Merino stud all about performance
An Otago merino breeder says the stud's array of trophies is the result of a constant desire to measure their progress against other farms. Rob Tipa reports.
The Armidale Merino Stud at Gimmerburn on the Maniototo Plain has an impressive collection of silverware and A&P show championship ribbons for its stud merino sheep and fine wool fleeces.
The stud has won the national Golden Fleece Award and Central Otago Merino Breeders Clip of The Year title more times than the Paterson family can remember.
They regularly exhibit merino stud stock and fine wool fleeces on the South Island A&P show circuit and have enjoyed extraordinary success with a wealth of awards and championship ribbons to show for their efforts in recent years.
For Simon Paterson, who runs the farm in partnership with his wife Sarah and parents Allan and Eris Paterson, showing stock and fleeces is all about bench-marking themselves against others in the fine wool industry.
Winning the Central Otago Merino Breeders' Clip of the Year title four times in the last 10 years has been especially satisfying for the family because it was based on production per head of the farm's whole wool clip.
Asked what makes Armidale special for fine wool production, Simon says their environment certainly helps.
"We're probably lucky this has always been regarded as a good wool-growing area," he says. The farm gets an average of 350mm of rainfall annually and stock health is generally very good as long as it doesn't get too dry.
"No 1 is conformation and constitution then I suppose it boils down to two key things really, management and genetics, and it's just about getting that right," he says.
"We put a lot of pressure on performance and do a lot of performance-recording and measurements, especially for our stud flock, so it's just a matter of identifying the genetics that are performing in this environment and selecting traits that you know can handle our weather extremes here.
"Then it's about getting your pastures and stock management right with shifting and feeding."
Stock numbers are stable at around 8000 stock units wintered, depending on the season, but the Patersons have been forced to send stock off farm for grazing three times in the last 10 years because of drought.
Armidale added to its impressive record in the 2017 Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards, winning the Massey University Innovation Award for its leadership in its stud merino breeding programme and the Waterforce Integrated Management Award for their involvement in a Maniototo irrigation scheme and an efficient new irrigation system.
Simon returned to the family farm in 2005 after completing a degree in agricultural commerce at Lincoln and spending eight months travelling around a lot of farms in Australia, mainly merino studs to look at their management systems and genetic programmes.
"We've got a really good team here," he says. "Dad (Allan) and I work really well together. We share ideas with not too many differences and he's really receptive to try new things. We do a lot of trials to try new ideas on a small-scale basis."
Both Allan and his brother George Paterson have run Armidale previously so both have a wealth of farming knowledge they are able to share with the next generation.
George has worked part-time on Armidale for about 15 years after he sold his own farm and the farm has an enthusiastic young farm worker, Amy Coulter, who has been fulltime since the New Year.
The Paterson family's connection to Armidale dates back over 130 years when Simon's great-great grandfather started with a block of 106 acres when Puketoi Station was subdivided in the 1880s.
A farm that size was not viable so ballot blocks were gradually added and the farm has since expanded to 2050ha today, which includes two summer run blocks of 450ha, 160ha of irrigated land and the rest in flat to rolling cultivated land, which is predominantly lucerne or a lucerne and cocksfoot pasture mix.
The Armidale Merino Stud was originally registered in 1940 by George Paterson but registration lapsed during World War II until Simon's grandfather Bruce revived it in 1956.
The stud's reputation for breeding large, robust sheep producing a heavy wool fleece goes back to Bruce Paterson's sheep selection, although fleece wool is generally finer today and the type of sheep has changed over the years.
"We've gone from a 19.5 micron average 10 years ago to an 18.5 micron average now," Simon says. "We don't want that to go any lower and would actually be happy for it to go up a bit."
He says the size of the merino stud has probably doubled in the last decade to 1050 fully recorded merino stud ewes and the number of rams sold has also increased significantly to become an important part of the farm's business.
