If farming was an Olympic event, Doug Avery would be a certainty for a gold medal.
Mr Avery is a farming phoenix who rose from the ashes of his drought-stricken Marlborough farm.
He suffered six years of drought before hitting on the idea - and credit must also be given to Lincoln plant scientist Derrick Moot - of grazing his sheep on lucerne.
The result has been a surge in lamb growth, so much so that his lambs take only 11 to 12 weeks to reach 18.5-kilogram market weights. Others born at this time of year could take four to six weeks longer, adding to farmers' costs.
But he is not satisfied with that. He has brought in a South Australian nutritionist to improve the diets of his sheep. I don't know of any other sheep farmers doing that. Dairy farmers, yes, but not sheep farmers.
The nutritionist, David Ginter, tests the pastures and the sheep's livers to find what is lacking from their diet. Then he provides the minerals in the form of salt licks.
He found that because Mr Avery, who farms with his son, Fraser, puts a lot of lime on his pastures, the calcium this produces has thrown out the phosphorous balance in the ewes' rumen.
Mr Avery is convinced successful sheep breeding starts with the rumen, the part of the stomach where plant matter is broken down and converted to energy.
Because his lambs go on to lucerne at an early age, their rumen starts developing earlier.
This gives an animal a better lifetime performance. It is one of the advantages legumes have over grasses.
This might seem old hat to a dairy farmer, but it is leading edge stuff for sheep.
Not only are market lambs ready sooner, the lambs that are kept for breeding are set up for early motherhood. The lambs wean at 36- to 40kg and then quickly grow to 52- to 55kg, the optimal weight for mating.
They reach this weight so early Mr Avery has the luxury of taking them sideways - his term for stopping their growth so they can put more effort into developing their fertility.
His success is seen in his latest pregnancy scanning, which has his hoggets at 142 per cent.
What he does next is also out of the ordinary. He scans the pregnant hoggets another three or four times during their pregnancy, to identify potential problems early.
He is sure that within a few years he will have hoggets lambing unassisted at 120 to 130 per cent. On many farms, 80 per cent is considered successful.
This year, his mixed-age ewes scanned at 198 per cent, a phenomenal result, and lambs are being born on to waterlogged paddocks but in relatively mild temperatures. He is doing all he can to keep losses down.
He says his ewes are superbly prepared for the birth of their lambs and the lambs are incredibly strong.
This is not an idle boast, he declares.
“One recent night when rain thundered down on the farm, I lay in bed thinking I would have no lambs left in the morning. When I got up, water lay all around the house, but when I got out on the farm I found hardly any dead lambs. That was unbelievable.
"I've been farming 40 years and never seen so few die in such conditions.”
Along with lucerne and a balanced diet are other important factors. He is sold on the hardy highlander composite breed and raves about the ewes' “perky” teats, positioned ideally for thirsty new-born lambs.
One of the problems expected with giving ewes too much high-quality feed is vaginal prolapses, known to farmers as bearings.
He has learned to manage the feed every day from scanning. Multiple-bearing ewes are break-fed lucerne to lift nutrition levels, but not excessively. As lambing approaches that is slowly increased. This year he has had only two bearings cases.
Unlike many farmers, he is happy to see triplet lambs. The expectant mothers get special treatment with mobs of 20 to 30 going into small, well-grassed paddocks so they can settle down for the birth well ahead of time.
He says he has hundreds of such small paddocks. “If she's got good milk and good feed, a ewe doesn't have to walk all day to get tucker. Her lambs are not stressed out constantly trudging to keep up with mum.”
Planting the highly fertile prairie grass and the mineral-rich herb plantain with lucerne is his latest interest. He has planted 62 hectares in this mix on a new farm. When it comes into full production the income will pay the interest and principal of the loan he took to buy the 419ha property.
Mr Avery does not want to keep this information to himself. He is happy to tell others about it.
“I don't want to live in a country that's poor,” he says. “Agriculture is not the only answer, but it's got so much potential to perform better for this nation without impairing the environment.
"It's not about running more cows and more sheep on our farms to get ahead. It's about getting better production from what we've already got.”
New Zealand's job is not to feed the world, he says. “It's to show to the world a model of excellence around sustainable agriculture.
"And that is how to produce the most amount of high-value product with the least amount of impact on the environment.” Fairfax NZ
- The Marlborough Express