Keeping Score

Chris and Andrea Bulleid make a formidable farm management team.

Through simple management changes, the productivity of the Southland couple’s Romney ewe flock has leapt ahead over the past four years.  

It was their decision to join Alliance’s Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) programme two years ago that motivated them to move faster in the direction they were already heading with farm consultant Deane Carson.

They also credit a two-day RMPP conference earlier this year for spurring them on even further.

“We came back absolutely fizzing, it motivated us and gave us confidence about the future of our industry and how we can be part of the solution,” says Chris.

Confidence gained by the farm’s lift in sheep productivity prompted the decision by the couple to reduce their reliance on dairy support and focus instead on their own capital stock comprising 4100 ewes, 1200 hoggets and 36 beef-cross breeding cows.

 Chris says he had always heard the adage that it’s 90 per cent feeding and 10 per cent breeding and the past few years has convinced him that this is indeed the case.

The couple, who farm 832ha of mixed terrain just outside Lumsden, has implemented a policy of body condition scoring and strategic feeding their ewes.

Combined with small changes such as changing the lambing and weaning dates, this has seen their lambing percentage lift from 120% to 146% in just four seasons.

Andrea says they are now focusing on the bottom 25% of their ewe flock and by identifying and strategically managing these ewes, they have significantly lifted the performance of the whole flock.

“We used to look at the whole flock and think that they look pretty good, but you really can’t tell without putting your hand on their back and physically touching the sheep.”

Andrea and Chris body condition score all of their 4100 ewes in late February and this gives them sufficient time to lift the body condition of lighter ewes before the rams go out in April. These ewes are given the best quality grass in what is a simple grass and winter feed-crop system.

The couple budget on a 100-day winter where they will have little or no pasture growth, so the ewes are run onto feed crops in mid-July and stay on them until early September. This allows autumn-saved pasture to be carried over to ensure the ewes are lambing onto good pasture covers in September.

“If we have a good August, the grass can come away early, but we can have a 100-day winter,” says Chris.

In line with the lift in ewe fertility, Chris and Andrea began scanning their ewes three years ago. Last year, they just identified twins and singles, this year they identified triplets as well. Again, this allows for the strategic management of ewes based on their nutritional requirements and the triplet-bearing ewes – 130 sets this year – are pulled off the feed crop and wintered on grass.

This year they have brought the lambing date forward by one week and they are now weaning earlier, in mid-December rather than in the New Year

Andrea says the lambs always started going backwards over that Christmas period as grass quality began to decline. Schedule prices also began to fall over this time and it was something of a downward spiral.

While the number of lambs they are selling prime at the weaning draft has increased from 250 eight years ago to 1000 last year, they are also committed to selling a proportion of their lambs as store.

Chris says the farm’s shallow soils can dry out very quickly in summer, so selling lambs store frees up available feed for getting condition back on ewes. If feed is plentiful over summer, they have options of buying in trading stock or conserve surpluses.

After weaning, the ewes are run onto the steeper hill country. In another management change, the couple is separating the two and four-tooth ewes out and running these sheep in a separate mob.

Through body condition scoring, Andrea and Chris has found that these sheep tend to be the lighter ones, so separating them out gives them the opportunity to recover body condition without mob pressure.

The couple has been farming what was Andrea’s family farm for eight years. Since taking over they upgraded much of the infrastructure and to help finance this, they grazed 400 dairy cows and 150 dairy heifers on a May to May contract.

Now, having lifted the productivity of their ewes, they are removing dairy support from their system and are partitioning this feed – and labour – into ewes, hoggets and a re-introduced breeding cow herd and their progeny.

Next year, the Bulleids will be mating their hoggets for the first time and will be aiming to have them going to the ram at 48-50kg.  This year their hoggets (weighing an average 44kg in March) were awarded third place in the ewe hogget competition and this confirmed to them that they do have the genetics, feed and management in place to grow their ewe lambs out to mating weights.

Chris says they feed their replacement ewe lambs as well as they feed their finishing lambs – now they just need to see a return on this feed by making these sheep productive.

Having made such big productivity gains in the past four years, they are keen to share their experiences with other farmers. They would like to see a benchmarking database made available so farmers can compare their farm performance with others on similar land-types.