Small changes making a big difference

Small management changes are having a big impact on the Hodgen family's North Canterbury sheep operation.

Despite having been in the grip of drought for the best part of four years, the family of Mike and Jan and their two adult children Dan and Nicky, say their sheep have come out of the drought better than when they went in. This is thanks to some low-cost management changes that have had a profound effect on their whole farm system.

"If we hadn't made those changes the drought would have hurt a lot more," says Dan.

"I didn't expect them to work as well as they did."

The family are benefiting from their processor's involvement in the Red Meat Profit Partnership programme, which has given participating farmers access to a farm consultant – which in the Hodgen's case, is Canterbury-based Jansen Travis.

Jansen's input has been a game-changer and rather than make wholesale changes on the 575ha operation, he has encouraged the family to simply shift their focus away from finishing lambs in summer to better feeding their 3,500 Kelso Romney ewes. The results have been instant. Within the first year, scanning percentages had lifted by 24% to 151% (in the middle of a drought) and lambing percentages and lamb growth rates have also increased.

More importantly, they are making much more effective and efficient use of their feed resources by partitioning it into priority stock, resulting in improved performance and significant feed savings.

They prioritise ewe lambs, with two-tooths coming second and light ewes third. Growing out younger stock will allow them, as ewes, to express their genetic potential in fertility and lactation. This in turn drives lamb growth rates and allow more lambs to be finished prime off their mothers.

Saving summer feed

Mike says they used to take real pride in finishing all of their lambs to 18kg and while they have always had around 80% of their lambs finished at weaning, it was their determination to finish the balance in their summer dry environment that impacted negatively on the whole farm system.

Jansen calculated that it required 60,660kg DM to finish all of their lambs to 17.5kgCW which at a value of 15-18C /Kg DM, meant it was costing $10,918 in feed alone.

"That's a lot of money at a time when we are really struggling to grow that feed," says Dan – and this isn't taking into account the damage that is done to pastures by over-grazing them.

The lambs were being finished at the expense of ewe condition and this was reflected in scanning and lambing results that were gradually trending downwards. Seven years ago, when they changed to the Kelso Romney genetics, the ewes were lambing over 160%, but this was dropping every year.

The change of policy to sell all lambs by the middle of December – prime or store – has turned this around. It has allowed limited summer feed resources to be partitioned into growing out ewe lambs and maintaining and lifting ewe body condition.

Financially, they are better off selling a proportion of their lambs as store. As the Hodgen's' lamb early in August, they are selling both store lambs and cull ewes on a stronger, early season market and having the ability to grow out ewe lambs gives them the option of mating this class of stock – generating extra income. Mating hoggets will be a flexible policy depending on the season and this year the hoggets were mated and went to ram weighing 48kg.

Ram harness revelation

Regularly monitoring and measuring ewe lamb weight and ewe body condition score is also enabling the family to be more strategic with their feed, giving higher feed-value forages to animals that respond to it- rather than making fat ewes fatter. Dan says they are now striving to maintain ewe body condition at around 3-3.5 throughout the year and this does mean regularly running their hand over their ewes.

The use of ram harnesses has also resulted in some surprising results. They found 93% of the ewes were mated in their first cycle and so could be put straight back onto maintenance feed with a follow-up ram.

"It's phenomenal how much feed we have saved for the price of ram harness and crayon," says Dan.

The ewes will remain marked, and at set-stocking, will be run in their mating dates. This means they are not set-stocking earlier than they need to and management over lambing is much more targeted.

Forages

This year they have, for the first time, grown a 5ha crop of fodder beet and this will be used for wintering ewes for around 70 days from June 1.

Dan says they have budgeted on growing a 15T/ha crop and this will enable them to winter a lot of animals within a small area. This allows them to save and build pastures for lambing and having plenty of good quality grass in spring drives lactation and lamb growth rates, maximising their weaning drafts.

The extended drought has necessitated the renewal of many of the run-out pastures on the farm and this year the family has drilled 70 ha of Tama short-rotation ryegrass. This will be grazed in May and June and is expected to generate a lot of feed over spring and they will be using this feed at lambing.

In the future, their permanent pasture mixes will include more drought tolerant pasture species such as prairie grass and bromes with less reliance on ryegrass.

Under the RMPP programme, the family carried out whole-farm soil tests, identifying the nutrient status of the entire farm in one-hit, rather than on a paddock-by-paddock basis.

Mike says the results were pleasantly surprising and resulted in fertiliser savings to the tune of $20,000- which more than pays for costs of the tests. They intend doing a whole-farm test every seven years and paddock tests in the years between.

Drought recovery

Significant rain over autumn has broken the drought and the family are now in recovery phase. Having made management changes during the drought, they are well-placed to maximise ewe performance. This means their recovery will be much faster than it would otherwise have been.

Dan believes getting the right advice has been critical to their success.

"Getting a good farm advisor- that's the key to it."

They are now in the final year of the three year RMPP programme, but intend continuing on with their farm advisor and further refining their farm system to maximise stock performance and farm profitability.