Exceptional stockmanship and attention to detail are some of the key features of an award winning Taihape farming business. Russell Priest reports. Photos by Brad Hanson.

Good genetics and keeping pastures in their vegetative state are also crucial to Anna and Brian Coogan.

It is a recipe which has served the couple well and was instrumental in them winning the 2019 National Ewe Hogget Competition.

However, it is the way their sheep enterprise is integrated with a dairy dry stock component (70% sheep, 30% cattle) that is different and enables the sheep to perform at such an exceptional level.

Brian and Anna Coogan with Mt. Ruapehu in the background.

The Coogans won the competition on their third attempt but what is significant is that they won the flock production section of the competition for two of the last three years. The competition is judged on four criteria: Flock production, phenotype, breeding objectives and wool.

Brian’s pasture and stock management is exemplary considering much of the farm is hill country and in native grasses. Pastures are grazed using what he describes as a “shuffle-grazing” system based on what he believes is the optimum time to shift his animals.

He is gifted with the innate ability of knowing when stock need to be moved to optimise performance.

That gift is worth big money to their business. In 2019/20 from a 160% lambing the Coogans killed 91.5% of their lambs off their mothers by mid-January at an average carcaseweight of 19.71kg and an average return of $159.07. Their average live weight was 42.5kg.

The Coogans farm 384ha (360ha effective) at Mataroa about 10km north-west of Taihape at an altitude between 550m and 704masl. Of the 384ha, 121ha is leased.

The Coogan name has been synonymous with the area since Brian’s great-great grandfather Lawrence settled in the area in 1890. His grandfather also known as Lawrence in partnership with his brother Daniel bought the original 80ha block known as Brady’s in 1930.

Contour varies between flat-to-undulating (70ha) through rolling-to-strongly rolling (93ha) to moderately steep-to-steep (182ha) and steep (39ha) hill country.

The area is regarded as summer safe with an annual rainfall of 1000mm most of which comes from the south-southwest. Soils are predominantly ash or clay/papa with the flat-to-undulating country being Ohakune silt loam, the rolling country Mangaweka silt loam and the steep country Taihape Steepland soil.

On average, two falls of snow are expected annually of about 50mm in depth.

“The early lambing country is particularly exposed to the weather however it is some of our best finishing country,” Brian says.

“You have to take the good with the bad.”

Tough criteria to make A team

The Coogans run a three-flock system (A and B flocks and five-year ewes) with only the A flock generating replacements. The flock breeding objectives are to produce a robust, easy-care, strongly maternal sheep that is capable of getting in lamb early, weaning heavy lambs and achieving as a minimum an 80%-85% POM (processed off mum). Wool is still important to the Coogans so producing as much high quality fibre as possible is also an objective.

The B flock includes dry and wet-dry hoggets, A flock ewes that have scanned a single or have conceived to the Suftex ram or have wool of an unacceptable type/quality. If numbers permit any B flock ewes that have had two singles are culled from this flock and killed as are any wet-dries.

Brian’s set of selection criteria for entry into his A flock would have to be one of the most demanding in the business. The selection pressure he applies and the ram genetics he uses are major contributors to the flock’s high level of performance.

“It’s all very well demanding a whole lot of stuff from your ram breeder however as a commercial farmer you’ve got to continue to apply this selection pressure in your own flock.”

Selection pressure begins at birth when only twin-scanned ewe lambs born within the first 20 days of mating are eligible for A-flock selection. These are grown as rapidly as possible to be mated on May 1 at a cut-off weight of 44-45kg. When pasture quality starts to decline in the summer the smaller ewe lambs are fed on a 5ha rape crop to lift their weights in readiness for mating. They go back onto pasture in the autumn.

“We struggle to get lambs to grow well over the summer so growing a crop enables us to grow them at 270g/day and get them up to weight for mating.”

Last year’s average ewe hogget weight in mid-April was a whopping 50.35kg. On November 22 last year about 200 hoggets rearing single lambs were weighed to provide information for the Coogans’ field day. Their average weight was 65kg.

Ewe hoggets selected for mating must also be structurally sound and have an acceptable physical appearance, wool type and quality.

Hoggets are mated to Wairere rams at a ratio of 1:30 for 30 days. Last year’s scanning was 129% and for the first time their docking percentage cracked 100 (103%). Only one hogget died as a result of dystocia.

