A table showing ewe performance on Central Canterbury’s Annavale Station highlights one crucial factor – the value of feeding. Sandra Taylor reports.

Seven years ago, when Reece Cleland took over managing the 2700-hectare hill country Annavale Station near Springfield at the foot of the Southern Alps, the mixed-age Romney ewes were scanning 156% and two-tooths 113%.

Two years and a significant pasture renovation programme later, the mixed-age ewes were scanning 198% and the two-tooths 172% and the scanning results have continued to increase incrementally since then.

Correspondingly, the lambing percentage (ewes to ram to lambs sold) leapt from 118% in 2012 to 152% in 2014 and has stayed over 150%, barring 2017 when a storm hit in the middle of lambing dropping the percentage to 145. The ewes lamb unshepherded on hill country.

For Reece, it vindicated his decision to completely renew pastures on 100ha of 200ha cultivatable land on Annavale and showed that these ewes had the genetic ability to perform – they just needed feeding.

The farm, one of several owned by Coleridge Downs Ltd, is strictly a store property and apart from replacement ewe lambs, all lambs are sold store at weaning to another farm within the wider business.

Profitability is driven by the weight of lambs sold off the farm (truck weight) and market prices, so Reece is driven to maximise both the number and weight of lambs. Weaning weights average 30kg.

With limited cultivatable land, Reece knew that by using this land in a strategic way, he could ensure the ewes were getting the nutrition they require at vital times of the year and his management would be rewarded by ewe and lamb performance.

“We needed young grasses for flushing – I wasn’t even thinking about finishing lambs.”

Within three years of taking over as manager, he had completely renovated all the pastures on the 100ha of flats and continues to grow 30ha of kale and swedes every year, the kale is used for wintering mixed-age ewes and R1 heifers while 1300 ewe lambs are wintered on swedes.

The feed paddocks then typically go into three to four-year grasses although there are a couple in permanent pastures in the mix.

Reece says he is starting to peg back the sowing rate of the grasses to 10-12kg/ha and increasing the legume content of the mix to around 8kg/ha.

“I don’t want bulk on the flats, I want quality.”

Reece likens the flats to “a milking platform” and he takes a dairy farmer’s approach to maintaining feed quality on these flats which are essentially the engine room of the business.

“It’s a fine line when you’re pushing stock to control feed, it’s so easy to compromise their production.

“You need to really watch stock because you can only push them so far.”

He admits it is more difficult to claw quality back when dead-matter does get into the sward and much easier to manage pasture quality when the balance of stock and pasture growth is right.

These high-quality pastures are vital for flushing ewes at mating and Reece has a novel way of making the most efficient and effective use of this feed.

March muster for shearing

In the first week of March, the ewes are mustered off the hill for their annual shearing. The lighter 10% of ewes are kept on flats to lift their body condition while the balance is run back on the hill on to saved pasture.

In the first week of April, the ewes are all brought down to the flats for two weeks of flushing with pasture supplemented with grain (a total of 10 tonnes of feed barley is used over two to three weeks). They are run in four mobs: two-tooths, four-tooths, mixed-age and terminal sire ewes (the latter go to the ram a couple of weeks earlier).
Reece says he likes to run them in manageable-sized mobs and the two-tooths get the very best feed because he aims to maximise their scanning percentage.

After two weeks of flushing, the rams, fitted with harnesses, go out and every five to six days, the ewes are run through the yards and any marked ewes are drafted off and put back out on the hill with a follow-up ram.

Reece says he dreamed up this idea when lying in bed worrying about how he was going to feed 4500 ewes on limited pasture for 30 days.

He has been amazed at how many ewes are mated within the first couple of weeks and he will typically have 60% marked within the first 10 days and 82% in the first cycle.

It means the later-cycling ewes are continuing to get good quality feed, while those that have been mated are back on the hill on maintenance feed.

The system works well as the yards are on the flats and Reece says it doesn’t take long to run very healthy, well-fed ewes through them. The first two drafts are a bigger job, but then numbers diminish rapidly.

