A former Taratahi leasehold farm is part of a Wairarapa hill country operation. Tony Leggett reports.

Wairarapa hill country farming partners Dayanne Almeida and Paul Crick are building a detailed profile of their maternal ewe flock to help them select their most productive replacements.

The couple lease two hill country properties, Glenside, and neighbouring deer farm, Arahura, east of Masterton. Both are summer-dry, winter-wet farms that receive between 900-1000mm each year. Glenside was formerly leased and managed by Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre where Paul was director of farms until its closure in late 2018.

They took over most of the stock with the leases, plus the 520-head Central Progeny Test hill flock, which is one of four under the control of Beef + Lamb Genetics. This is managed alongside the couple’s own livestock.

Paul says his former role meant he was familiar with the stock on Glenside, which has been an advantage as they pursue their aim of finding the most productive animals to suit Wairarapa’s summer-dry conditions and their management.

Their preference is to use as much objectivity as possible, so they are great advocates of using electronic identification tags to record data against individual animals. But they concede the visual appearance is important to them too.

“We all like good-looking sheep, don’t we? That’s a key part of what we do, but we need to understand what’s under the hood, what’s under the skin as well for us to maximise their value as well as to realise their genetic potential,” Paul says.

“We’re after a ewe that gets in lamb, ideally has twins and rears them through to weaning. We’re also looking within our flock for ewes that specifically have that ability to put body condition on.”

So, they are looking for ewes in their flock that can quickly rebuild condition after weaning, get back in lamb and hold condition over the winter, then release that stored energy into their lambs in the spring.

Dayanne’s experience includes a long stint with the Wairere ram breeding enterprise near their leased properties, and her new role as Zoetis Genetics area manager and sheep technical lead. She is applying this to building a more detailed flock profile.

At key times through the year they are collecting data on liveweight, body condition score, tupping marks left by raddle on ram harnesses, pregnancy scanning, birth rank of ewe hoggets that have come back into their flock as replacements, and the age of the dam that reared them. Ewe hoggets are scanned twice. The second scan is just before set stocking to see which ones have lost their lambs.

EID tagging makes data easier to collect but they both concede it is a passion for numbers and extra value that drives them.

Paul says ewe body condition score is a primary focus, rather than ewe liveweight. He rejects the long-held goal of weaning ewes at their mating weight. “We know we can utilise the fat off a ewe’s back through that spring period so she puts it into her milk, she puts it into her lambs. And then she has that ability to bounce back and to put that condition back on.

“I’m sure a lot of farmers understand that approach. But what we’re finding is that it actually does stack up in terms of the data.

“Obviously we are mindful of the wellbeing of our animals, but if a ewe does drop to a two or a two and a half, our system is focused on giving her the opportunity to put that back on.”

Creating an elite ewe flock

They want to create a nucleus flock of elite ewes, mated to high quality rams to just provide sufficient ewe lambs for replacements. Their aim is to lift the total number of ewes mated to terminal sires from 45% last mating to 60 to 65%. This demands a docking rate of 150% or better.

Just-released research suggests mating 65% of ewes to terminal sires could deliver up to $100/ha of extra profit compared with a full self-replacing mating system. Most of the extra return is generated through higher weight gain in lambs resulting from hybrid vigour, but they warn that farmers also need to factor in higher energy (feed) demand and pasture growth profile to capitalise on that cross-breeding power.

“For us, we will have an increased energy demand post weaning in December, but this should be mostly compensated for by subsequent reductions in demand following weaning in January, which I’m confident we can handle,” Dayanne says.

“So the idea is to decrease the size of the maternal flock and then focus on really high-performing sheep. We don’t want to waste any time with anything that doesn’t have the genetic potential to generate our replacements,” she says.

To help identify high performing ewes they have added their own commercial maternal flock to the sheep evaluation system Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL) so they can generate breeding values for each animal. They accept they cannot include matching lambs to their dam and sire because it’s cost prohibitive at present for a commercial flock on hill country.

“We know there’s a gap with parentage but we can derive a certain amount of information, and hopefully it will be enough to suss that out,” Paul says.

Another motivation for seeing what they can do with breeding values is that, when their lease ends, these ewes will potentially have a higher value on the open market. Their plan is to use the breeding values to rank the ewes on individual traits and create an overall index that is applied at culling times along with visual assessment.

“We don’t own the farms, we just lease them. Our livestock is the machine that’s generating the cash that comes out. We’ve got a loan from the bank, so we need to be able to do everything we can to service that.”

Paul says they are aiming to “stack the deck” in their favour, both operationally on the farm and genetically through the sires they buy in for their ewes. He applauds the efforts of forward-thinking ram breeders like the Wairarapa Romney Improvement Group, who are thinking about future demands on the sector.

BCS analysis for efficiency

The couple acknowledge rams are the biggest contributor to the genetic gain within their flock.

“As commercial farmers we’re prepared to make the investment in our genetics. We’re prepared to pay for the privilege to pre-select the rams we want to view,” Paul says.

“We’re after the sire summaries of those rams. Has there been any use of genomics within the operation to fast-track the progress and also increase the accuracy of breeding values and of their parentage? That’s really important to us,” Paul says.

Dayanne Almeida started her project on the impacts of body condition score on ewe efficiency at the end of 2014 while working at Derek Daniell’s Wairere ram breeding enterprise in Wairarapa.

At Wairere she recorded body condition score (BCS) and liveweights of the stud ewes at mating, scanning and weaning. Each mixed-age ewe was scored at either above or below BCS 3 at mating. At weaning they were scored again as either above BCS 3, or at BCS 3 or below BCS 3.

To calculate ewe efficiency Dayanne divided the total weight of lambs weaned by ewe liveweight. What she found was the ewes that started with a higher BCS at mating and weaned at a lower BCS were the most efficient lamb producers.

“Those ewes that started with high condition scores at mating, three or above, and ended up with condition scores at weaning below three, they were the ones with best production. They’re more productive.”

This group weaned 81% of their bodyweight. In comparison, the ones that started either below or above BCS 3, and gained condition to wean with a BCS above 3, weaned just 60% of their bodyweight.

“We did the same on the two-tooths and found similar patterns.”

Her analysis included removing any effect from birth rank, so she was comparing singles with singles, twins against twins and triplets against triplets, and also comparing within early, mid- and late-lambing periods.

A final phase in the analysis is to generate genetic parameters for ewe efficiency that is based on the body condition score variation. Dayanne says from the work published to date she is confident heritability will be sufficiently high to make progress on selecting for this trait.

She was also keen to understand the impact of sires on this linkage between ewe body condition score and efficient lamb production. Looking into the Wairere data she is confident the correlations will be strong enough to make progress for ram breeders.

Her Wairere data also showed up an interesting group of ewes that had a high BCS at mating and weaning, but also weaned their own bodyweight in lamb.

“That was a bit curious because they’re quite outliers. They are the ewes that you don’t have to put in the tail-end mob. They’re good because they still weaned their bodyweight.”

When she investigated further she found that most of the ewes in that group shared two sires in common.

She and Paul are now starting the same BCS analysis in their maternal flock at Glenside, and this year will be calculating ewe efficiency scores by recording the kilograms of lambs each ewe weans.

“So the next thing for us would be to focus more on our sires and start to seek out sires with genomically enhanced breeding capability, with good accuracy.”