoggets back up to weight after lambing so they are ready for mating as two-tooths.

He says he has learnt to wean early and feed them well.

Since beginning their involvement in the RMPP programme, the Wylies have increased the area they farm to 600ha, as a part of a farm succession process, and lifted stock numbers, particularly trading stock, accordingly. 

While the ewe numbers have remained the same, they have increased hogget numbers by 50 to 800 and are now finishing 4500 store lambs. But the most significant change has been to finish more lambs to heavier weights earlier. 

They are also growing 240 friesian bulls and 50 rising two-year-old beef cattle and plan to add another 50 rising two-year-old and 100 rising one-year-old beef cattle to the mix. They will also winter 500 dairy cows on crops.  

"The long-term goal is to farm profitably and pay down debt and try and grow our business," Tom says.

He enjoys having a mix of stock types and while he wants to reduce the number of trading stock and replace them with capital stock, he thinks he will always have an element of trading stock on the farm.

As growing trading stock is a significant part of their business, pasture quality is important. Tom will top pastures and make baleage rather than make trading stock eat poor quality pasture.  

The Wylies are also taking the lessons they have learnt in their lamb production and moving it across to other parts of their farming system. Tom says he is now using the different forages for the 200ha deer unit as well.

RMPP general manager Michael Smith says the results at the Wylies' farm are impressive and demonstrate the value of RMPP' s pilot farm extension programme.

"RMPP's focus now is pulling together all the detail for the roll out of a nationwide programme to deliver information in a way that works for farmers like the Wylies. Helping farmers make more informed business decisions about the things they can control is key to improving the productivity and profitability of farms in New Zealand."

 - Stuff

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