Small changes pay off big for Bulleid team at Glengordon Farm
The Bulleid family is committed to improving their sheep productivity. Brittany Pickett reports.
Chris and Andrea Bulleid make a formidable farming team.
Through simple changes, the productivity of the Southland couple's romney ewe flock has leapt ahead over the past four years.
The couple decided to join the Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) programme, through programme partner and meat company Alliance Group, two years ago and that motivated them to move faster in the direction they were already heading with farm consultant Deane Carson.
They also credit a two-day RMPP conference earlier this year for spurring them on even further.
"We came back absolutely fizzing, it motivated us and gave us confidence about the future of our industry and how we can be part of the solution," Chris says.
Confidence gained by the farm's lift in sheep productivity prompted the decision by the couple to reduce their reliance on dairy support and focus instead on their own capital stock comprising of 4100 Turanganui Romney ewes, 1200 hoggets and 36 angus beef-cross breeding cows. Among the flock is a terminal mob of about 600 sheep the couple "don't like the look of".
Chris had always heard the adage that sheep farming is 90 per cent feeding and 10 per cent breeding and the past few years has convinced him that this is indeed the case.
"I think genetics is important. You can have the best genetics in the world, but if you don't feed them well you don't get the results out of them."
The couple, who farm 832 hectares of mixed terrain just outside Lumsden, has brought in a policy of body condition scoring and strategic feeding their ewes.
For them, its about embracing some of the old stockmanship techniques, Andrea says.
Combined with small changes such as changing the lambing and weaning dates, this has seen their lambing percentage lift from 120 per cent to 143 per cent in just four seasons.
Andrea says they are now focusing on the bottom 25 per cent of their ewe flock and, by identifying and strategically managing these ewes, they have lifted the performance of the whole flock.
"We used to look at the whole flock and think that they look pretty good, but you really can't tell without putting your hand on their back and physically touching the sheep."
Andrea and Chris body condition score all of their 4100 ewes in late February and this gives them sufficient time to lift the body condition of lighter ewes before the rams go out in April. These ewes are given the best quality grass in a simple grass and winter feed-crop system.
The bottom 25 per cent are sent to join the two-tooths, which are being fed well, to get them back to good condition, Chris says.
"We've knocked our deaths in half just by looking after our sheep a bit better."
The couple budget on a 100-day winter where they will have little or no pasture growth, so the ewes are run onto feed crops in mid-July and stay on them until early September. This allows autumn-saved pasture to be carried over to ensure the ewes are lambing on good pasture covers in September.
"If we have a good August, the grass can come away early, but we can have a 100-day winter," says Chris.
In line with the lift in ewe fertility, Chris and Andrea began scanning their ewes three years ago. Last year, they identified twins and singles, and this year they identified triplets as well. Again, this allows for the strategic management of ewes based on their nutritional requirements and the triplet-bearing ewes – 230 sets this year – are pulled off the feed crop and wintered on grass.
This year they have brought the lambing date forward by one week and they are now weaning earlier, in mid-December rather than in the New Year.
Andrea says the lambs always started going backwards over the Christmas period as grass quality began to decline. Schedule prices also began to fall over this time and it was something of a downward spiral.
While the number of lambs they are selling prime at the weaning draft has increased from 250 eight years ago to 1000 last year, they are also committed to selling some of their lambs to the store market.
Chris says the farm's shallow soils can dry out quickly in summer, so selling lambs for the store market frees up available feed for getting condition back on ewes. If feed is plentiful over summer, they have options of buying in trading stock or conserving surplus grass.
After weaning, the ewes are run onto the steeper hill country. In another management change, the couple is separating the two and four-tooth ewes out and running them in a separate mob.
Through body condition scoring, Andrea and Chris has found that they tend to be the lightest ewes, so separating them out gives them the opportunity to recover body condition without mob pressure.
The couple took on Andrea's family farm eight years ago and acknowledge her family for always being on hand to support them.
Since taking it over they have upgraded much of the infrastructure, and to help finance this, they grazed 400 dairy cows and 150 dairy heifers on a May to May contract.
They installed a water system throughout the farm and now that it's in place, they couldn't imagine working without it again.
Since putting in the scheme, the quality of both ewes and lambs has improved, as well as making farm management decisions simpler, Andrea says.
About 95 per cent of the farm now has water access, which means the couple can move forward with plans to fence off problem areas.
"Installing the water scheme was the first thing we had to do before we could even consider fencing off waterways," Andrea says.
After lifting the productivity of their ewes, they are removing dairy support from their system and are putting this feed – and labour – into ewes, hoggets and a re-introduced breeding cow herd and their progeny.
Next year, the Bulleids will be mating their hoggets and will be aiming to have them going to the ram at 48-50 kilograms. This year their hoggets, weighing an average 44kg in March, were awarded third place in the northern Southland ewe hogget competition and this confirmed to them that they have the genetics, feed and management in place to grow their ewe lambs out to mating weights.
Their decision to lamb their hoggets was a financial call to make up for reducing their dairy support operation.
Chris says they feed their replacement ewe lambs as well as they feed their finishing lambs – now they just need to see a return on this by making their sheep productive. All of their stock has to "pay their way", he says.
Next year the couple are planning to trial putting a quarter-texel across the romneys to increase their yield. However, they do not want to go too far and lose wool quality.
As a two-person operation, the couple don't spend a lot of time together on the farm, unless they're in the yards. Andrea says having the two of them working together helps them make better management decisions.
"It's keeping your perspective by having that second pair of eyes."
RMPP general manager Michael Smith says the Bulleid's story is a good example of how farmers can lift their productivity and profitability with small incremental changes.
"It's not necessarily about having a different game plan or working any harder, but keeping a tight focus on measuring what is happening on the farm and acting quickly in response.
"Our research indicates that for most farmers the largest potential profit lift can come from improving what they do behind the farmgate."