A successful weaner-producing recipe is working for a Rangitikei farmer. Russell Priest reports.

Strolling along the walkway at the first of the autumn weaner fairs in Feilding it was impossible to miss one striking pen of weaner bulls. Exceptionally well-grown and even with some real substance to them and oozing with growth potential, they were being offered on behalf of Marton’s Mark Godfrey.

It’s not the first time Mark (51) has presented such outstanding weaner bulls for sale at this venue. In fact he’s been doing it for the last seven years and making top dollars.

“The best we’ve made is $1400 for weaners that weighed 350kg,” Mark said.

“The guy who bought these sold them seven months later at 650kg.”

“Weights were back this year at 323kg because of the severe drought but we still made pretty good money at $1005.”

Not bad for a breeding cow herd that begins calving in mid-August and is run on predominantly dry sand which started drying out significantly in November of last year and by late March resembled a desert.

‘Cows do particularly well on sand country during the summer compared with finishing stock. During this year’s drought they’ve held on particularly well considering Simmentals are not known for stacking a lot of fat on their backs.’

Mark’s developed a pretty successful weaner-producing recipe with the objective of generating the heaviest weaners he can, selling the top bulls and finishing the remaining bulls, steers and cull heifers himself. The two main ingredients of his recipe are top genetics and strategic feeding of the cow herd.

Fed according to their requirements the cows transfer surplus spring feed into their calves and onto their backs and in the summer, autumn and winter drawing on it to supplement their calves’ diet (to weaning) and their own particularly during the winter.

Established eight years ago with Angus MA cows the herd now contains a significant component of Simmental blood after top-crossing with Simmental bulls every year since.

“We have a significant cancer eye problem on the sand country so we need our cattle to have dark eye pigmentation,” Mark said.

“We bought MA Angus cows for this reason and crossed them with Simmental bulls, however we found it difficult to source good Angus females so we started keeping the best of our Simmental Angus cross females and have been doing this ever since.”

But they haven’t been just any old Simmental bulls used. Sourced from the Knaufs’ Kerrah herd at Wairoa, the largest Simmental herd in Australasia (600 cows) and run on some of the steepest hill country in New Zealand the bulls are genetically programmed to perform at a high level. And because the herd is so large both maternal and terminal strains have been developed to satisfy a large number of clients with a wide range of breeding objectives. This has allowing Mark to select more maternal-type bulls to satisfy his requirements.

He’s not afraid either to “open up his cheque book” when buying his bulls at auction paying up to $10,000 to secure what he wants.

Mark’s trait wish-list when buying bulls is topped by dark eye pigmentation. It’s mandatory for bulls to have red goggles around both eyes to reduce the chance of getting eye cancer. Temperament is his second most important trait followed by structural soundness, 200 and 600-day weights, direct and maternal calving ease and polledness.

Bull longevity is extraordinary on the sand country according to Mark, this being confirmed by another beef herd owner running Simmental bulls nearby. He maintains the average life expectancy of a bull is 9-10 years. Assuming a bull costs $10,000 with a disposal value of $1500 and sires eight crops of 30 calves, the bull-cost a calf works out at about $3.50.

So focused is he on preventing eye cancer that any heifer entering the herd must have goggles around both eyes no matter how good she is. About 10-15 heifer replacements are put into the herd each year depending on the number of cow losses, dries and cows cast-for-age. Cow longevity is also impressive.

In addition to the eye goggles, replacement heifers must be sound with an acceptable temperament and good size to be eligible to enter the breeding herd.

Mark doesn’t mate his heifers until they are two-year-olds because he hasn’t the flexibility in his system to do so. He also feels he’s busy enough in spring without having another high-priority class of stock to deal with.

Mark is a busy man being the only permanent labour working in the business. He manages two blocks 31km apart in the southern Rangitikei, a 177-hectare sand country runoff 12km north-west of Bulls where the cow herd is run and 375ha – Tapuwai – 15km north-east of Marton which is home to a 2500- ewe flock. Regular stock movement occurs between the two farms made easier by Mark having his own stock truck.

Warmer wintering platform

The Bulls farm is an excellent wintering platform being two or three degrees warmer than Tapuwai and mostly dry underfoot although the water table has been unusually high the last two winters. About 20% of the farm is classed as wet-sand with the balance being dry and is all flat. Average annual rainfall is between 950 and 1000mm most of which falls in the winter/spring period.

Fertility levels are good for phosphate (Olsen P 25) and low for sulphur with PHs at 6.5 for the heavy sands and 6.0 for the dry. Sulphur is a problematic element on sand country because of its mobility, disappearing through the soil profile extremely rapidly necessitating regular dressings. The annual fertiliser application is between 275 and 350kg superphosphate/ha. If covers are low going into the winter urea fortified with sulphur is applied.