The property has been performance-recording for so long it can trace its stud records back to the 1970s. With more intensive recording in the last five years, all that information is now sent to Australia and used to generate estimated breeding values, a potentially useful tool for selling rams.
All breeding stock are fully recorded with wool weights, staple length and micron count all electronically recorded. All progeny are weighed at weaning and given a dag score at 200 days. Ram lambs are weighed, eye-muscle scanned and fat scored.
"Everything is EID tagged now so it makes all the data collection so much easier rather than manually reading out tags," Simon says. "It's so much quicker and simpler and gives you a huge amount of information at your fingertips, provided you know how to use it."
"Our focus has always been maintaining good quality wool at good weights and trying to improve other traits of number of lambs weaned, genetic fat and eye muscle depth without negatively impacting on our fleece traits," he says.
"We could make faster gains in these other areas but we could find it would significantly impact on all the hard work we've done to get our wool quality and quantity to where it is."
He says the merino breed is all about differentiating itself in the market with a good quality product, because there is still a market premium for producing a quality fibre. So it would be a concern if breeders forgot about wool quality and quantity in their quest to improve some of these other traits,
"I would hate to see that ruined chasing some of these other traits," he says. "Our big focus is to maintain what we've done with our wool and gradually improve on the other things."
He believes the main area of improvement for merino breeders is to increase the number of lambs weaned.
"If a ewe is scanning twins, she should rear twins in our opinion," he says. "When I first came home in 2005, 80 per cent of our merino ewes put to the ram were rearing a lamb at weaning. Last year that figure was 92 per cent."
The aim is for flock merino ewes to consistently lamb at 125 percent and any ewe that doesn't rear a lamb through to weaning is culled. In the stud flock, any ewe that doesn't show good maternal traits is also culled.
In the last five years Armidale's economic farm surplus per stock unit against the average merino property has increased by $5 a year, which Simon says indicates they are on the right track.
All rams are sold privately on farm to a regular client base spread between Central Otago and the Awatere valley in Marlborough, with most clients in the Mackenzie Basin.
"The good thing about the merino industry is that everyone wants a slightly different type of sheep so it can be good from that point of view because different sheep will suit different environments," Simon says.
"It's good to sit down with your clients and figure out what they want and what they need and you miss that in an auction environment."
After an on-farm visit by a Norwegian outdoor clothing manufacturer last year, the Patersons have since signed a contract to supply the Devold company with the majority of their wool clip this year.
The family has never met directly with their customers before, so the contracted sale through PGG Wrightson Wool is an exciting development for them.
"I think there's a lot of synergies between the two family companies which have both been around since the 1800s," Simon says.
Devold was established as a clothing manufacturer in 1853, initially producing knitted woollen jerseys from Norwegian wool for fishermen.
Today the company makes high quality outdoor clothing from merino wool and has a "sheep to shop" marketing strategy in northern Europe, where buyers want to know where their wool comes from.
The other major recent development on Armidale was commissioning two new centre pivot irrigators in October 2016 covering 64ha of land, and replacing 40ha of border dykes.
"We were at the point where the borders were getting run down and the water was travelling down the dykes at different speeds," Simon says. "It didn't make sense to replace the border dykes so we decided to go with the pivot option just for the certainty of the extra feed and quality of feed you can grow under them."
Ironically, the Maniototo had one of its wettest springs ever and the new system wasn't turned on last summer until December.
Simon is looking forward to having a lot more control over water application, as pivots are a lot more manageable and environmentally friendly with less nutrient run-off, which in itself makes good business sense.
He says it may take a couple of years to work out how many lambs they can winter under the pivots, which may well change the balance of the farm, but the best feature of the development is that they will not be forced to sell stock on the store market.
After a couple of tough seasons and volatile prices on wool markets, Simon believes the recovery in store lamb prices and some good contracts for fine wool have given merino farmers a lot more confidence this season.
"People on store properties who have to sell in autumn sales got really good money this year, which puts everyone in a much better frame of mind and gives people more confidence to spend money on genetics."