Hardy corriedales hill-country heroes
As dairying pushes sheep farming off the most productive land and into tougher hill country, sheep will have to be hardier than the composite breeds now in vogue, says veteran Hawarden corriedale breeder Doc Sidey.
In a drive for more, meatier lambs, Sidey said, corriedales, once the dominant breed on North Canterbury hill country, had fallen from favour. "The breed has half-merino in its ancestry so it's not particularly suited for hogget lambing and nor is it particularly prolific as a two-tooth or a maiden ewe."
But he said what the corriedale lacked in short-term performance was more than made up for in longevity.
"Over half our farm is this hilly stuff behind us and we've got some ewes out there that are 8 to 10 years old that can do 140 per cent quite easily, which is more than adequate on that type of country.
"People talk about doing 160-170 per cent and they're putting grain into animals, flushing them and all that sort of thing but over the lifespan of a corriedale ewe, they're pretty productive and hardy. They're like a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter - I say they're Halbergs instead of Usain Bolts, they can grind it out for a lap or two."
"The texel is very hard and tough when he's born and they've got brilliant muscling and the poll dorsets are brilliant mothers with stacks of milk but they're short- lived, quick turnover sheep and so are these North Island romneys, they don't last long."
Now 68, Sidey is the fourth generation of his family to breed corriedale rams, but year by year he sells fewer. "I used to be able to sell 160 corriedale rams here without trying, I could sell 60 the first day. Now if we can sell 50 we've got to be happy. We sell poll dorset and we sell poll dorset texel rams as well - they're my son's interest - so we're selling 100-odd rams. The ram market is getting exceptionally competitive and it'll get harder and harder to survive."
Sidey said corriedales would come into their own again as dairy farming and dairy support gobbled up flatter land and sheep farming was limited to hill country.
"There's no breed of sheep I'd sooner breed rams for sale. That'd be my prophecy, that in five if not 10 years' time, the hill-country sheep, the corriedale, will still be a big portion of them."
He said the other high-country stalwart, the merino, had suffered as breeders opted for finer fibre rather than constitution. "They're small and fragile and very prone to worms. A friend of mine who farms them says, 'If you dose hoggets when you think they need drenching because some of them are starting to skitter, there'll be a portion of them die because you're too late'. They've got to be very well farmed."
As breeders of composite sheep added other breeds to the mix - including east friesian, finn and texel - wool quality had been sacrificed, harming its spinning and dying qualities, said Sidey.
"If I was to talk to a guy now in his 40s about crimp, or the corrugations in fibre, character which is the regularity of the corrugation so that they stay even like a corrugated iron roof, colour which has gone to buggery and softness, soundness and a thing called style which is brilliance - these guys would almost look at me as if I'm speaking Chinese or I'm a very old fuddy-duddy head."
Not only would sheep have to be tougher to cope in the hill country, cattle would too, Sidey said. "A lot of the bulls in New Zealand are produced on pretty soft property, a lot of them are bred on coastal places where they don't get a decent frost and don't have to climb a hill.
"I'd be best summed up by being a pretty old-fashioned bugger about lots of things."