Crops are a vital tool for the Cooper family’s Top of the South farming bordering a national park and now raphno takes pride of place. Anne Hardie reports.

Braden and Robyn Cooper have tried a few crops over the years, but nothing compares to raphno which they now use to finish lambs that need little drenching because worms don’t like the plant.

The Coopers run a 9500-stock unit operation near Murchison in the Top of the South, split between leased blocks and their own development block they bought six years ago. They’ve been leasing Ben Nevis, a 630 effective hectare farm tucked away in the Owen River Valley for nearly two decades, beginning with a sharefarming agreement in their mid-20s.

Kahurangi National Park borders much of the farm which rises from river flats and plateau to steep hills draped with native bush and on this farm they run 7200 stock units. It’s a spectacular setting with snow-covered Mt Owen to the north and they live near its base with their two young children, six-year-old Ruby and four-year-old Travis.

Just down the valley they lease another 75ha with 800 stock units and two or three times a week they head to the other side of Murchison to their farm beside the Matakitaki River. They bought the 350ha (200 effective) property a few years ago when Ben Nevis was put on the market and they were farming with the uncertainty of a two-year lease. It was a farm that needed some young blood and enthusiasm, with sedge dominating pasture in some paddocks, decrepit fences and yards, a shearing shed that was converted from accommodation and a house.

‘The reason we’re really happy with raphno is how well the skinny ewes do in winter and less worms in lambs so they continue to grow well and you’re not putting pressure on drench resistance.’

It’s been a work in progress ever since and cropping has played a big part. Crops are a vital tool in their operation on both properties and in the past they have grown kale, pasja brassica, swede, chicory and red clover. Then four years ago PGG Wrightson asked them if they would like to trial raphno, a kale-radish-cross hybrid, which impressed them so much that this year they will plant 25ha. In the next year the crop will help finish lambs, lift hogget weights, winter weaner bulls and help the lighter in-lamb ewes through winter. They would put more raphno in the ground, but that would take too many paddocks out of production during the sowing and establishment of the crop.

Unlike some crops like rape, Braden says stock can go straight on to raphno without any downtime for their gut to adjust, while Robyn says lambs on the crop need little drenching – a big plus when drench resistance is becoming more problematic around the country.

“The amazing thing is the worms don’t like it and don’t climb up the stems. We drenched the lambs on the 20th February and didn’t drench them again until the 20th May. That was one of the reasons we put in raphno. The reason we’re really happy with raphno is how well the skinny ewes do in winter and less worms in lambs so they continue to grow well and you’re not putting pressure on drench resistance.”

Owen Valley traditionally gets up to 12C frosts through winters, though they have been getting warmer and now their coldest nights are a mere minus eight. But rain and lack of sun in early lambing this year still delayed grass and lamb growth. At the beginning of October the soil temperature was still just 12C which just wasn’t warm enough for grass to take off.

Easy drilling

Braden says raphno has been an easy crop to drill into the paddock and then graze it. The advice is to graze the leaf off and move the stock on, but he says it’s hard to break-feed lambs, so they graze the entire paddock when they use it for ewes and lambs.

When they sow the crop, their PGG Wrightson representative checks the paddocks every week from planting until the crop is established, mostly to stay on top of bugs.

“Bugs are worse than they used to be,” Braden observes. “There’s a massive amount of feed for them and we spray them, but the population is still building.”

Nysius, cutworm and slugs are the biggest threats, with slug mats distributed around cropping areas before drilling to decide whether they need to add slug bait down the spout of the drill with the seed.

Once established, they manage to get three to four grazings off the crop through summer and early autumn before shutting the paddocks up in the first week of April and adding urea to build up growth for winter feed.

Some of the raphno is planted on river flats at Ben Nevis where they have 100ha irrigated via K-line from the Owen River, while the crop is also planted on non-irrigated paddocks on the two blocks.

During last summer’s severe drought, 60% water cuts forced them to prioritise which paddocks to irrigate, shutting it off on the drier, stonier ground and concentrating on the better soils to keep crops and grass growing for the lambs.

