A mix of sheep and beef finishing alongside velveting stags has proved profitable for Mark McCoard in Rangitikei’s Kawhatau Valley. Russell Priest reports.

Mark with Hereford Friesian finishing heifers.

In a challenging environment where snowfalls and droughts are common, Kawhatau Valley’s Mark McCoard believes he has found a recipe for extracting a sustainable living off a small farm.

Sheep breeding and finishing, cattle finishing and velveting stags all feature in his 245-hectare low-input enterprise. Velvet is easily his best earner.

“Running a herd of 180 velveting stags has given me the option of generating a high lambing percentage and finish all my lambs,” Mark said.

He tried growing summer crops but droughts caused crop failures. He looked at feeding winter supplements but the economics didn’t stack up particularly for deer as the terrain and heavy soil presented feeding out issues.

“Nowadays after velveting I can use my stags to prepare clover-dominant pastures for finishing lambs over the summer. Getting rid of most of the lambs by autumn allows me to shut up paddocks for wintering the stags.”

“This system helps insulate us from having to sell store lambs where you’re at the mercy of the market. Our business has now been lifted to another level by being able to add value to our lamb crop.”

Mark admits it’s an unusual combination but it works brilliantly and has improved his bottom line considerably.

“Deer farmers who only run velveting stags and no other stock have to winter high stocking rates to cope with the explosive spring growth. In our operation this is taken care of by ewes and lambs and cattle, although it’s still a major challenge because we don’t conserve any of it.”

Timewise the velveting process and the sheep enterprise complement one another well although Mark admits he must be well organised to ensure the two enterprises don’t clash. He is often found in the deer shed removing velvet during all hours of the night.

“Generally we no sooner finish docking and I’m into the deer shed although velveting seems to be getting earlier.”

By the time a dry summer starts to impact Mark will have banked 75% of his annual income from his velveting stags and killed most of his Suftex-cross lambs plus the best of his male Romneys.

During the velveting season Mark watches his stags with eagle eyes to determine the optimum velveting time. Failure to get it right can affect the quality of the velvet and price received significantly.

The only reason Mark hasn’t converted more of his farm to deer is because of the historically fickle velvet price. However the past five years have been stable for the product, the result of a concerted effort by industry players to reduce price volatility.

“We’re certainly going through a golden patch in our business now with velvet, lamb and beef prices all at high levels and with the weather also being favourable. The only negative is a low wool price so we need good money for our lambs to offset this.”

Mark and wife Louise farm 245ha in the Kawhatau Valley, 23km south-south-east of Taihape in central North Island. Half the property is flat-to-rolling and half medium-to-steep and there are 40 paddocks.

Mark is the brother of well-known AgResearch scientist Sue McCoard so he is well versed on the issues of triplet rearing and lamb survival (Sue’s areas of expertise).

Mark is president of the Taihape Deer Farmers Association and one of four elected members on the National Deer Farmers Association Executive Committee.

The McCoard farm lies between 350 metres and 600m above sea level and features a mixture of heavy clay alluvial soils and ash, the former being extremely wet in the winter while the latter is free draining. Such a mix can be found in the same paddock.

The predominant weather in the valley comes from the west-south-west and brings most of the 1000-1200mm annual rainfall. Easterly weather coming over the Ruahine ranges in the winter can be bitterly cold and often brings falls of snow, the heaviest they have experienced being 300mm at their house.

Heavy rainfall events often cause slipping over the underlying mud and sandstone so Mark regularly plants poplars to mitigate this risk and plans to fence off certain waterways and continue further plantings through the Horizons SLUI programme.

After taking over the cheque book from his father in 2004 the McCoards experienced 10 difficult years beginning with the 2004 floods.

Five years of drought

The worst drought in the valley in 50 years was recorded in 2008. This was followed by five consecutive drought years culminating in the worst drought since the Second World War in 2012/13. This in turn allowed Porina to get established.

“You’d hardly get out of spring and it’d turn dry.”

“With all the droughts we had to learn a new way of farming, similar to what happened in Hawke’s Bay. We now leave greater covers on the northerly faces over summer.”

Mark’s primary sheep breeding objective is to develop a highly fertile and fecund ewe flock that is able to deliver a maximum number of lambs that can be finished on the high-octane clover pastures, groomed by his velveting stags.

With the last two seasons of favourable weather Mark has been able to fine-tune his operation. The aim is to consistently hit the magical 150% lambing with his 1050 Romney ewes. Last year he experienced a small hiccup when he wintered too many old ewes to compensate for lower deer numbers because new deer fencing had not been completed.

“While the old girls scanned 190% they fell apart metabolically and instead of delivering their usual 160% they only came up with 145.”

Mark mates the old ewes and any he doesn’t want to breed replacements from to Suftex terminal sires on March 17. Any poorer-condition ones are mated on 22ha of flat land near Mangaweka while the better ones are mated and lambed on the easier country on the home block.

