A complex, well-run operation

Stocking rates are high on award-winning Wairere Station. By Tony Leggett.

In Business, Livestock21 Minutes

Stocking rates are high on award-winning Wairere Station. By Tony Leggett.

WAIRERE OPERATES AT A VERY high overall stocking rate to create commercial pressure on the performance of its 5300 mixed-age and two-tooth ewes and 2500 mated ewe hoggets.

Stocking rates nudged 16 stock units/ hectare in the winter of 2020 and have averaged 14.5su/ha over the four years from 2017-2021.

About 3800 ewes (70% of the mature ewe flock) are fully recorded.

Hogget mating was introduced in 1966 by Derek’s father John and all hoggets are given the chance to get in lamb – regardless of climate, year or weight.

“It’s just another commercial pressure applied. We mate about 2500 with the aim of getting about 2000 in lamb,” Wairere business manager Simon Buckley says.

A big challenge for Wairere is coping with the need to hold a large number of ram lambs through the winter for potential ram sales later in the year.

Data specialist Emma Pettigrew helps with scanning.

“That’s one of the catalysts for developing quality pastures and applying plenty of fert, because if we didn’t, we couldn’t carry that number of young sheep.”

Anywhere between 1200-1800 ram hoggets are wintered along with up to 2500 ewe hoggets.

“Remember, those ram hoggets need to be fed well to achieve the right appearance at sale time. One year we hit 50kg in mid-July and there were celebrations, but now we’d regard 55kg in the wool as our benchmark.”

Before this year’s mating, recorded ewes were single sire mated and tagged at birth. Ram harnesses were changed every 10 days to give a 10-day ‘cycle’ for lamb birth date.

Ewes are weighed and scored for body condition before mating and again at scanning and at set stocking.

Lambs are tagged at docking and DNA sampled to determine their parentage for stud recording purposes.

Ewes are dagged in December, an initial round of culling occurs for feet, jaws and udders before shearing in late January and then a final culling based on records and performance, through the auto-drafter in March.

The station is always top of the list for stocking rate and feed demand in its local farm discussion group. Last autumn was no exception with just under 10,000 sheep and 573 cattle on its 1065ha effective area.

Wairere typically runs about 300 cows, described as “second-class citizens” but respected for the pasture grooming role they play in preparing quality feed for sheep. That jumped up this year to 400 cows when extras were bought in to clean off extra feed from the growthy autumn.

To help maintain that high winter carrying capacity of sheep, all cows are mated to terminal sires, with all progeny usually sold at weaning and replacement cows bought in.

Coping with that high stocking rate, particularly over the winter months, means being prepared to move stock off grazing or to slaughter cows. For the first time this spring, 200 ewes with lambs at foot were sold. Some years, cows have gone off to grazing as early as January.

But owner Derek Daniell says nitrogen has always been a go-to option. “That’s been a cheap source of supplementary feed, until now.”

He says the advantage for them with nitrogen is there is no work in it.

“The stock feed themselves, you just call the plane, the truck to deliver the fert and it’s done.”

In spite of the massive increases in fertiliser prices this year, Derek still chose to stay with his conventional fertiliser options.

“But I’m sure most of us will be reviewing just how much money we will spend now that fertiliser prices have risen so much. Or will we just destock?”

When new manager Jacob Mackie arrived in early June, just before scanning, covers were good and scanning produced 174% in the two-tooths and 180% for the mixed age ewes.

“Winter was pretty good like everywhere else, but then we started to get a lot of rain and that made things trickier,” he says.

Just before lambing started, urea was applied over the whole farm to boost covers under lambing ewes but cooler temperatures and more rain meant demand was still ahead of supply so ewe body condition score slipped through the first few weeks of lambing.

“I’m pleased the body condition score of our ewes has picked up a lot and lambs are starting to perform now,” Mackie said at the field day in mid-November.

Reliance on feed budgeting

Buckley says there is a strong reliance on feed budgeting, especially ahead of the winter, so they can adjust to suit by grazing stock off the farm, selling stock and using nitrogen.

They had a hole to fill in at the end of August early September which the nitrogen did. But then the projected spring growth just didn’t meet demand and they started to fall off the other side.

“So, it’s not seat of the pants stuff. There is a lot of planning behind sustaining that stocking rate.”

