Deer 'standing up' at Orari Gorge Station
Deer are demonstrating their earning power and putting pressure on sheep and cattle on Orari Station in the South Canterbury foothills, reports Tim Fulton.
A strong deer performance at Orari Gorge Station is testing cherished sheep-farming traditions. "We've got the spotlight on deer," commercial manager Lindsay Paton says.
Sheep and cattle have reigned supreme at the property for more than 150 years. The station runs 11,000 sheep stock units and 6000 cattle stock units including romney, romney-texel and hereford studs.
But the 6000 deer are making a major mark too. The station has sold more store lambs than usual so it can bring weaners on to the flats.
Paton says the green light for deer to come down to the flats is part of a huge system change for the property.
Under his watch, all three stock classes will have to make a proven contribution to the farm's performance. Essentially, there will be less room to hide for the laggards.
"We're not just changing farm policy, we're changing farm tradition. There is that option, so the deer have to stand up and say 'I'm important, I've got the grass and I've got the earning power here'. And so far they are standing up."
Paton joined Orari Gorge Station nearly 18 months ago following six years at Awakino Station at Kurow in North Otago.
The farm is 4295ha (3850ha effective) and climbs from river flats and rolling clay downs to more than 1000m above sea level on the tussock hill country.
He says one of the first things he noticed about the place, coming from Kurow, was the 1100mm of annual rainfall. "Grass growth isn't really a problem, though you still have to use it well," he says.
He found Orari hinds grazing mostly on the tussock country were struggling to put on condition in the critical weeks before the rut. Stags went out in multiple sire mobs in early March and were removed in late May or June.
Drawing on his experience at Awakino, he concluded that the hinds were using energy tending to their fawns that they really needed for mating. Condition scores and conception rates were well below par.
A year ago he introduced pre-rut weaning. The move immediately improved hind mating weights, tightened the range of conception dates, and increased slaughter weights.
He's making plans for extra feed now that dozens more deer are hitting the ground.
The station carries 1550 small-frame red hinds with a mature weight of 105kg average. The maternal mobs go to red stags while the terminal mobs use B11, the Peel Forest terminal breed.
At finishing, with about 1000 weaners slaughtered, the farm's average carcase weight last season was 51.3kg (drafting was at 90kg) from an average kill date of January 15.
Growth rates ranged from 70 to 500 grams a day with overall calculated average growth rate across the board of 139g a day.
"By shifting some mobs to pre-rut weaning they have achieved a massive lift in conception rates with the terminals scanning 93 per cent, up from 80 per cent the previous season."
This year the maternal first-fawner "foresters" were weaned before the rut for the first time.
Paton expects conception rate will jump sharply in that mob too. "If the first fawners go from 70 per cent to 93 per cent that's huge for them," he says.
Orari Gorge Station is owned by the Peacock family (Graham and Rosa Peacock, with Robert and Alex Peacock).
The station's management is divided into spheres: Robert Peacock oversees the overall business and the studs while Paton manages day-to-day operations and the commercial livestock.
Paton takes a "no man is an island" approach to farm management. He is part of the Mid-Canterbury Venison Advance Party working group, one of 25 such groups nationwide lifting industry profitability through the Passion2Profit programme.
Advance Parties are supported with funding from Deer Industry NZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries' Sustainable Farming Fund.
Paton helped set up a group of eight Mid-Canterbury properties about a year ago, having been a member of the McKenzie Country Advance Party while at Awakino.
He will quickly tell you "there's no 'I' in team". As a manager, he enjoys being able to pass on his experience but prefers not to spoon-feed solutions.
"You've got to give people the chance to make mistakes, so they can learn," he says.
Nonetheless, peers are happy to vouch for the wisdom he brings to the paddock.
Mid-Canterbury Advance Party facilitator Lorna Humm says Paton is a natural synthesizer of information.
"His key strength is his ability to appraise a complicated system, separate it into its component parts, see where inefficiencies exist, and put in logical sequence the system changes required to bring each system back into the bigger picture in a complementary way that benefits each system and the integrated operation."
Importantly, he is not afraid to challenge the status quo and is a trusted source of management advice, she says.
"Advance Parties are all about lifting confidence and competence. Lindsay has competence in spades but, as I see it, APs have provided the support and sounding board for Lindsay to propose and instigate changes."
Paton says the Mid-Canterbury Advance Party brings together a range of farmers with insight to share, and it's not all back-slapping. "There is fairly robust discussion at most meetings where whole farm systems can be under scrutiny. The programme is making a difference," he says.
Animal health is discussed at each Advance Party meeting, for instance.
This posed some questions that Orari's management plan didn't quite answer, so the farm commissioned a deer health review done with vet Phillip Skinner and Lorna Humm from Deer Industry NZ. They trialled the Deer Health Review Workbook being produced as part of the P2P programme, which will be available to all deer farmers and vets from June.
This included a performance review, a risk assessment and disease management review and actions based on a Plan, Do, Review approach. Through this, Orari set short to medium and long term goals and key performance indicators to monitor progress. It will change the way the station does things next season, Paton says.
Another focus of Advance Party meetings is growth rates in young deer. "This prompted us to monitor growth against the replacement hind growth rate chart which has us on target for a 95 per cent scanning in our yearlings. Being in an Advance Party is having an impact on what we are doing here now. I don't think it's anything ground-breaking but it's incremental differences that add up."