A substantial annual input of hay from Tapuwai helps to improve soil fertility as well as improving the organic content of the sand.

The 135 cows are permanent residents at Bulls but are joined for the winter by about 950 replacement ewe hoggets (after being shorn in July), 30 18-month bulls/steers and 45 18-month heifers all from Tapuwai. The ewe hoggets return to Tapuwai in early November and the 18-month cattle in October. All weaners except the top bull calves which are sold in Feilding in March are trucked directly to Tapuwai at weaning (end of March) where they are wintered on grass and hay behind a hot wire.

In recent years Mark admits he hasn’t been able to feed his cows as well as he would have liked because of dry summers but he’s still reasonably happy with their performance.

“Cows do particularly well on sand country during the summer compared with finishing stock. During this year’s drought they’ve held on particularly well considering Simmentals are not known for stacking a lot of fat on their backs.

“A farm consultant once told me cows were a waste of time so I invited him to come and have a look at my cows on the sand country and the quality of the feed they were eating.”

Wintering of the cows occurs on grass and hay three age-group mobs behind hot wires, designed to minimise dominance. Beginning in June and going through to early November when the calves are docked and the bulls go out, this system requires regular visits by Mark particular over the winter and calving period. During this time about 300 round bales are fed out using an ingenious system that doesn’t require heavy machinery.

Mark aims to mine some cow condition over the winter until calving begins in mid-August. As cows calve the size of the grass breaks are increased with a view to improving cow condition before the bulls go out on November 10. Mark admits this increased grass intake can lead to the occasional calving complication in later-calving cows.

The herd delivers a calving percentage in the early 90s based on cows to the bull.

Once the bulls go out the electric fences come down and the three cow groups enter their own individual rotations until the bulls come out at the end of January.

“It’s a long mating period however because I’m an absentee owner. I don’t get down there regularly over the spring/ summer so it’s just convenient for me to take them out then.

“The cows and heifers are scanned and embryo aged enabling me to cull the late cows.”

Mark targets Feilding’s first weaner fair in March in which to sell his specially selected weaner bulls.

He believes in presenting as even a line of weaners as possible so when the calves are marked any off-coloured bulls are castrated (normally only about 12-15) with the smaller ones being left entire.

“I thought the weaner job might be better this year so I left more bull calves entire, however the grass just didn’t grow so my sale weights weren’t as good as usual.”

The steers are used as a buffer between the bulls and the heifers.

During the summer the bull calves destined for the weaner fair along with their mothers are drafted off and grazed on 35ha of the only wet-sand block on the farm where there’s normally more feed and better regrowth.

At Tapuwai, Mark’s aim is to grow the male weaner calves at a minimum of 0.5kg/ day during the winter and the heifers a little less and to kill most of them except for the replacement heifers before their second winter. He is the first to admit, however, they are not fed as much as they should be. The heifers are killed at about 210kg carcaseweight (CW) and the bulls 270kg. Any bulls and heifers not finished by 18 months together with the 18-month steers are wintered at Bulls and finished the following spring. The 30-month bulls are killed at about 350kg and the steers at 330kg CW.

Home for Coopworths

Tapuwai is normally home to about 2500 Coopworth ewes of which 650 MA and 710 two-tooths are mated with Coopworth rams. Suffolk rams are mated with 850 “B” flock and 315 old ewes that reared twins and triplets last year. Cull two-tooths (150) are joined with Sufftex rams. All ewes except the MA Coopworths are exposed to teaser rams for 17 days before the entire rams go out on February 22 for two cycles. The MA Coopworth ewes are joined with Coopworth rams on March 10. The average mating weight of ewes is 62-64kg.

This year more older ewes have been mated than normal with an expectation that scanning will reveal more dries than usual. Mark will decide on final winter numbers after scanning.

Tapuwai, when it was 45ha smaller, used to carry 4000 Coopworth ewes during the era when high stocking rates, low lambing percentages and high animal health bills were common.

“At this time we felt the ewes weren’t milking well enough so we put a splash of East Friesian through the flock, however, we soon realised that feeding the ewes better achieved a similar result.”

Mark has been gradually reducing the stocking rate and concentrating on feeding stock better to improve per head performance. He concedes it is a balancing act he hasn’t yet completely mastered and is the first to admit he needs to feed his stock better at times. The issue has been exacerbated by recent droughts.

Ewe hoggets are not mated as Mark believes his present simple system of wintering them at Bulls works well and lambing them would add another high-priority stock class to his system.

“I used to struggle to get above 135% lambing with my 2ths and realised after grazing them off-farm as hoggets for a couple of years and getting 165% that I wasn’t feeding them enough. Now that I winter them at Bulls I’m able to feed them better and normally they scan around 170%.”

Vetdectin and selenium are used to drench ewes immediately before the rams go out.