K-line is a hassle and takes about two hours to shift a day, but it gets water on the paddocks and Robyn says they are seeing the difference this season between grass that suffered less stress through the drought and paddocks still struggling to recover in early spring. On some of those struggling paddocks, they over-sowed chicory and clover into the pasture in early spring to try and get more growth.

In all the years they have farmed in the Owen Valley, it was the worst drought they have experienced, opening great cracks in the soil and killing off hardy native beech in the bush.

The Matakitaki farm has no irrigation and last year when they sowed raphno into the sedge areas as part of their ongoing regrassing programme it resulted in a “fantastic” crop that finished lambs through summer. The crop’s ongoing success for them puts it above any other crop they have grown on the farms.

“We’ve had pasja in the past,” Robyn says, “and red clover and chicory. We had trouble with clover and it didn’t last as well as we hoped, but the nitrogen build up got fantastic grass growth afterwards. Plantain didn’t hold on. Chicory was raved about, but it didn’t do as well here as we thought and got weeds in it. They talk about plantain and chicory for ewes with lambs at foot, but we put the hoggets with lambs on the raphno and the hoggets are growing out better.”

A 5ha paddock of raphno was used to finish 500 lambs last year and resulted in good drafts to the works compared with those lambs on grass and though they didn’t measure the weight gain, Braden estimates the lambs were gaining between 300 and 400g/day.

Lucerne is being added into the mix this year, partly for lamb finishing through the dry and for quality balage to feed to the hoggets.

Between improved pasture over the years, better crops and hence more condition on the ewes at lambing, lambs now average 17.45kg carcaseweight at slaughter. Plus, they are yielding better on the raphno. In the past they grew pasja for the lambs and only about 50% of their lambs qualified for Alliance’s premium yield grade, whereas now they usually get 80% over the line.

They still want to lift lamb weaning weights and it’s one of their key performance indicators (KPIs) for business performance, so they have begun spreading urea on the hills in early spring at 100kg/ha to boost grass growth for ewes and lambs.

They begin weaning lambs in the first week of January and between the blocks, typically end up with 7,000 lambs from 4,500 ewes that are half Romney, quarter Finn and quarter Texel. Ewe numbers include hoggets and this year they had 500 hoggets to lamb which they decided was too many. Next year they will put only those hoggets weighing 45kg or more to the ram rather than the 40kg cut-off point this year.

Last season 2300 lambs went straight on to the trucks at weaning, with 1000 kept as replacements and the rest drafted regularly until April 25 when all lambs are gone from the properties and the rams go out with the ewes.

Last summer as drought hit hard, the Coopers sold their store lambs when they weaned them in late January, averaging 31kg liveweight without the lightest. Robyn says receiving about $100 a lamb certainly eased the pain of selling them earlier. Especially when they must work hard to finish lambs.

“We’re not really a finishing farm,” Braden says. “We’re pushing the boundaries all the time to get more production.”

Going forward, ram selection is going to encompass genetics for both facial eczema (FE) and worm resistance. They haven’t had a problem to date, but the warming climate is likely to increase the threat and FE has shown up locally for the first time. Robyn says that means it is likely some of their stock had subclinical FE, while drench resistance is an increasing problem around the country.

While they don’t drench their cows, the ewes are given 100-day Extender capsules each year, with tests taken before the capsules and then 10, 30, 60 and 100 days after the drench. A selection of triplet-bearing ewes are ear-tagged for the tests as they are grazed on the flats and under the highest pressure.

Results typically range between 400 and 3000 eggs/g and interestingly, they found the fattest ewes have often had the highest faecal egg counts. Also, the tests on ewes that came through last year’s drought and in lighter condition gave similar results to other years. Ewes are condition scored at the same time they carry out the faecal egg counts.

Another challenge going forward is the Government’s action for healthy waterways plan which Braden and Robyn were wading through in early October – their busiest time of year. Streams are abundant on the farm, so if they have to fence five-metre strips on all of them with post and wire for sheep, the cost will be huge and so will the loss of productive land, with some paddocks becoming awkward to manage stock. Also, if the Government settles on 5m margins from waterways, they question how that will be measured – from its summer-time level, or flood width? And where waterways have already been fenced, will they have to spend more money on refencing a wider margin?

