Joanna Grigg

The summer feed shortage has translated into fewer lambs in utero.

A catch-up with ewe pregnancy scanners mid-June shows the first third of the scanning season is not heralding a uniform disaster for all, but down in general.

Ewes in Waikato, Hawke’s Bay, Tasman and Marlborough that went to the ram during February and early March have 15 to 20% fewer lambs on board.

It was a different story north of the Mohaka River, Wairoa, with cracker conditions allowing good rates of multiples. Andrew Vavasour, Ewe Scan, said March-mated ewes were scanning well here and some farmers reported it was “the best year ever in their farming career.”

“I know it sounds gloomy but everyone has a turn being in the crap so to speak, and this year it’s Hawke’s Bay’s turn.”

Carl Williams, AgScan owner and operator for 26 years, said ewe condition picked up in Waikato as mating progressed but the earlier mobs, tupped in February, were obviously losing weight. This is reflected in the 20% drop in expected lambs compared with usual.

In Hawke’s Bay, pregnancy rates were also trending down 20% – a combination of more dries (typically 4%) and fewer multiples. Triplet-bearing ewes made up less than 5% of most flocks he had scanned, he said, which is probably a good thing.

Fertility has come at a cost with one of Williams’ clients spending into six figures on feed.

“Some farmers who have invested in feed have ewes in better than normal body condition.

“Two neighbouring farms had dramatically different results; one fed supplements and was only 4% down while the other didn’t so much and was 30% down.”

Fewer ewes were conceived in the first cycle, creating a larger mob of lates for many farmers. Hogget lambing remained in the plan for a group of farmers that always have this built into their system, Williams said.

“They know what they are doing and plan for it.”

Andrew Vavasour, Ewe Scan, said clients in Hawke’s Bay typically had scanning results 15% to 20% down – from 200% to 185% for example.

“One guy had 22% dry in his two-tooths but it turned out to be a high-five moment as he wanted to sell them anyway.”

Fewer triplet ewes may be a blessing for getting mobs through winter but it will still be a battle even for single-bearing ewes. Vavasour describes pasture covers and ewe condition in the district as concerning for the start of winter.

“Areas are decimated, with dead pastures and poor crop strike.”

Ewe condition had not recovered by mid-June across much of the Hawke’s Bay, Tasman and Marlborough.

“There is definitely stress out there and scanners just try our best to cheer farmers up.

“The baking and feed sent to farmers has been hugely well received and appreciated.

“I know it sounds gloomy but everyone has a turn being in the crap so to speak, and this year it’s Hawke’s Bay’s turn.”

Scanning gives options. Vavasour said some farmers are selling triplet-bearing ewes or sending late lambing older ewes to higher country as a buffer mob for potential sale with lambs at foot. He has about half the normal hoggets booked to scan in the Hawke’s Bay.

Earl Paewai, Livestock Ultrasound Scanning, was 25% through his Dannevirke, Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Wairoa scanning beat. His database result was showing an average conception rate for mixed age ewes of 95% (dry rate five percent). Mixed age ewes were averaging a 146% lamb potential, with a top result of 194%.

“Some farmers are pleasantly surprised as they were expecting worse.”

Two tooths struggled the most, averaging 11% dry, and a 116% lamb potential. Overall, results were trending back on last year, particularly Hawke’s Bay, he said.

Ewe numbers were down and there were fewer hoggets booked to scan as they are either sold or run dry. The drought situation has been really tough for farmers but morale was boosted by kindness of others.

“One Dannevirke guy took a load of hay up to his ram breeder unannounced and made his day.”

The top-of-the-south flocks have also felt the impact of feed shortages. Danny Hajdu, Nelson Town & Country Vets, said early-mated crossbred mobs usually scan around 150% but were closer to 135%. Hoggets were not up to weight so not joined with the ram.

“Ewe condition score is now the worst I’ve seen in places.”

His beat covers Waimea Plains, Motueka, Tapawera and Murchison. Farmers that held ewe fertility did so through feeding supplements, with some success grazing hop gardens during ripening and feeding hop waste.

“The leaves are very high protein.”

Rain did not fall until late April, with one advantage being no facial eczema effects.

Normally two-thirds of flocks would carry twins but it is more like 50%. Farmers are not unhappy about this, he said.

“Farmers are just worried about trying to feed their livestock each week, rather than focused on the money side.”

Steve Leslie scans early-lambing flocks in Golden Bay, Tapawera, Seddon and Wairau Plains. One third through his beat and lambs on board were down as much as 20% but typically 10%.

“Supplementary feeding has largely been successful in maintaining conception and multiple rates.”

Marlborough had a major dry spell January to April and proactive farmers fed balage, peas or grain. Farmers relying on crops to flush were caught as growth was minimal, he said. The conservatively stocked farms were more resilient.

He had observed that body condition was lower than normal, especially south of the Wairau River and coastal Marlborough, with two-tooths the worst affected.

“Some were very thin and it’s hard to put condition on now.”

The difficult lamb growing season meant lambs were still on farm well into summer.

“One farmer I know hadn’t had a draft away, through multiple reasons, by late March.

“I guess, in hindsight, more lambs should have gone store from farms this year.”