Pre-lamb shearing with a cover comb of all ewes occurs late May or early June followed closely by scanning. Mark gets good value from his scanning information by identifying all triplet bearing ewes mated to Suftex and Romney rams and both single and twin bearing ewes mated to Romney rams. At the same time any light condition individuals are drafted off and given preferential treatment along with those carrying triplets.

The rest of the ewes are boxed up and continue on the winter rotation which is sped up a few weeks before lambing starts to even up paddock covers before set stocking.

Single and twin-bearing ewes are lambed separately as are all those bearing triplets (on better pasture covers and easier country). The latter are subjected to a lambing beat with Mark aiming to dock 220-250% from them while achieving an average weaning weight of about 20kg. Triplet-bearing ewes represent 10-12% of the ewe flock and have been identified as an opportunity to improve profit.

The first draft of lambs from the old ewes takes place in late November or early December. Mark’s aim is to draft as many of the Suftex lambs and single male Romney lambs off their mothers as possible and is constantly tweaking his system to improve this figure. His focus is also to minimise the number of Suftex-sired lambs on the farm by the time facial eczema spores rise to dangerous levels. This has only recently become an issue. Last year he achieved a 50% drafting rate off mum when he put the drafting date back to December 12 (made possible by excellent feed covers). This year 80% was achieved mainly due to a lower lambing percentage.

Those lambs not drafted are weaned and all the old ewes killed achieving an early-season premium.

Mark’s aim is to get as many of the terminal lambs and the best of the Romney male lambs (scanned as singles) into the pre-Christmas trade to capture the premiums meaning anything that is 35kg and above is killed. Last year 75% of the Suftex lambs were killed before the Easter trade closed.

His post-Christmas finishing strategy is to kill lambs at about 18kg carcaseweight.

The young ewes are mated to Paki-iti Romney rams on the hills at the back of the farm starting on April 1. Lambing also takes place out there with the lambing percentage normally about 140. Weaning of Romney lambs occurs mid-December with shearing in late December/early January. Lambs are finished on the easier country on the home block and at Mangaweka.

Ewes spend the summer on a rotation at the back of the farm while hoggets and two-tooths get preferential treatment closer to home.

Ewes and lambs with Mt. Ruapehu in the background.

Ewes stay as long as possible

Mark has adopted a tough ewe culling policy. It’s almost easier to get into his flock than it is to stay in. He keeps ewes in the flock as long as possible (based on condition and teeth wear) as he believes it promotes flock longevity. He runs a significant number of seven-year ewes but is looking to reduce this.

Two tooth ewe selection is based initially on bodyweight, then on type (sound, well-muscled, moderate framed, deep bodied with good bone and spring of rib), with a well-structured, heavy medium/strong fleece void of black spots.

Once ewes enter the A flock they must continue to maintain the characteristics they were initially selected on otherwise they go into the B flock or are culled.

Dry ewes are culled and wet dries identified and mated to Suftex rams. Failing to wean a lamb a second time is terminal.

Mark’s drenching policy is to try and avoid drenching mature stock. If drench has to be administered to a ewe in poor condition that ewe is identified and if she doesn’t respond in a reasonable time she is culled.

Lambs are first drenched between docking and weaning then again at weaning and monthly after that. Drenching ends with an exit drench (generally Zolvix) in June. If Barbers Pole becomes an issue in summer/autumn, the two-tooths get a drench before going to the ram.

Mark changed his Romney ram source three years ago to the Mortons’ Paki-iti Romney stud, based just over the hill from where he farms. He selects rams that have good muscling, depth of body, spring of rib and bone and that have a sound fleece of medium/coarse wool. He pays a lot of attention to the SIL Maternal index selecting rams that have a good balance of traits.

Similar selection criteria used in selecting

Romney rams is applied when selecting the Suftex rams except that growth is the only breeding value Mark is interested in.

“Using Suftex rams over the old ewes has been a game-changer for the business. They have lifted weaning weights of straight Romney lambs from store weights of 30kg to finished lambs at 15-17kg CW.”

Hoggets are not mated because Mark believes he hasn’t the scope on the farm to do so and also lambing would clash with velveting which Mark does himself. Instead he keeps his ewe hogget policy simple setting aside a paddock with good autumn covers and using this to winter 200 replacement ewe hoggets.

Cattle are the safety valve in the McCoard operation. Fifty R2 Friesian Hereford or Friesian Angus heifers are wintered with their role being to clean up roughage. Additional cattle are bought through the spring and summer as required. Mark tries to lamb single-bearing ewes on paddocks with lower covers that have been cleaned up by cattle during the winter.

