I stayed in the same area today, so no map this time.
I’m very grateful to my first host, Matt Wyeth, who I phoned out of the blue at 7.30am to ask if I could visit that morning. He is a sheep and beef farmer living about 20km west of where I had been the day before. The landscape is much hillier, which means arable cropping is not possible. It also means that they get 1800mm of rainfall each year, over twice as much as yesterday’s nearby farms. The farm is 800ha, 650 ha of which is native grasses, and the rest is in a forage crop rotation. 7000 breeding ewes are the main residents, as well as a herd of 220 pedigree Angus cattle.
Matt has recently changed his forage rotation, and it is currently 5 years of plantain/red clover mix, followed by 1 year of rapeseed. This is a popular mix as the red clover works well in the summer, and the plantain stays active in the cooler winter temperatures – and it also has good drought resistance. The rape is drilled with a bit of fertiliser, grazed, fertilised, and grazed again. These fields are used in the winter to hold the cows as if the soil is damaged then it does not mater too much, as the field will be reseeded regardless.
As it happens I turned up on an interesting day, as a load of ewes were being weighed, drenched for worms, and vaccinated. This is a pretty intensively stocked farm, but there are only 2 and a bit men working on it. All the sheep have eID tags, which allows this super bit of kit to work.
This will automatically weigh 300 animals per hour, and as it can read the eID tags, the data is automatically recorded. A few clicks on the screen will show individual stats, like daily weight gain.
An automatic gate is linked in, so that animals that are either too light or too heavy can be separated into different pens. There were a few light animals, maybe 1%, which would be fattened and sold off. All the others will be replacement breeding stock.
This data allows some pretty clever optimisations. Lambs that grow well are put onto the slightly less nutritious grass, and the slower performers go onto the plantain. The idea is to even up the growth rates. In this batch the daily gain averaged 170g from grass – on plantain this can be as high as 300g. Matt aims for a lifetime rate (birth to slaughter) of 150g/day, and his best was 160g. To put this into perspective, the NZ average is 90g.
The system has a high stocking rate, with 12-13,000 livestock units on the farm every year. However it is set up very efficiently, so costs are kept low. The biggest expense is fertiliser, which was being applied today by a contractor.
All field work is done by contractors, including drilling. The Cross Slot debate comes up again here – “For the same price I can get 2.5ha direct drilled with a normal drill, or 1ha with a Cross Slot. Which is better?”. Matt is not a CS convert.
Before I left, a truck/lorry showed up to take some rams to the meat works. They get sent in at 40-45kg, depending on how good the grass is at the time. Prices are currently at NZ$120/£60, which is acceptable but not great.
I’m by no means a sheep expert, but this looked like an impressive operation to me. they were looking after a huge number of sheep with minimal work (per head – I’m sure plenty of hours are put in!), and getting a 7-8% return on capital which we could only dream of. If I was going to farm sheep it would have to be using a similar sort of system. Imagine trying to lamb 7000 ewes inside, UK style?
Next up I retraced my footsteps of the previous day, to Mark Guscott’s 800ha mixed farm. There is a local Jersey farm at home, and when the farmer there explains to me all the animal group they have, and how it all works, my head isn’t big enough to hold it all in. This place makes that look like child’s play, as they can have over 40 separate groups at any one time. Talk about management intensive.
Out of the 800ha, 600ha is hill grass. This holds 2400 ewes, plus another 4000 bought in lambs. 7000 lambs a year are finished here, and the rest kept as replacements. There are also a few hundred cattle – heifers, steers and bulls. Mark obviously doesn’t want a simple life.
The other 200ha is arable, 150ha of which is irrigated. You can see the circular pivot fields in the picture above. Some conventional crops are grown, like winter wheat (9t/ha), spring wheat (7t/ha), tiny little peas for seed (3.5t/ha), silage maize, and the fashionable plantain/clover mix.
More interestingly, there are some exotic seed crops grown here. Phacelia had just been cut yesterday, but the yield isn’t known yet. Kohlrabi is grown every year, and there are two fields growing hybrid sweetcorn and hybrid maize.
I’ve always wanted to see this. The tassels are removed from the female plants, so that they can only be pollinated by the thin strip of male plants. After pollination the males are destroyed, and the the female cobs picked by hand. It is a very labour intensive operation, and they even fly a helicopter up and down the field to increase the wind pollination [or is this what Mark tells gullible Poms?]. The rewards can be pretty incredible. A bumper maize crop last year resulted in a net margin of NZ$15,000/ha. If you think that is good, onion seed regularly nets NZ$20,000/ha. I’ll have some of that – I wish.
Big thanks to both Matt & Mark.
To finish off, I have just noticed that my visits tomorrow are in a different place to where I thought they were. That’s what happens when you get Wednesday and Thursday mixed up. Oops.