Nathan and Marilyn Parris

Nathan and Marilyn Parris are 'in clover' for the first time, their lamb weights and ewe body condition scores have lifted and they've made a lot more baleage.

The couple are part of Alliance Group's Red Meat Profit Partnership pilot farm programme, which is helping them to improve pasture quality and lamb production on their Tuatapere farm in Southland.

As the major prong of their pilot farm project, they were keen to learn from high performing farmers and Alliance Group suggested Peter Horrell, from a neighbouring farm, as a mentor. Nathan wanted high performing farmer, now farm adviser Keith Milne involved and the first visit was made to the Parris' farm in July 2015.

Nathan is off a North Auckland sheep, cattle and deer farm. After university, he worked in the dairy industry for four years followed by 18 months on a mixed cropping farm. Over this time, Marilyn worked as an animal nutrition technician for PGG Wrightson. They then travelled briefly before returning to run Marilyn's parents' 450-hectare block of Waiau River flats and terraces north of Tuatapere for six years. The land is free draining, although it dries off quickly in dry spells, and all sheep are grass wintered.

They have been working to upgrade pastures and fences to gradually increase stock and this season are carrying around 3,700 ewes, 940 hoggets, 130 R2 beef cattle heifers and 200 calves.

Improving lamb growth was a priority. Four years ago, they made a switch from a Coopworth flock to a composite Coopworth-Texel cross, as they had found the straight Coopworth required too much feeding and they knew a Texel cross would increase lamb carcase yields.

Through an analysis of their kill sheets for 2014, good opportunities were identified to improve lamb growth, both pre and post weaning, enabling them bring their lamb kill forward so they could finish all their lambs.

Improving pasture quality was identified as the first step. A lack of clover growth was a problem and an advisor's observation followed by herbage testing identified a significant molybdenum deficiency – so Nathan took steps to address that. The couple already knew, from previous Optigrow tests, that the farm was deficient in cobalt but hadn't had much success with repeated use of injectable Vitamin B12. Peter suggested a combination of dusting and spraying cobalt sulphate on pastures instead. Initial testing this year has shown cobalt levels in stock are in the optimum range – and spraying costs are less than injections.

Peter and Keith also worked with Nathan and Marilyn to set up several paddocks specifically to finish lambs, post-weaning. Strategic use of cattle, topping and increasing stocking rates on these preselected paddocks during November kept the grass level down to lessen the competition for light and space, thus encouraging clover growth.

GrassCo has been measuring pasture covers every two weeks during the growing season. Pasture cover information is emailed to Nathan and copied to Peter and Keith – who can then make suggestions if they think any tweaks to the system might be needed.

This will also provide vital data on growth patterns to use for reference purposes in the future.

Twelve months into the programme and Nathan and Marilyn are really seeing results. The overall kg of lamb killed per hectare is ahead by nine percent, with all lambs finished on farm.

Their average kill date was at least a month earlier than in 2014-2015 with a higher average carcase weight. At scanning, the farm had a pasture cover of 2200kg DM/ha and ewes were one body condition score higher than the previous year.

Two tooth's and light ewes scanned 20% and 13% higher respectively than in 2015 and they have sold 600 bales of baleage and have 300 bales on hand - equivalent to 198t DM.

Nathan says the mentors' knowledge and familiarity with local conditions has been key to the improvements they have made on farm, providing a fresh perspective. Their aim now is to continue improvements and lift performance year on year.