In the start of a series, Terry Brosnahan looks at two Manawatu lamb finishers who have different, but successful recipes for their finishing operations. What they do have in common is a crucial ingredient – same-day killing.

Manawatu farmer Ian Strahan says buying is the most important part of his lamb finishing operation.

“The key to our margins is the buying-in price.”

He doesn’t get too hung up about genetics.

As long as they are healthy, males and have got a bit of potential, they go on the truck.

He doesn’t bother shopping around for deals as they have been supplying Ovation for about 10 years.

“Everyone pretty much gets the same price at the other end.”

‘There is always the price you want to pay but if you do that you will often come away disappointed.’

They farm 400 hectares at Kiwitea, 20km north of Feilding, have a 40ha run-off nearby and a 300-cow dairy farm. They fatten lambs and cattle and do dairy grazing. Ian and his wife Stephanie own a trading company and a portion of land. They have three children, 8-12 years old.

Ian starts buying early autumn so by then the lambs should be showing some frame. He buys on a cents per kilogram basis.

“Cents per kilo trumps everything for us.”

Over the autumn and winter, they finish anywhere from 12,000 to 16,000 lambs a year with an average of 14,000/year.

In spring and summer, the farm finishes 1000-1400 cattle, but usually 1100. He uses agents, private deals and auctions at the Feilding sale yards.

“I do enjoy a good auction, it’s fun.”

Ian doesn’t go in the sale yards with a maximum price he’s prepared to pay.

“There is always the price you want to pay but if you do that you will often come away disappointed.”

He is not afraid to come home empty-handed.

The farm is run like a factory on a product value per hectare basis less the cost of production.

Ian aims to gross $3000-plus/ha over the whole farm. The past few years it has ranged from 18-45c/kg drymatter (DM) and averaged 25-30c/kg DM over the farm.

When the lambs arrive, they are given a quarantine drench and a five-in-one. It is the only drench they will get. There is resistance to the Mectin drenches due to history of the previous farm owner.

Running cattle along with good pasture residuals and renewal keeps the worm burdens down. The animal health programme is good feeding.

Ian likes mobs as small as possible and the size depends on the time of the year and how busy he is. He doesn’t like the mobs bigger than 200.

The farm has a three-way drafter so the lambs go into three different weight groups. A spreadsheet keeps a track of lambs on the farm, weights, withholding periods and helps plan ahead.

They are finishing 6000 lambs at the peak in the middle of winter, the rest of the time it is about 3500-4000/week. Sometimes the lambs will stay until they are nearly hoggets.

The only sheep he has bought recently was 110 ewes with 150 lambs at foot to graze the laneways. With ewe and lamb prices soaring he wished he had bought more.

Ian says there is nothing worse than a lot of feed in February which forces stock prices up.

“When everyone has grass there is not much fun being a finisher”.

Lambs are loaded and slaughtered within about six hours of coming off feed. The dressing out yield (as a hot carcase) in sale lambs tends to be between 43% and 46% of the liveweight recorded the day before, in the yards. Lambs are 20 to 22kg carcaseweight (CW).

Ian says yield varies with wool length, age and time of the day. More gut fill in the afternoon affects the liveweight measure at the start.

They didn’t have to shear at all this year due the effort which goes into keeping them clean. They avoid handling stock on rainy days, lambs are kept out of the mud, more gravel goes down in the yards and there is a roof over the scales.

It is well-worth doing. As well as the savings of not shearing, if the lambs only need one wash at the plant then they keep their presentation premium which is up to 15c/kg.

Being close to the Ovation plant in Feilding means same-day kill which Ian has found makes a significant difference.

Lambs sent further away and slaughtered the morning after being yarded and transported, have lower yields.

He has seen a drop of 250g in meat yield and up to 750g in one case.

At 750g/lamb with prices of $9/kg means a loss of $6.75/lamb.

Careful management of lambs pre-transport to slaughter is worth another $10/lamb or more. Only heading dogs (non-barkers) are used to muster in and no dogs are used to load the truck. Plastic bags tied to waddies make a noise to move lambs.

“Being bought-in trading lambs, they are already used to yards and transport, so this probably helps with low stress reactions.” Industry downgrades for bruising or abscesses from incorrect injection placement, are typically worth 50 cents per kilogram CW. A $0.50/kg CW downgrade to a ‘cutter’ works out to be $8.50 less for an 17kg CW lamb. All preventable through correct handling.

They are paid within 14 days of sending in lambs.

Ian says the aim is to grow as much grass as possible and utilise it the best way possible by turning it into high-value product per kilogram.

“Basically we are a clean slate and can do what we like on this place.

“We like to keep it simple and do it well.”

The farm has more than 60ha of techno which runs mostly bulls. He took a punt on the beef market this year and is running more steers instead of lambs.

Cattle are killed November to March, lambs May to October. They kill 85 cattle/week.

They renew the pasture every five years and sow tetraploids, Viscount perennial ryegrass and a bit of Shogun. They use the NEA endophyte as there isn’t the pests to warrant the stronger protection from AR37. Ian believes the higher the endophyte the more lamb growth may be checked.

In summer the pasture management focus is on utilisation, but in autumn and winter it is about preserving the grass. Even though it is only 15 minutes north, it is 260 metres above sea level and growth slows significantly during winter.

They work hard to try and keep the residuals up above the bare minimum of 1350kg. He set stocks with a shuffle. Often a big paddock is split in half and with another paddock gives three shifts.

This gives grazing residuals of 1500kg DM/ha. The biggest paddocks are 7ha.

The soils are reasonably heavy and is why the lambs are on during the winter. Cattle come in the spring once the land dries out.

He did a set stock versus rotation trial on the cattle’s techno block where the lambs took off, but there was no grass left.

He has tried fodder crops over summer including pasja but has lost money.

Ian grows 70ha of cash crops – peas, winter wheat. The crops are part of the rotation for pasture renewal. All drilling is with a Taege direct drill, they haven’t ploughed for 20 years.

The Strahans employ a shepherd and a general hand who does most of the tractor driving.

They make 30ha/year of silage. Has cut down on the topping of pastures as his skill at matching the stocking rate with grass has improved.

Ian is a member of the Hynes Creek catchment group and is proactively fencing off streams even though they are not a metre wide. He uses the Horizon 50% subsidy to erect an eight-wire fence on one side and a one wire on the other to let the sheep into graze. If it was totally fenced off the sheep wouldn’t have access to keep the blackberry down. Soon no cattle will be able to access most streams.

So, what’s more profitable – lamb or beef? Hard to say, Ian says. Obviously with more grass in the spring and summer it will be lambs over the winter. Then if the buying in price for beef was low the prices now makes it look it good.

Ian says everything has to make at least 20c/kg DM over the year. There also needs to be the right stock to utilise the grass best. For example, lambs cannot harvest the spring flush.

Key points

  • Farm 400ha, cattle, lambs, cash crops and dairy grazing
  • Finishing 12-16,000 lambs, 1000-1400 cattle
  • Keeps mobs as small as possible
  • Lambs killed in six hours gives better yields