Death rate has been as low as 3.1% across the ewes and ewe hoggets and averaged 5.6% over the four years to 2021.

Bellies are left on when ewes are pre-lamb shorn. It helps improve daily shearing tallies and dry bellies are often challenging mid-winter. Though unproven, it is hoped that having that extra wool around the belly improves warmth and protection for the ewe and her lambs.

Genetics and data manager Emma Pettigrew says ewe lambs are assessed at the point of weaning. Their birth and rearing rank, dam’s production records, age at weaning, and weaning weight are all considered to determine if they are retained as a replacement.

The aim is to select about 500 ewe lambs born from hoggets as replacements and about 400 ram lambs for future sale.

She says the minimum weights at weaning for ewe lambs to be retained varies year on year from mature ewes. It is roughly 32kg for singles with a good dam background, 25kg for twins, and 22kg for triplets.

All replacements born to mature ewes are mob stocked and rotationally grazed from weaning until set stocking pre-lamb.

Minimum weights for hogget-born lambs are 25kg for singles and 21kg for twins. All of these are weaned before Christmas. Lambs born to hoggets are sent off grazing from weaning until pre-mating.

Selecting lambs born to hoggets as replacements improves the rate of genetic gain by reducing the generation interval and increasing the selection pressure.

The total number of hoggets mated has varied from a low of 2200 to a high of 2950. Pre-mating, teasers are run with them for one to two cycles and mating starts on April 24, for two reproductive cycles, until May 28. They are mated to the highest index ram lambs, at a ratio of 1:40.

Owner Derek Daniell says the catalyst for earlier mating was to be able to wean by Christmas at more than 60 days of age. This was so they fit in better with the new grazing management system for lambs and also to exceed the minimum weaning age to be able to slaughter through lamb exporter Lean Meats.

“Mating 10 days earlier than we had previously made no difference in the scanning percentage and we got fewer bearings, so fewer deaths,” he says.

Ewe lambs are shorn at weaning, then full belly crutched in April before mating. During late pregnancy they are shorn, but bellies are left on.

Scanning percentages have ranged from 90-121% to the number of hoggets mated. Of those in lamb, twinning rate has ranged from 26-40%.

Pettigrew says from 2005-2019 all scanned dry hoggets have been culled, except for one year.

“Since 2020 we have retained up to 8% dry hoggets after scanning.”

Hoggets are not shepherded at lambing in some of the more exposed areas of Wairere.

No lambing beats since 1966 has bred 57 years of easy-care into Wairere Romneys. Previously only twin-bearing hoggets were mothered up to give credit for them lambing, with singles being wet-dried.

“We did two years of full mothering up for all our hoggets, and matched their sire by DNA verification, but this year we have changed to full DNA parentage.”

Overall, the weaning rate has ranged from 52-71% based on the number of hoggets mated. Average weaning weights are 28kg for singles and 24-25kg for twins, although many of these are reared as singles.

“Our average mating weight is the main issue here. It has usually ranged from 42-43kg, including 2kg of wool.”

Lamb survival is impacted by lambing at high altitude in a windy area. Investigations into trace elements, birth weights, Smart Shot B12, and selenium have shown no obvious response in lamb survival.

Daniell is content to put his sheep under pressure, particularly the ewe hoggets.

“It’s obvious that we run our sheep pretty hard and we could grow out our ewe hoggets bigger. That’s what top farmers are doing and getting great results,” he says.

“We choose to keep the pressure on, so when they get to a better environment with better feeding, they respond very positively to that. In better hands, they really can perform at another level up from here.

“Many of our Wairere clients consistently dock 100% plus.”

Drench resistance overcome

A policy of drenching as little as possible failed to halt a slide into triple drench resistance for the Wairere business five years ago.

In spite of being the country’s largest ram breeding business, the Wairere team acknowledged the challenge openly and set about dealing with it.

Resistance was discovered when one of their grazier-joint venture partners in King Country noticed a mob of ram lambs were showing signs of parasite overload.

Wairere manager at the time, Sam O’Fee, says further investigation showed several factors led to the problem, including the high sheep ratio and the particularly high number of young stock at Wairere.

