Survival vital with 200 sets of triplets expected on Taihape farm

A Manawatu romney breeder is determined to find out if skin thickness has anything to do with lamb survival. Kate Taylor reports.

Manawatu romney breeder Ross Humphrey
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Manawatu romney breeder Ross Humphrey

Close to 200 sets of triplets are expected for the Brookfield Romney Stud this spring.

Ross Humphrey's home farm is in the rolling hills Kiwitea, in northern Manawatu, but steep Taihape hill country is home to his ewe flock, which scanned 200 per cent this year.

"We're expecting 197 sets of triplets, eight quads and one having five. That's the first time I've ever had five. Chris said 'I don't know if you want this one, there's five in there.' I had to have a look too."

Romney ram hoggets on a crop at Kiwitea property of Manawatu romney breeder Ross Humphrey.
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

Romney ram hoggets on a crop at Kiwitea property of Manawatu romney breeder Ross Humphrey.

Humphrey is a vocal supporter of Chris Spark from scanning firm Ward and Rosa.

"He's that close to 100 per cent. He's incredibly accurate. He knows what he's doing. I'm not sure I want five though."

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With Humphrey now using skin thickness data from a research project he's been driving with Massey University, he's hoping gains already made will help some of those extra lambs. He has seven years of data on skin thickness and has been selecting for that trait, along with the usual production traits, for the past six years.

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In the first year, the range of thickness was 1mm-3mm. Now, he says he's seeing lambs with skins as thick as 4.7mm.

"With so many triplets expected, we know their survival rate will be lower. We would hope to see an increase in survival rates across the board with thicker skins but how do we prove there are more surviving? There are so many other factors involved."

Humphrey says they moved the breeding operation from Kiwitea to Taihape to meet the expectations of the stud's commercial clients – many of them hill country farmers who needed genetics tested on hill country.

The ewe flock is run at Omatane, 20km east of Taihape, on the 648ha property of Mike and Vicki Cottrell. The ewes are not shepherded during lambing.

"Lambs are brought back here (Kiwitea) in mid-March and we put them on good feed to see which ones grow the most when they're fed well."

Ewe hoggets are mated and go back to Taihape. The ram hoggets go to David and Helen Worsfold's Ridge Rd property for the winter to see which ones hold their body weight when limited grass is available. Ridge Rd isn't geographically far from Kiwitea but it is higher, harder country, he says.

Humphrey and his wife Wendy's Brookfield Romneys was one of six founding members of Trigg Romneys in 1999. The breeders wanted to improve their breeding programmes so their commercial clients could make more from the sale of prime lambs. The breeders still involved alongside Ross and Wendy and their son Damien are Richard Brown from Banklea and Rachel and Rick Pettigrew from Te Ohu.

"The idea was to pool our research money and do research together," Humphrey says.

"It was too expensive for me to do it on my own. There were six of us involved initially and that gave us the resources to fund any sort of research we wanted to do."

They started a progeny trial, with the help of Massey University, which gave them proven sires in their system that had already been used as high-indexed ram hoggets.

"That really kicked things along."

They also moved into improving meat yields, believing the industry would, at some stage, be paid for that. They were pioneers in identifying genetic traits for the most valuable meat cuts and have also focused on facial eczema tolerance.

Ten years later, Humphrey was ready for another challenge and made an approach to Massey University about a question that had been playing on his mind.

"I've always got ideas floating around in my head, 'What can we do? What can we do?' Most of them are stupid ideas that have never worked."

He can't remember when he first started mulling over whether or not skin thickness was hereditary and what thicker skin could mean for lamb survival rates. But the idea immediately appealed to the scientific mind of Professor Hugh Blair, an expert in animal breeding and genetics at Massey University.

In true rural fashion, Humphrey played rugby with Blair in days gone by and Blair had also been one of the driving forces behind the Trigg group's research.

"He was enthusiastic about it straight away and has been involved from the start. He didn't think anyone had done the research and he knew how huge the right result would be for the industry.

"Without Massey's involvement it would have been too much of a nightmare. They have the staff and the knowledge. We're cockies," he says, laughing.

Blair says how this project started is a typical example of rural connections and the importance of building relationships.

"That's crucial for us… talking to farmers and finding out the things that are bugging them.

"This is a good example of listening to a farmer and saying yeah, why don't we look at that?' This is how the best research is started – solving farmers' problems."

Humphrey credits his father Ron for his willingness to have a go at something different.

"Dad was into everything. He'd grow all sorts of crops – some grew, some didn't. He grew fodder beet back in the 60s. He questioned. He gave things a go and taught us to be willing to do the same. He had one thrill in his life and that was farming."

Ron Humphrey took over Brookfield at Kiwitea after World War II.

"Two soldiers wanted the place so they tossed a coin and Dad called heads. Brookfield was his. Later on we shifted to Westella, between Feilding and Palmerston North, when I was nine. Dad had land in various places. A block at Himatangi for wintering cattle. Lease blocks at Opiki and Feilding. He bought a farm at Rongotea.

"Dad, my brother Roger and I farmed in partnership for a while then in 1980 Wendy and I came up here to Brookfield and went out on our own in 1983."

Humphrey had inherited his father's southdown flock and jumped at the chance to take on a romney stud.

"I bought 1250 romney ewes from our neighbour, Michael Conway, who had the Glenorchy Romney Stud. We did the deal on a handshake. We inherited Michael's clients and luckily everyone stuck with us. We purchased very good ewes and a very good stud. All of a sudden, we were Ross and Wendy the ram breeders. I remember asking Dad what he thought. He said 'yup' straight away."

Brookfield was 145ha when Humphrey's father was handed it with the win of that coin toss. It has grown to 473ha including a 200ha block nearby run by Damien.

Humphrey says the over-arching goal of the business is to produce romney ewes that will thrive in hard hill country and leave lambs that will grow fast when ample grass is available.

"Obviously with 200 per cent scanning this year we're pleased to be working on tangible ways to improve the chance of survival for all those extra lambs. It's exciting and there's definitely more to come out of this research."

Humphrey didn't want to say "watch this space" but… watch this space.

 - Stuff

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