Every lamb counts on an intensive Ida Valley farm
On a small Otago farm, every blade of grass counts, every stock unit has to produce a return and every lamb that survives is a bonus. Rob Tipa meets the winners of a special award for flock performance in the NZ Ewe Hogget competition.
The Ida Valley is famous for its weather extremes, from hoar frosts and sub-zero temperatures in winter to intense heat and parched landscapes in summer.
On a relatively small holding of just 182ha, the Evans family runs a surprisingly intensive operation for this region.
They winter 671 mixed-age coopworth ewes and 234 ewe hoggets and are finishing 219 rising one-year-old friesian-hereford and friesian-murray grey cross calves they buy in at four days old. Last season their cattle all sold at 18 months at an average carcassweight of 245kg.
The secret of the family's stocking rate of 9.7 stock units per hectare is a reliable water supply and the fact that they can irrigate about 80 per cent of the farm.
A pivot delivers water to 120ha, K lines cover another 18ha, they grow 30ha of lucerne under pivot or K line and grow another 14ha of dryland lucerne, all of which is grown as a cash crop for sale locally. In a good season they can take five cuts of lucerne.
The farm is owned by the Evans Partnership – Adrian, Marilyn and Mandy Evans - who entered their flock of 212 coopworth ewe hoggets in the New Zealand Ewe Hogget Competition for the first time this year.
For their efforts, they were runners-up in the coopworth section and won a special award for flock performance.
National convenor of the awards Stephen Rabbidge, of Wyndham, told the NZ Farmer the Evans family had achieved exceptional figures and outstanding production from a very fertile flock of ewe hoggets.
Their 212 coopworth hoggets last season had an average liveweight of 46.18kg in mid-March, scanned 154 per cent and lambed 122 per cent.
The main mixed-aged coopworth ewe flock scanned 216 per cent, tailed 188 per cent and produced an average 19.95kg lamb on a mean kill date of January 27.
While the family is not actively chasing higher fertility, this trait has been improving steadily over the years.
"I thought flock fertility might have peaked after last year, but somehow they seem to find more lambs," Mandy says.
Earlier this month the main ewe flock scanned 220 per cent and the ewe hoggets scanned 153 per cent.
"I like the breed, they look good in the paddock and they do the job," Mandy says. "We're getting the results from them in terms of lambing percentage, so why change?"
Originally their coopworth rams were sourced from a Canterbury breeder in Mayfield, and more recently they have sourced rams from Lorneville and Heriot breeders.
Ram selection is based on conformation, structure, how they stand and wool production.
"We look at the ram standing in the pen first and when it comes to whittling them down, that's when we look at the paper work," Mandy says. "If it's a good-looking ram and the figures look all right, then we'll probably take him home."
The family has been lambing hoggets for about 20 years, when Adrian started the practice.
"We've had our ups and downs of course. It's not easy," Mandy says.
The family runs a separate mob of annual draft ewes, affectionately known as the "old ducks". They are put to a terminal black-face hampshire ram and lamb first on August 1 before the main mixed-aged ewe flock on September 5 and the ewe hoggets on September 15.
The best of the black-face ram lambs are retained and they are mated with the ewe hoggets at a ratio of one ram lamb to 10 ewe hoggets.
"They do the job and they do it well," Mandy says. "Last year they did 122 per cent and a couple of years ago they did 130 per cent."
The main mixed-age ewe flock has a lot of two-tooth ewes that contribute to the flock's high fertility.
"There's a lot of triplets and quads out there. If they're producing that many lambs you've got to get on board and manage it," she says. "If they can't rear that third lamb then it comes off and I rear it.
"The way I look at it, if it's not born alive it's not going to stay alive and slinkies aren't worth a lot. I'd prefer to have a live lamb, so if the ewe can't rear it at least I can attempt to rear it."
Last year she reared about 80 lambs. They are fed three times a day in a special lamb-rearing shed. If a ewe or ewe hogget loses a lamb it often gets a replacement lamb fostered on to it, which is one less mouth for her to feed.
If that sounds like a lot of hard work, it is actually a lot less intensive than Mandy's two years of experience lambing on a large family-owned sheep farm in Britain.
After completing a Diploma in Farm Management at Lincoln she returned home for a couple of years before travelling overseas for a look around Europe. In just over a year she did three lambings, two in Britain and one back on the home farm.
In Britain she worked as a night shepherd on an intensive sheep farm near Salisbury, where ewes were brought indoors a month or two before lambing and fed in pens on a ration of hay, silage and sheep nuts.
"I worked on my own and I guess about 500 to 700 sheep went through the shed each spring. I was there when the ewe lambed; you got the set of twins out and put them in a pen overnight," she says.
Every lamb had its navel dipped in iodine and was dosed for watery mouth. If they were in good health in the morning, the lambs were tailed, tagged, loaded on to a trailer with their mother and returned to the paddock.
"It's all about lamb survival," Mandy says. "Every lamb is given every chance of saving it.
"The whole aim was to prevent any illness," she says. "They wanted those lambs up, alive and into the paddock. I had a very good boss and he taught me a lot."
Mandy has brought many of those intensive management skills back to the Ida Valley and uses some techniques that work here.
For example, she now tails her lambs at two or three days old because she believes it is less stressful on the lambs and is less disruptive to the farm at a busy time of year.
"We started doing that because it takes the stress out of bringing in tailing contractors, which is a whole day you have to set aside when one or both of us need to be here to help them.
"At that stage we were feeding 500 to 700 calves and tailing was a hassle we didn't need so we thought why not tail them earlier.
"I think it takes the stress out of it (for the lambs) too because they get it done at a very young age. They roll around a bit, get up, take off and forget about it."
Any lambs that come into her lamb-rearing shed also get their navel treated with iodine.
In Britain, the strategy of the farm she worked on was that every ewe should rear two lambs. If a ewe had triplets it was common to take the extra lamb and mother it on to a ewe having a single.
Both Mandy's father and both grandfathers have been strong advocates for mothering on, so the concept was not foreign to her.
"If there's an old duck having a single at the same time as one is having triplets and she's got good milk I'll pinch one and stick it on a single," she says.
While Mandy handles most of the lambing, Adrian looks after the calves and helps out with lambing. When returns for sheep slumped a few years ago they were able to change direction quickly by reducing sheep numbers and taking on more cattle.
The farm has reared up to 700 friesian and hereford-friesian calves, which were taken through to about 100kg in four to five months. This year they are wintering 219 rising-one-year cattle which will be sold into the local trade market.
A reliable water supply does give the farm quite a bit of flexibility and the current cattle to sheep ratio suits them.
"It seems to fit well with the sheep and cattle side of things because the sheep take priority in spring and in summer the cattle get the most grass once the ewes are weaned, so it fits in nicely and you have future calves coming on as well," Mandy says.
In her spare time she is working with a herd of 13 nurse cows, a project that actually started out as an accident.
A few years ago some friesian-hereford-cross heifers got in-calf unexpectedly and because they have such big udders Mandy figured they could easily raise two calves instead of one.
"I call it my hobby because I'm the one that has to spend the time with them to mother them on," she says. "We all like cattle and I like the cows because they've all got personalities and they've all got a name."
Some of the nurse cows have weaned 400 to 500kg of calves each year so they meet the farm's philosophy of not carrying any passengers.
'They've got to rear two calves otherwise they don't pay their way in our set-up," Adrian says. "It works well because we've got to feed the calves anyway so it's one less we have to feed."