Cattle receive no winter supplements and are killed at around 30 months at 250-280kg. The occasional ones are taken through a second winter. Mark likes Friesian crosses because they can grow out to good weights without getting too fat. Any cattle Mark buys must be quiet.

Deer have played a more prominent role in the business in recent years.

“We’ve always had deer on the farm,” Mark said. “Dad was a keen deer hunter and started farming a small number which gradually increased.”

Before his father’s death in 2004 the partnership (Mark and his father) had been farming breeding ewes, finishing 18-month steers at 30 months and running a few deer on 128ha.

In 2012/13 the McCoards bought part of an adjacent farm (90ha) which meant lifting both sheep and deer numbers in keeping with Mark’s choice of enterprise mix. The existing woolshed required upgrading and increasing deer numbers would have outgrown the existing deer facilities. As a consequence he upgraded the deer shed which has made velveting much more efficient.

Fertilser focus on lime

Rangitikei farmer Mark McCoard believes much of his farming success begins with his biologically active soils. He stresses the importance of having a big population of earthworms, soil microbes and fungi and encourages them by applying only lime-based fertilisers. He sees no point in applying acid-based fertilisers then having to remove this acidity by applying lime.

His fertiliser policy has noticeably increased plant-rooting depth as has also his policy of leaving greater post-grazing pasture covers.

When he took over the farm most paddocks had Olsen phosphate levels in single digits and pHs in the low 5s. Today phosphate figures are 15-18 on the hills and 18-30 on the flats while pHs are now 5.6-5.9.

His approach to improving fertility was to break the farm into blocks and hit these with 400-500kg/ha of high-quality sulphur-fortified RPR backed up with Limeflo trace element slurry mixes. He is convinced the latter have changed stock health markedly.

Mark prefers slow release fertilisers that promote even, year-round pasture growth rather than fertilisers that create sudden feed surges. Nowadays as a maintenance fertiliser Mark applies 300-500kg/ha of RPR or dicalcic every year on the flats and every 18 months on the hills.

Water was a high priority when Mark took over from his father. Natural springs have been tapped and water pumped to a header tank for gravity feeding to troughs. All the front country is troughed with the back country serviced by dams.

Deer the main focus

Deer have become Mark’s main focus and a major income earner in their business.

A total of 50ha of the farm is deer fenced. Stags are bought as two-year-olds in an arrangement with a local deer farmer Mark has had for 20 years. They are taken through to eight-year olds then killed. Culling is based on body condition and teeth wear. It is unusual within the industry to run such a young herd with most velveting stags being kept until 10-12. Mark’s planned deer fencing programme will look to include soil types and topography more suited to winter supplementary feeding so these old stags can be retained longer.

Mark has a sound reason for only wintering relatively young stags. Few if any supplements are fed on the farm at present and older stags getting low in the teeth need hard feeding over the winter to maintain body condition which is vital to achieving good velvet weights.

Wintering of the stags involves shutting paddocks up in the autumn to generate good covers and paddock grazing these throughout the winter months. Deer start at the back of the farm (all hills) and work their way forward towards the front where more free-draining paddocks on which supplements can be fed if required await them. They are also handy to the velveting facilities when this operation begins in early October.

Regular inspection of the stags is required to ensure the velvet is removed at the optimum time. This is particularly critical for the first cut (mid-October to mid-November) because it represents 80% of the velvet harvest and hence in economic terms has a much greater bearing on financial returns. The second cut begins in mid-December. Velvet growth rate is temperature and feed dependent.

Stags are often in the yards every 3-4 days during the first cut of the velveting season.

Mark rates velveting stags as 3.5-4 SUs. Average velvet yield is about 5kg/stag and at an average price of $120/kg this represents a return of $600/stag or $150/SU – up to twice the net return he gets from his sheep. The velveting stag enterprise requires a relatively low labour input outside of the intensive velveting period.

Early settlers

Mark McCoard is the fourth generation of McCoards to farm the original 80ha farm. His great-grandfather was among the first settlers in the valley in the late 1800s. Mark’s grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt are all buried on an elevated site on the farm overlooking a large asparagus business and the picturesque Kawhatau Valley.

Mark and Louise have two children who would like to go farming. Hannah (23) completed a double degree at Lincoln University and now works as a technical field officer with Farmlands in Temuka and enjoys working with deer while Callum, 21, recently graduated with a commerce degree from Victoria University and has recently set up his own agricultural contracting business as well as learning to be a livestock scanner. Callum is more a sheep man. Louise also works off-farm in Taihape.

Key points

  • Owners: Mark and Louise McCoard
  • Kawhatau Valley, 23km south-south-east of Taihape
  • Mainly hill/rolling country with some flats
  • Droughts have been common in recent years
  • Enterprise diversification is the business’ strength
  • Velveting stags, sheep breeding/finishing and cattle finishing
  • Uses only lime-based fertilisers.