A Merino cross has ticked all the boxes for later lambing and achieving a wool return plus meat reports Anne Hardie.

The vigour of Perendales suits David Hobson well on the near vertical slopes of Takaka Hill near Nelson and for the past few years he has been experimenting with Merino rams to reap the benefits of fine wool before sending the lambs to slaughter.

For the past five years he has been averaging $30 to $35 per sheep for wool off the Perendale-Merino-cross lambs before finishing them at 19-20kg carcaseweight, with the last few hundred sold through winter and early spring for the late-winter lamb premium.

David and his partner Janet Morgan farm on the Nelson side of Takaka Hill, which made the headlines last year when ex-tropical Cyclone Gita carved a path of destruction across its steep faces, taking out the main road in several places and causing major slipping on farmland. On David and Janet’s farm, The Dip, 25ha had to be resown by helicopter in the wake of Gita.

Yet The Dip is perhaps the easiest of the three properties they farm on the hill. At 300ha, it gets a mere 1.9m of rain a year and though steep, the country is pretty straightforward. Almost next door and further up the hill, 300ha Ngarua moves up to 2.4m of rain and the country is covered in marble karst that opens unexpectedly and frequently to tomos that can claim lambs and calves all too easily. They’ve lambed there in the past, but 10% can be lost down holes and even higher percentage of cattle, so these days only the hoggets graze Ngarua and any calving is on selected areas. While tomos make farming challenging, caves on the farm are a tourist attraction that add another income stream.

‘We need to retain the strength and vigour of our Perendale ewes and add value to the wool…’

Further up the hill again is Canaan Downs, a 500ha basin they lease from the Department of Conservation that gets a good drenching of about 3.2m of rain a year, the odd snowfall and “nasty” frosts that delay spring growth until well into the season. It’s also open to the public who can roam and mountain bike at will, with a few thousand congregating every second year for the Luminate Festival. On the plus side, it’s healthy stock country, free from flies in summer, and a stunning landscape.

Between the three farms – and 20ha of flat land they lease near the base of the hill at Riwaka – they farm 2200 Perendale breeding ewes, 100 Angus cows and their progeny, which makes it conservatively stocked but provides flexibility in the system for the harsh climate.

“We try to keep stock in good condition to be flexible with our system and it means we’re not maxing everything to the limit. Well bred and well fed solves a lot of problems.”

He said the profitability flows on from that.

David has been fine tuning the farm system for more than 40 years, since he unexpectedly took up the reins after his father’s sudden death. He initially ran Romneys, including a small stud, but was attracted to Perendales that could look after themselves more and provide simpler management. They haven’t disappointed, achieving 130-145% lambing unshepherded, from 165-170% at scanning. The focus is on good wintering – with balage fed out on Canaan – and good pre-lamb management, before standing back from the flock through lambing.

The Perendales have enabled them to keep it simple, a philosophy that has worked well. It’s one of the only drawbacks so far with introducing the Merino because to keep it simple, you really want just one breed, he says.

Through the years he has been friends with merino breeders Steve and Mary Satterthwaite from Muller Station in the Awatere Valley, who encouraged him years ago to trial Merino wethers on Canaan. Some of the wethers’ wool suited the climate and others didn’t. But it got him interested.

“So about five years ago we decided to have a play with the Merino as a terminal with the idea that we could get a clip of wool off the Merino-Perendale cross, then still have a prime lamb. And there’s always a premium for the late winter lamb in late September/October and even November.”

Until now they have been putting just 200 to 300 ewes to 19-micron Merino rams, getting a wool clip off the lambs that averages 24 microns, albeit with variation through the cross, and slaughtering all the progeny. Those lambs have been killing out at 19-20kg carcaseweight with a yield of 54% or more that David says is a good yield for the properties. Most of their Merino rams are from the Satterthwaite’s dual-purpose polled ram, Desmond, which won the Australian Dual Purpose Merino Hogget of the Year class at the Bendigo Show.

Lambing for the entire ewe flock is planned from mid-September to coincide with grass growth emerging on Canaan and the first draft is off the mothers in mid-January. All lambs are weaned through January and drafting continues through to May, with the remaining 400-500 lambs trucked in lots of a hundred to the lush flats of Riwaka for finishing.

“We can finish lambs on the hills through to beginning of May and then the emphasis has to change towards the next breeding season and maintenance of the ewes.”

This year they are taking a massive step further with the Merino influence by selecting the best of the rising hoggets and mating 750 selected ewes to Merino rams. In the past they haven’t put the best ewes to the Merino rams, but this year they have selected not just on constitution and body, but wool that has soft handle and some lustre to make the most of the match with Merino. They have always tried to keep their wool reasonable quality despite poor returns and David says the Takaka Hill is a good environment to grow clean wool with good colour. Now there’s the challenge of growing finer wool that’s still good quality, while not losing the traits of the Perendale.

“We need to retain the strength and vigour of our Perendale ewes and add value to the wool because 26 micron and under opens up a lot more opportunities.”

From the 3000 or so lambs expected this year, they will retain about 350 Perendale ewe lambs and 300 Perendale-Merino-cross ewe lambs. It’s still debatable whether they will put the Merino-cross to halfbred rams or Merinos.

The Merino influence could change their shearing pattern as well. To date, they have been second shearing the ewes in a six-monthly routine that includes a pre-tup shear and another in November which suits their management and with the health and management and climate. They usually clip about 1.5kg/ewe at about $3/kg or less and David says there’s not much left after costs, whereas the Perendale-Merino-cross rising hoggets are producing about 2.5kgs of wool that is worth $10-$15/kg.

A dual-purpose Merino aims for a longer staple length, so they may be able to shear every eight months and David would like to be aiming a bit finer than the rising hoggets’ 24 microns, which will probably become 26-27 microns as a ewe – though even at 27-28 microns, it’s still $8-$10/kg, he points out. For the Takaka Hill climate, he’s aiming at a plainer-skinned Merino with fewer wrinkles and a free-draining wool that dries out easily.

He acknowledges the threat of flystrike in finer wool will be something they have to work through, though the cooler climate further up on Canaan will be beneficial. The plan is to run the Merino crosses in that country to avoid health issues with Merino, while he hopes to avoid footrot issues through his selection process. To date there have been no feet problems with the Perendale-Merino cross and he has been selecting rams with immaculate feet.

“We will have to be very selective with feet as well as wool – that’s the key to making it successful.”

So far the Merino cross has ticked all the boxes for later lambing and achieving a wool return plus meat, though David maintains it is still very much an experiment and two-thirds of the ewe flock are being mated to Perendale rams.