Keeping it simple

It’s an hour-and-a-half round trip to their Matakitaki farm, so Braden and Robyn keep stock management as simple as possible. Lambs aren’t tailed and the entire ewe flock is mated to Texel-Suffolk terminal sires so they can get them away as soon as possible.

Last season 1250 lambs were produced on the farm and 740 of those went on the truck straight off their mums.

“We got up there every two to three days through lambing, didn’t tail them and just drenched them for tape before Christmas,” Braden says.

“There was hardly any miss-mothering and we don’t get that big check from tailing. We don’t tail the singles here (Ben Nevis) either because we don’t keep them for replacements. Out of 700 every year, only about 100 don’t go on the truck on the first weaning draft.”

“It was a bit of a worry for flystrike,” Robyn continues, “but it hasn’t been a problem. We just give them a squirt of fly protection with the drench in December.”

“And that’s more for peace of mind,” Braden says. “For lambs worth over $100, it’s not a big cost.”

Time has always been the biggest challenge for the Coopers and while they employ one permanent employee, many jobs need to be planned around the routines of their young family. That means they often time work on the Matakitaki farm around the school bus and preschool in Murchison. Otherwise the kids tag along and the house on the property makes a good base for the family through the day or to stay overnight.

In the six years they have owned the Matakitaki farm, they have refenced a good chunk of the broken-down fences themselves and Braden says about 50% will be completed by the end of this year. Fencing the bottom of the hills has forced ewes further up the steep slopes to improve the pasture which was initially dominated by fern.

As well as fencing, they have built new sheep yards, added steel cattle yards and continue to regrass the sedge areas through cropping. The latter requires successive crops to get rid of the seed in the ground and until they planted some raphno on it this year, it has usually been kale.

Though it is still a development property, it has also given them more scope to finish stock and grow out replacement cattle. Beech forest opens up to the narrow valley with 110ha of river flats that create opportunities for the farm operation. Those flats merge into 90ha of rolling hills and then there’s the impressively steep backdrop which is where the ewes are working on rough pasture.

Back at Ben Nevis, there’s a good balance of flats and steep country, though not much of the rolling country in between. This is where the 150 Angus-Hereford-cross breeding cows are run, spending much of the year working as vacuum cleaners on the steep hills. They’re mostly black Angus-type cows with Hereford genetics as well and each year between 40 and 50 cows are put to Charolais bulls as a terminal sire.

The result is good calves that grow well and have a great temperament. About 90 bull calves from all the cows are farmed through to two-year-olds for a contract with ANZCO, aiming for 330kg CW when they have put on weight after winter.

As weaners, both the bulls and heifers are break fed on kale crops through winter. Then through their second winter they clean up grass paddocks – mop up the worm eggs on the flats where lambs have grazed, or the roughage on the hills.

Each year, Braden and Robyn also hand rear 36 Friesian bull calves they buy from a local dairy farmer. In the past they used nurse cows, but as Robyn says, the cows are often offloaded from dairy farms for a reason and they had too many problems such as mastitis. Plus, nurse cows need a lot of feed, so now they rear the calves on milk powder which is time consuming, but only for a short period.

The calves are divided into mobs of 12 and have towable shelters that can be moved with them to new paddocks. Robyn also thinks the calves do better on milk powder than they did on the nurse cows. This year the weaner Friesians were lighter going into winter than the beef weaners and were break fed on raphno to lift condition. Like the other bulls, the Friesian are taken through to two-year-olds with a target weight of 330kg CW for ANZCO.

Calves are not the only hand-reared stock on the farm. Lambs, in particular the odd triplet from ewes that might struggle to rear them all, are removed and hand reared. Last year they reared 60 lambs and in early October this year they were up to 30.

Lamb returns of $100 or more make it financially worthwhile, but Robyn says they also have a social responsibility to look after those lambs. They have tried different feeding methods but, in the end, good old bottles have proven to work best, with Braden building a feeder that holds 10 bottles. Young Ruby is a keen helper and it doesn’t take long to feed groups of 10 lambs.

This article is free to view because it is a topic of high importance. This article was published in Country-Wide magazine. For less than $10/month, you can receive this detailed information to help improve performance within your business. 
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