About 500 hoggets go to the ram and any that are dry are wintered and go into the B flock. Brian commented that even though these are heavier at mating as two-tooths than their contemporaries that have lambed as hoggets they are never as productive. Any wet-dry hoggets also go into the B flock. Brian used to mate the hoggets to Suftex rams however the lambs were significantly bigger than the straight Romneys and caused more lambing problems so the practice ceased.

To be eligible for the A flock a hogget must have weaned a lamb and to remain in the flock must continue to scan at least twins annually and rear at least one of these. Ewes must also have acceptable wool quality and any that develop structural faults like bad feet/ footrot or poor constitution are killed as are any wet dries. Unlike many farmers preferential treatment is not given to light-conditioned ewes. Any that can’t regain condition after weaning are culled.

All mating mobs are exposed to teaser rams at a ratio of 1:300 for 17 days before the entire rams go out. Five-year and B flock ewes are mated to Suftex rams at a ratio of 1: 90-100 for 40 days (rams are harnessed after 20 days). Mating begins on March 5 for the former and on April 6 for the latter. A flock ewes go to Wairere Romney rams at a similar ratio also on April 6 for 20 days then to harnessed Suftex rams for another 20 days. Normally only about 3.5% of ewes take the ram after 20 days.

This policy means Brian is breeding his replacement females from the most fertile, fecund and consistent breeders in his A flock while maximising the effect of hybrid vigour in the later cycling ewes. He maintains this effect is worth between 1-2kg extra carcaseweight and virtually eliminates the occurrence of tail-end Romney lambs.

“With this system you don’t have a lot of surplus ewe lambs hanging around over summer nor a large number of replacement females to choose from. We only have about 150 surplus ewe hoggets.”

Using the harness is a management tool which enables Brian to identify the late lambers, lamb them separately and get his docking underway without having to wait for them to lamb.

Cashing in on early premiums

Heavy use of Suftex rams not only generates higher carcaseweights but also better growth rates.

This allows Brian to kill many of his works lambs for early season premiums.

Central to Brian’s successful lamb drafting strategy is his belief that lambs grow better while on their mothers so he tries to draft as many off mum as possible. His one-year ewes are lambed on the early country with most of their Suftex cross lambs being killed woolly off mum by the end of November. The one-year ewes are killed at weaning and attract an early season premium.

Romney ewe lambs are weaned in mid-December and shorn along with the ewes and the twin Romney ram lambs. The latter are reunited with their mothers after shearing for a month before most are killed in mid-January along with the majority of the unshorn Suftex lambs from the B flock. Most of the single woolly male Romney lambs are POM before Christmas. Hogget lambs are weaned in mid-January.

Ewes are shorn again at the end of May and hoggets in June. Hogget lambs and any remaining Suftex cross lambs are shorn in mid-January.

Immediately after weaning most of the works ewes are identified and killed. The remaining ewes are then shuffle-grazed for a month before having their udders palpated. Brian has only been doing this for the last 4-5 years and maintains it is one of the reasons his lamb survivability has improved. Each year he culls about 3% of his ewes with unsound udders. Having completed this task the ewes are dipped and continue to be shuffle grazed throughout the rest of the summer until flushing begins. Brian tries to maintain the condition on the ewes over summer and if he is able to flush them he considers this a bonus.

Ewes and hoggets are shuffle grazed over the winter in four mobs (A and B flocks, 5-yr ewes and hoggets) until being set stocked about a month before lambing; the old ewes in July, the A and B flock ewes in August and the hoggets in September. All ewes and lambing hoggets receive a drench capsule and an 8-in-1 jab before lambing.

One of Brian’s aims is to achieve his winter carrying capacity as early as possible in the New Year. By mid-January most of his works lambs are killed and his replacement ewe hoggets are selected. And by mid/late February his export heifers and carry-over cows will have gone freeing up Brian to do some off-farm fencing and building stock yards.

Brian’s number one trait is survivability as he believes a dead lamb is a total loss. Both ewes and hoggets are scanned for singles, twins and dries. Average scanning results for the last three years for the former are 178.6% and the latter 132% while their three-year average lambing percentages are 160.6 and 97.3 respectively.

Brian is well aware his ewes deliver significant numbers of triplets however he sees no advantage in farming and lambing them separately (lambed with twin-bearing ewes) as he is achieving excellent lamb slaughter weights using his current, simple system. High paddock docking percentages of around 200 would suggest triplet survival is high.