“I used to just drench them with selenium however a couple of years ago there was an outbreak of Barbers Pole during mating so now I take preventative measures.”

Both Coopworth and Suffolk rams are bought from local breeders, the Sherriffs. Mark looks to buy Coopworth rams that have a high maternal index targeting facial eczema tolerance, survival and growth, particularly early and medium-term growth. Wool is still important to Mark so he rejects any rams that have low fleece weights breeding values and unsound fleeces. Rams must be structurally sound with moderate body length and backs that are not too flat because cast ewes are a problem at lambing time.

A high terminal index with a focus on early growth and structural soundness is what Mark focuses on when selecting his terminal sires.

Ewes remain in their mating mobs each with their own rotation of 23-24 days until scanning. Mark expects scanning percentages to be back this year due to a prolonged dry spell and declining ewe bodyweights but still expects the two-tooths to scan 160%, the MA ewes 178% and the old ewes 200%.

Scanning is performed in May about 90 days after the rams come out with dries,singles, twins and triplets being identified. Dry rates vary from 2-4%.

Two tooths and MA ewes carrying singles are separated and stay that way until weaning. Twin and triplet-bearing MA and two-tooth ewes are also kept separate. Ewes with triplets from the B mob and the old ewes are pulled out after shearing and preferentially fed.

Mark likes to get ewes vaccinated and drenched five weeks before lambing and ewes carrying multiples set stocked three or four weeks before lambing and singles two or three weeks before lambing. Singles are set stocked at 11-12/ha, twins at 7.5-10/ha and triplets at 7.4/ha.

Ewes are also foetal aged so that those due to lamb in the second cycle are identified and kept separate from lambing to weaning. This enables Mark who does a lambing beat to concentrate on just the ewes lambing in the first cycle and deal with the second cyclers later. At lamb drafting it also enables him to concentrate just on the lambs born in the first cycle while leaving those born in the second cycle in the paddock.

Mark’s drafting strategy is to kill 1200 Suffolk cross lambs off mum by the end of the first week in December at 18.5kg. Owning his own truck enables him to transport them in drafts of 200 directly to Ovation in Feilding 37km away thereby minimising weight loss.

The next lamb draft is during the first week in January. Every week after that to the end of March 200 lambs are trucked to Ovation leaving about 550 lambs to kill during the winter.

A triple combination drench is given to lambs at docking, followed by two monthly drenches of vetdectin/cydectin in December and January, a Barbers Pole drench in February returning to a monthly triple for March, April and May. An exit drench of Zolvix/Startect is used in June.

Last year the 1200 lambs killed before Christmas averaged $154. The average weight of the lamb crop including the winter lambs is normally 19-19.5kg however this year it will be back to about 18.7kg due to the drought.

Coopworth lambs are shorn at main shear in mid-December together with all ewes except those old “B” flock ewes that have reared twins or triplets the previous year. They are shorn before the rams go out and again soon after scanning. All main “B” flock ewes other than those scanned with singles are also shorn after scanning. Two tooths get shorn at the Marton shearing competition in February after being shorn in July as hoggets.

Improving lamb  survival

Winter shearing of ewes carrying multiple black-faced lambs is designed to stimulate foetal growth, lamb birth weight and improve lamb survival with the opposite being the reason for only shearing single-bearing ewes annually.

Any blackface lambs remaining at the end of January are shorn then.

Tapuwai is 320 metres at its highest point and experiences an annual rainfall of 1040mm. Its contour is 50% flat/easy and 50% medium hill mainly in the form of gully sidlings. Soils are a mix of moderately consolidated sandstone on the hills, volcanic ash on the higher terraces and loess, alluvium and gravels on the lower terraces. The farm is on the edge of the Porewa fault line.

Soil fertility levels are generally good on the flats with Olsen Ps being in the mid-to-late 20s and pHs around 5.8. Sulphurs are excellent at 17 for sulphate and 18 for organic.

“I take a lot of hay off the flats so they get a lot of fertiliser to replace the nutrients removed.”

Stock water is supplied via troughs, natural water courses and dams some of which have dried up this summer. Availability of stock water is not normally an issue.

Mark represents the third generation of Godfreys to farm Tapuwai, his grandfather having moved there from Eketahuna after the World War II. Mark has two children Grace (19) who is in her second year of Sports Medicine at Otago and is a NZ representative in the 400m women’s relay team and Harry (17) who is in his last year at secondary school. Both are interested in the farming business and help on the farm when they are home from studies.


  • Mark Godfrey, Marton/Bulls
  • Owner Tapuwai Farm Ltd
  • Main farm at Marton with runoff at Bulls
  • Total area farmed 552ha
  • Complex sheep and cattle breeding and finishing business
  • Producer of top weaner cattle
  • 1 labour unit manages 6500SU at 12SU/ha.