As Annavale is a store property, the workload at that time of the year is lighter and allows them to take the time to draft the ewes every few days.

After mating, the ewes stay on the hill until mid-July when they come down for scanning and to go on to their winter feed crops.

The triplet-bearing ewes are kept on grass on the flats throughout winter while most ewes, which are twin-bearing, are wintered on Collier kale. Reece says he is a great fan of this variety as it produces a lot of leaf and yields well in their environment. He budgets on an 18t/ha crop but this year he grew a 21t/ha crop which won Reece the local feed crop competition.

The single-bearing ewes –about 600 – are used as a clean-up mob and Reece values having a small mob of ewes that can be moved around easily.

Around three weeks out from lambing, the ewes are crutched and given their pre-lamb animal health treatments. They are then transitioned off the feed crops and on to saved pasture for two weeks before being set-stocked on the hill for lambing.

Reece says the two weeks of transitioning back on to grass means they are more settled and content when they do go out onto the hill.

The mixed-age twin-bearing ewes are set-stocked at 4/ha, the two-tooth twin-bearing ewes at 3/ha and the triplet-bearing ewes at 2/ha.

Single ewes are lambed on more exposed down country.

Reece points out that the ewes are lambing at between 500-1000m and snow is a constant risk, but by having the ewes in good condition, he feels he is helping maximise lamb survival.

At tailing, the triplets are taken off the hill and run onto the flats, while the singles go out on the hill country where the triplet-ewes were.

The twin-bearing ewes stay put until weaning in mid-January.

Any wet/dries are identified at tailing, their udders checked and they are ear-marked. Repeat offenders are culled the following year.

Using new genetics

Three years ago, the wider business made the decision to use Headwater genetics across their ewes in a long-term bid to add value to the prime lamb they produce.

John Waterston from Headwater helps select the two-tooths that will be used for breeding replacements on Annavale. The balance, while retained, will be earmarked and will always be put to a terminal sire.

Reece doesn’t mate his ewe lambs as he simply doesn’t have room for another class of lambing and lactating animals. He says the hoggets are the safety valve in the system and can be tightened up if need be.

Annavale is renowned for the quality of its Angus cow herd and while they are a commercial herd, they have, in the past, been performance recorded.

Reece has continued breeding for performance and has also increased the size of the herd from 250 to 300.
The calving cows are spread out amongst the ewes and lambs on the hill and cows are used on the flats to manage pasture quality. Typically, they will follow behind the triplet-ewes over spring, cleaning up seed heads and worm burdens.

If it gets dry before Christmas, the cows and calves will be run out on to the native hill country.
Having developed the flats, Reece is now turning his attention to lifting productivity on the hill blocks.

With the help of farm consultant Jansen Travis, he has decided to increase the fertility on the hill and hopes to see a return in lamb survival and weaning weight.

“We are only spending $8/su on fertiliser and we need to be spending $12-$13.”

While Annavale is class one country, it is now producing at class seven level, so nutrients have to be returned to that hill country.

Reece believes the fertiliser will help lift the production of resident clovers which should help drive lactation and pre-weaning lamb growth rates.

Annavale benefits from having a good mix of sunny faces and shaded, south east country that hangs on in summer, as do the heavy clay downs.

But it is the free-draining flats that drive both sheep and cattle performance and Reece has optimised productivity through pasture renewal and assiduous attention to pasture management.

Annavale employs one other staff member and as a manager, Reece, who is supported by his wife Mel, is left to his own devices but is overseen by the general manager Tony Plunkett. Tony acts as more of a sounding board and is one of several farming mentors that Reece has had in his career.

He says he started out working as a shepherd on a property finishing 10,000 lambs under irrigation. It was here he learnt about pasture management and then further honed his stockman skills at Quartz Hill Station where owner Colin Guild proved a valuable teacher and mentor.

Reece, who is part of Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Central Canterbury’s Farming for Profit Committee and in an RMPP Action Group says he is keen to step up to an equity partnership at some stage in the future when the opportunity arises.