Other factors were the practice of drenching all animals within each age group, rather than leaving some undrenched in a practice known as refugia, and having a huge influx of young stock in the spring plus carrying home-bred rams right through the year.

They tapped into advice from several experts including former AgResearch expert Dr Dave Leathwick, Massey University scientist Dr Anne Ridler, who were supported by their local veterinarian, initially Stu Bruere and more recently Craig Dickson plus the Keinzley AgVet team.

O’Fee says they wanted to stick with the principle of not favouring animals b only drenching part of a mob and they also wanted to minimise production losses through less drenching, but still grow young stock to their full potential.

The biggest change implemented was their lamb grazing policy.

The aim is to reduce the lamb number from about 7500 weaned to 4500-5000 lambs by about January 12. Culling starts with identifying lambs during lambing, and at docking and weaning.

Ram lambs then run in mobs of about 800 ahead of mobs of ewes which “scoff up” the worm larvae left behind. It is difficult to do, especially if conditions turn dry because once the ewes have been through and left it short, it’s very hard to get it back to good lamb feed.

“We also upped the cattle ratio, initially with more trade animals, and more recently extra cows,” he says.

They adopted DNA-based technology to identify lamb parentage and that allowed them to rotate ewes through what was previously designated ram country rather than single sire mate them for up to 45 days, during a phase O’Fee describes as ‘Wormageddon’ on any sheep farm.

They introduced susceptible worms to Wairere by not quarantine-drenching rams from farms with a known better drench status and ensured all the staff were trained in correct drenching techniques.

“We also made sure we drenched to the heaviest animal in each mob.”

O’Fee says every farmer should know their drench status, either by way of a simple 10-day drench check or regular faecal egg count reduction testing (FECRT) two or three times each year.

Triples are now effective again at Wairere and were used from weaning onward last spring. However, they will avoid any complacency by continuing to monitor the status.

Drenching with just the two ‘novel’ active ingredient drenches, Zolvix and Startect, as a routine is not the right approach to avoiding resistance. O’Fee says avoiding long-acting capsules was another decision made in the wake of resistance emerging.

He advocates strongly for farmers to know the drench status of their stock, to not ignore the issue and to seek help from veterinarians or Wormwise.

“There are lots of tools in the box to use. We chose not to pursue breeding for worm resistance because we were sceptical that something that breeds once per year can keep up with something that breeds every 21 days.

“Triple drench resistance is not a death sentence but you have to be prepared to make the hard decisions and implement as many tools as you can.”

Zolvix has been used as an entry and exit drench until this when Startect was introduced as an exit drench in April.

The winning team

A big team supports the Wairere farm and stud business.

Manager Jacob Mackie and his wife Heather arrived on Queens Birthday weekend last year (2022), taking over from Sam O’Fee who was managing the farm when it won the Wairarapa Farm Business of the Year award.

Wairere business manager Simon Buckley has been at Wairere for the past 36 years. Owner Derek Daniell describes his relationship with Simon as a partnership, especially the first 28 years when they worked closely together at the farm.

The first of a group of younger generation managers was Jacques Reichart who was followed by Anna Vaughan from Canterbury, then Sam O’Fee and now Mackie.

Head shepherd at Wairere is Luke Wilkins, now in his fourth year, Bryden Henson looks after infrastructure, and three shepherds Grace Blyth in her third year, and recent starters Libby Donald and Ella McWilliam complete the team. Emma Pettigrew looks after data and genetics and office manager is Lynette Towler.

Two staff are responsible for ram client liaison within New Zealand. Andrew Heriot, who farms near Gore and runs his own livestock agency business, looks after the South Island, and former farm manager Rob Stratton, originally from Taihape and now living on his own small block near Feilding, covers the North Island. Looking after international sales and managing Wairere Australia is Pierre Syben.

Ownership of Wairere was recently moved to a corporate trust. Daniell is a trustee along with his son Josh and accountant Brett Woofindin.

No definite plan is in place for succession of the business. Daniell says there are millions of businesses run by managers rather than owners, and he has explored several options including sale as a going concern, selling the sheep but keeping the farm and bringing in equity partners.

A coming move is to put the Wairere Australia property and business on the market in the next few months. Syben is returning to NZ early next year and a sale would allow debt to be eliminated in NZ and help the Daniell family start or grow a business.