Matt and Natalie McRae

Getting the score right

Setting up a series of body condition scoring projects has helped the McRae farming family improve meat production.

Matt and Natalie McRae and Matt's brother Joe manage Eilean Donan, a 620-hectare farm spread over two blocks seven kilometres apart in Southland's Mokoreta Valley.

The farm, an Alliance Group supplier and pilot farm for the Red Meat Profit Partnership, has been in the family for more than a century. Matt returned in 2012 after working in banking, with Joe joining early in 2016, but neither had extensive farming experience.

As part of the pilot, the McRaes are working with agribusiness consultant Deane Carson on a project to find the best ways to lift productivity – including getting lambs to a good weight for processing faster, and improving survival rates.

One of the first steps was to analyse data from the farm's 2014 and 2015 seasons, which showed the number of lambs killed before early February was significantly lower than the average for Deane's clients. In the 2014-2015 season, less than two percent of lambs were killed before Christmas. By the end of March, 52 per cent of works lambs were killed, with the remainder killed in April.

Carrying high numbers of lambs through much of summer and autumn has numerous impacts on the farming system – including more feed required to grow lambs to slaughter weights compared with farms that get a high proportion of lambs away at weaning.

Higher ratios of lambs to ewes through the autumn increases the level of parasite burden on the farm. It also means less food is available to maintain ewe condition, which has implications for next season's production.

Lambing percentage (survival to sale) on the farm had also been around 140 per cent over the previous three years - but applying average industry lamb survival rates to the pregnancy scanning results indicated a lambing percentage of around 150% was achievable.

Ewe condition and feeding have been shown to influence the milking ability of the ewe and the McRae's wanted to establish if ewe condition body condition score (BCS) or pasture cover were most critical to improving lamb growth during lactation.

Before set stocking in 2015, Deane helped them set up a trial to see how body condition scoring (BCS) could increase the productivity of ewes. Following scanning, 300 twin-carrying ewes were body scored and divided into three mobs.

A control group, with a BCS of 2.5 was set stocked with 1200kg of dry matter per hectare. A second group with the same BCS was put onto 1600kg of dry matter per hectare and the final group, with a BCS of 3 was also put on 1200kg of dry matter per hectare. Feed budgets and monitoring of pasture growth have also been introduced to help ensure plenty of feed to maintain stock condition throughout winter months.

Results from this significant effort to lift the BCS of ewes are a 10 per cent increase in lambs from the high condition ewes coming through to tailing. At weaning, their lambs averaged 4kg liveweight more than the lambs from the ewes on higher pasture covers, and 5.4kg liveweight more than the control group lambs.

In 2016, the McRae's have made a conscious effort to lift ewe body condition score through summer and to maintain ewe condition through the winter. At mating, ewes were between body condition score three and four. Scanning lifted 18% and at tailing a lambing percentage of 150% was recorded from the ewes.

Matt says that being part of RMPP is proving valuable to their operation.

"It's given us access to knowledge, experience and expertise and confidence to invest in continued measures to lift productivity."