An unusual attack has cost Paul Burt quite a number of his lambs.

The hoggets were already streaming off the hill as I approached the gate. The daily shift routine has made the dogs lazy and all I have to do is circuit the paddock. A harrier hawk lifted off from somewhere ahead and I noticed two small lifeless bundles already bloody as nature’s recycling gets underway.

I’d been getting one or two abortions a day over the last week which is disappointing having got the mob this far in a very challenging year. Despite being behind their weight target, 75% had got in lamb and all received their toxo and campylobacter vaccinations. They were doing well but so it goes with stock policy, the fine balance between production and economics and animal welfare.

The idea of mating hoggets has been around a long time but historically there were few farm systems capable of doing it profitably. Besides, when wool contributed half of a sheep farmers’ income a hogget was paying its way unmated.

In order for sheep farming to be a competitive land use today, it’s almost essential that replacement hoggets lamb. However, before letting the rams loose a long hard look must be taken at your management system.

There is a list of questions that require honest answers or the hoggets and their lambs will come off second best. First is there improvement to be gained in the ewe flock performance? If the ewes are not docking 150% with a 32kg hundred-day lamb weight it may be more profitable putting the extra feed (mated over non-mated hoggets) into the ewes.

Secondly, how good are you at growing lambs? Hoggets need to be a minimum 40kg at mating (say May 1). That’s not a high daily weight gain target but if your farm is stocked with finishing lambs, summer and autumn it will be hard to achieve. The third thing to consider is your spring pasture management. Infrastructure, fertility, altitude, stocking rate.

It doesn’t take much to be out of kilter to stall the spring and under-feeding milking hoggets or ewes will be hard on them and knock any profit out of the system. Another thing to consider, is there a safety valve in your stock policy? At a pinch, well-grown unmated hoggets can be under fed for a month in the spring with no lasting harm and hoggets have been the stock class traditionally tightened up at ewe lambing time.

Other systems are available that can return well-grown two-tooths to the farm and these usually involve grazing contracts off farm. Depending on the set up this could work well for the owner of the hoggets and the rearer. Our own arrangement has changed this year and now hoggets are the only sheep class we run.

We are partners in a lease property that is in a development state. All spring feed goes into the ewes as the simplest most profitable policy. The two partners buy half each of the replacement ewe lambs at weaning (this year $100), grow them and mate them, rear the lambs and sell the two-tooths back to the partnership in January (guessing $200 at 65kg).

As with any new idea a fair bit of optimism was involved and the driest summer/autumn in our 30 years of farming has dampened some of the performance hoped for. To their credit the fertile Coopworths scanned a 112% lambing potential. Weaning 100% as budgeted is not going to happen. Adding in the abortions, the dollars are being whittled away so I hope the capital gain part of the policy still holds.

Our farm is a grass-only operation so of course there are cropping or alternative feed options to ensure hoggets are well-fed. This brings with it another dimension in economics, specialist management and possibly animal health.

For us, in the first year of this new arrangement, gremlins have appeared but all going well the policy should provide efficiency and profit for both parts of our farm business in the future.

NB: Pathology has sent notice the abortions are due to listeria. Something rare and a first for us. A sheep farmer of many years I should have known to expect a bolt from the blue.