Matt and Natalie McRae

Young Guns

For Matt and Joe McRae, getting their ewes to perform at a consistently high level is their number one goal.

The young Southland brothers- who farm their 575-hectare effective rolling hill country farm “Eilean Donan” in partnership – are aiming to have their ewes lambing over 150% year-after-year and more importantly, grow those lambs to maximise their kilogram of product produced per hectare.

“The lambing percentage is only one part of it, it’s the product out the gate that pays the bills”, says Matt.

The brothers took over management of their family farm in the Mokoreta Valley, near Wyndham, four years ago and have been part of Alliance’s Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) programme for just over two years.

 Matt says being part of the programme has given them the opportunity to network and learn from other farmers within their region. Most importantly, it has helped them identify the factors that were limiting their ewes’ performance and make changes that have driven their business forward.

Ultimately, Matt and Joe are aiming to lift farm productivity by realising the genetic potential of their 4150 Romney Texel ewes.

“We had always been lambing in the mid 140 per cent, and some years were better or worse than others. But what we wanted was to be consistently lambing over 150 per cent. We knew that the ewes could do it, but it was the consistency that eluded us,” says Matt.

Prior to joining the RMPP programme, the pair had starting using local farm consultant Deane Carson, and continued to work with him throughout the programme.

One of the main focuses was lifting the average body condition score (BCS) of their ewes from an average of 2.5 to 3 and maintaining it there throughout the year.

To determine the importance of ewe condition, they ran an on-farm trial to tease out whether pasture covers or ewe body condition had the greatest impact on driving the kilograms of lamb weaned.

Matt says 300 twin bearing ewes- half with a BCS of 2.5 and the other half with a BCS of 3 – were set-stocked on different pasture covers of 1200kg DM/ha and 1600kg DM/ha.

The BCS 3 ewes grazing the lower pasture covers weaned more kilograms of lamb than the lighter ewes grazing higher pasture covers – 548kg/ha compared to 494kg/ha.

“The BCS 3 ewes surprised us the most by weaning 10% more lambs than the other mob” says Matt.

The McRae’s have since focused on ewe condition, and last year they achieved 150 percent lambing across everything. Their main mob lambed a record-breaking 155 per cent.

To achieve these results, the brothers put their hands on every ewe in January to give each animal a BCS.

“It sounds like a big job, but when you see the results it is worth the effort,” says Matt.

Anything not close to a BCS 3 is taken out and preferentially fed quality pasture, rather than being made to clean up paddocks, as is the case with the ewes on maintenance rations.

To ensure they have feed available for their breeding stock, the pair monitor autumn pasture covers and are prepared to sell their lambs at slightly lighter weights than in the past, focusing on total production rather than averages.

Although they are still killing out at a respectable average of 18.0kgCW. 

Hogget production increases

It is a step-change in the productivity of their 1180 hoggets on the back of RMPP-driven management changes that has surprised Matt the most.

Through small changes to management and increasing the number of rams they ran with these ewe lambs at mating, the hoggets lambed 95 per cent (to the ram), up 20 per cent on the previous year.

Measuring is now a critical part of Matt and Joe’s farm management. Where they used to assess livestock condition and dry matter by eye, they are now also putting their hands on their ewes to measure body condition and having pasture covers measured at important times of the year.

Matt says they get a professional in to measure the pasture covers and give them a snapshot of where the farm is at feed-wise. This information is used to formulate feed budgets and underpin management decisions.

“If we have the numbers, we can more confidently make decisions.  We still use our eye a lot for day- to-day management, but measuring has given us some confidence without having years of experience to call on.”

Feed budgets help maintain ewe body condition as Matt and Joe know exactly what the ewes are being offered and how much they are eating.

Winter feed crops, namely swedes and fodder beet, take up eight per cent of the farm area. Matt says they have only been growing fodder beet for two years, but both sheep and cattle (230 dairy heifers and 50 beef cross steers) seem to love it and do really well on it. The sheep, in particular, seem very content on the crop and Matt would like to grow more if they can ensure they can see a return on their investment.

The third McRae brother Tim runs an adjacent dairy farm and there is a degree of integration between the two enterprises, with Matt and Joe providing dairy support and growing 120t of whole crop cereal silage for the dairy unit.

Matt says that by working together, with their partners in a diversified farm business, they have helped each other get ahead.