One purchase Brian will not skimp on in his business is that of rams. He maintains top rams are cheap for what they produce. He buys Wairere Romney rams in the top price bracket based on their maternal index. His selection criteria include structurally sound, open-face active rams that have high fertility and fecundity (must be at least a twin), weaning weight, survivability, and wool weight together with an acceptable type. His Suftex rams are sourced from within the Elite Index group in the Morton’s Paki-iti stud. Traits targeted include structural soundness, high weaning weights and survivability.

Carry-over cows groom pastures

Pivotal to Brian’s pasture management strategy particularly over the spring-summer period are 110 carry-over dairy cows and 85 export dairy heifers.

Spread out among ewes and lambs during the spring, their role is to maintain pasture quality for younger stock and in particular replacement ewe lambs and those finishing lambs remaining after mid-January.

Carry-over cows have been run for the last 7-8 years and Brian believes they complement the sheep enterprise particularly well.

“When the ewes are weaned off the early country the pastures tend to explode so we use the cows to control this growth and prepare feed for any lambs we have left.”

Three, four and five-year old quality, empty, low-conditioned cows of high genetic merit (top 20% on Breeding Worth Index) sourced from the Manawatu and Bay of Plenty come onto their farm in April/May. On arrival they are introduced to dogs, given a quarantine drench and are re-pregnancy tested to ensure they are empty and that their reproductive tracts are sound. Once they have got used to some easy contour they are introduced to some of the steeper country. Brian doesn’t believe in pampering them – they are there to do a job.

Twenty hectares of pasture is shut up (after ewes and lambs are weaned) for mating the cows to Hereford bulls. This begins on June 6 and lasts for six weeks after which they are break fed on a 10ha crop of kale supplemented with balage for two months. Bales are laid strategically amongst the crop during summer so heavy machinery doesn’t have to be used to feed them out during the winter. This year Brian is trying pea/oaten balage to supplement both the cows and the R1 Friesian heifers. After finishing their stint on crop they are pregnancy tested and any not in calf (10%) are re-bulled to calve in the spring. Once the cows get in calf they are pretty bulletproof according to Brian. They leave the farm in mid/late February to calve in either mid-March or the spring.

In addition to the 110 carry-over cows about 85 Friesian weaner heifers that fulfil export requirements are bought in the spring.

“The market for these chops and changes and we’ve been paid up to $1850 for these on the odd occasion. If they don’t go for export we sell them locally.”

Solar powers water scheme

Stock movement and work is made easier on the Coogans’ farm through excellent infrastructure including three set of satellite yards, laneways and traditional 8-wire and batten fences. The farm is well subdivided into about 100 paddocks.

Brian’s pride and joy is a recently installed water scheme designed to eventually supply 70 troughs via a 50mm diameter 7km long main line designed by a local company (Solar Technologies – Dave Spicer). Its source is artesian water emerging from the ground in one of the three major blocks of native bush on the farm. It consistently produces 45,000 litres a day even during a drought. It feeds a 25,000 litre receiver tank from where it is pumped 100 vertical meters to a 30,000 litre header tank sited 700masl and gravity fed to another 30,000 litre header tank on the home block at 622masl. The source of electricity to drive the lift pump comes from nine solar panels generating 400 volts. A sensor mounted on the solar panels detects when there is enough light for the pump to operate so it will only run during the day but has the capacity to move 5500 litres an hour via a 50mm diameter pipe.

The Coogans’ annual fertiliser programme involves applying 250-300kg/ha superphosphate over the whole farm with hay paddocks receiving 100kg/ha of urea in the spring plus a dressing of potassic super post-harvest. Crops are sown with 250kg/ha of Cropmaster DAP while the hogget lambing country gets 100kg/ha urea in the spring.

The rape crop sown for the smaller lambs is replaced in the autumn with a ryegrass called “Rely” chosen primarily for its persistence. Brian is hoping it may be more tolerant to porina than some of its more fashionable contemporaries.

Brian is assisted four days a week on the farm by ex-Otiwhiti student Zac Reid however from February/March until work on the farm gets busy again the two are fencing off-farm 3-4 days a week.

Brian has two children Catherine (16) and Patrick (14) both of whom are interested in farming and attend Feilding High School.