Feeding the potential

Introducing red clover forage crops into Anna and Blair Nelson’s farm system has helped lift the productivity of their ewe flock significantly.
Friday, 2 September 2016

Farm facts

  • 1,100ha effective hill country farm in the King Country
  • 1,400mm rainfall
  • 3,800 Coopworth Romney ewes (scanning 194%, lambing 157%); 1,140 ewe hoggets; 300 breeding cows (including first calvers) progeny are finished; 560 two-year Friesian bulls.

Lifting ewe performance

A B+LNZ Innovation Farm project that set out to increase profitability on Anna and Blair (Munta) Nelson’s King Country farm has had an unexpectedly profound effect on the performance of their ewe flock.

As the couple sought to increase the profitability of their sheep and beef business by $200/ha, they focused on growing specialist forages on their cultivable country.

While primarily used for lambs, this feed was also used for growing out hoggets. This saw these sheep, as two-tooths, outperform their mixed-age ewes in scanning and lambing percentages as well as in weaning weights. They believe that this focus on feeding in the first summer sets the potential for the life-time performance of their ewe flock. 

To realise the productive potential of their ewes, the Nelsons are now striving to feed them evenly throughout the year. This, along with regular monitoring of body condition scores, has made the biggest difference to their farm system.

Anna explains that by focusing on fully-feeding ewes, they have been able to target a lamb weaning weight of 34kg – up from 29kg – and this heavier weaning weight has given them more options for selling or finishing lambs.

Maintaining ewe body condition at a score of 3–3.5 has also resulted in a reduction of ewe and lamb losses and saw the weaning percentage increase from 140–157% over four years.

Red clover fits system

After initially trying plantain, the couple found red clover to be the forage that best suited their system. It grows 4t DM/ha more than the pasture it replaces and this generates average post-weaning lamb growth rates of 240gms/day.

Anna and Blair find growth rates in the red clover between October and December are explosive, and getting the right stocking rate to control this feed can be a challenge.

They admit It is a balancing act, as grazing too low allows white clover to dominate, but lax grazing results in a loss of pasture quality.

Setting targets

As part of the Innovation Farm programme, the couple worked with AgResearch scientist David Stevens and Farmax’s Graeme Ogle to set their initial gross margin target of $900/ha (up from $700/ha). They then broke this down to smaller targets around increasing animal performance in order to achieve this lift in profitability. Key performance indicators were used to help them track progress and these included mating weights, weaning percentages, overall losses of both ewes and hoggets, lamb growth rates, sale dates and value per head. Anna and Munta also gained a good understanding of how much drymatter they were growing and utilising.

Hogget productivity

Some of the greatest gains have been made in the Nelson’s hogget performance. The red clover has allowed them to lift the mating weight of their hoggets from 39kg to 49kg and their lambing percentage increased to 96%. An on-going abortion problem also disappeared.

Fine-tuning

Anna says they have been surprised at how hard it was to achieve what they set out to achieve.

“It took a lot of fine-tuning – but that’s what makes the difference in getting most out of your farm.”

They are spending a lot more on cropping – $105,000–$106,000 per annum compared to $48,000 in their old system – but this system change generated an extra $79,000 in 2014/15 and $145,000 in 2015/16.

This extra income is a result of the cumulative effect of an increased lambing percentage in both ewes and hoggets, increased lamb carcase weights and a shift in mean slaughter date by over a month earlier.

The couple stress the value of feeding young sheep, irrespective of whether they are mated or not. They need to reach a target two-tooth tupping weight, which for the Nelsons, is the same target as the mixed-age ewes.  

They say red clover suits their system, and while it can be complicated to manage, it is helping them achieve their animal production goals.

Some of the challenges they have encountered in the four-year project include underperforming forages, pests and weeds, and determining the best crop rotation.