Terry Brosnahan

Manawatu farmer Johan Bremmers has finished lambs for the past 25 years, but what’s changed is the sheer scale of his family’s operation.

It has now grown to include five farms and finishing 20-25,000 lambs and 1000 steers a year.

He, his wife Helen and their two sons, Carey, 38, and Luke, 36, are farming four farms in the Manawatu and a hill country in Taihape under the family’s company structure.

The recipe of their success is keeping it simple and having good stock.

When buying stock Johan (64) looks for animals which appeal – good frame, bone and constitution. That’s why they like Romneys and Angus.

Johan only buys lambs where it is known where they came from. He needs to know the farm and the district as he doesn’t want to buy lambs from poor land. That’s why a lot of lambs come from Taihape.

He never buys lambs off a trader.

‘When they are ready to go, they go, or when I run out of grass they go or when I need the money.”

Johan has been buying cattle off the same Hawke’s Bay farmers for the past 17 years.

The home block at Halcombe is 219 hectares, which they own. They lease another 810ha at the back of their farm and an 81ha block.

The Bremmers own Twin Rivers 676ha, near Halcombe, a breeding and finishing operation, and also own Waituna, a 227ha finishing farm.

They own a 729ha breeding farm at Koeke, Mataroa, near Taihape. The lambs start leaving in January for the other farms to be finished.

Luke runs Twin Rivers, Carey runs Waituna. A manager runs Koeke.

Johan and two employees work on the home farm.

A major concern of the Bremmers is drench resistance. It is showing in lambs coming from farmers who capsule ewes.

They have never carried out a drench test but rely on good stockmanship. Their stock are well-fed, cattle are mixed among the lambs and paddocks spelled from lambs. The quarantine drench is a Cydectin as the triple drench is being held back in reserve as the last option in the toolbox. The lambs never get a five-in-one because they don’t think it is worth it. Also they run too many and don’t have time.

The lambs are usually drenched within every 28 days.

They also run 450 breeding cows over the farms which are good pasture management tool.

Johan sees the lamb market as too hot, so has gone for more cattle this year. Like Ian Strahan’s farm (see previous story) the soils are too heavy to winter cattle but is more flexible on the sheep. They supply lambs all year round, with the last of the old season leaving one day, the new season arriving the next.

He does wonder why there is not a separate category for hoggets, otherwise they become just mutton.

All the stock are kept in their mobs they were bought in to evaluate their performance. If they excel the Bremmers will chase them next season.

“It’s got nothing to do with animal health, but definitely to do with performance.”

He doesn’t own a set of scales but he was a stock agent for 20 years. He works by eye and runs his hand over the lambs.

“When they are ready to go, they go, or when I run out of grass they go or when I need the money.”

Over the summer they tend to be killed in the 22-23kg range.

The lambs go to Ovation in Feilding, the cattle to ANZCO in Eltham.

The Ovation plant is only 5km away which means lower transport costs but more importantly the lambs are killed the same day.

Given the amount of lambs they send in, same-day kill is crucial.

Johan says there is significant difference.

“It is common sense.”

If milk lambs off mum are chased around the yard then put on a truck for a two-and-a-half-hour trip, “of course they will be dehydrated.”

That’s why large hill country farms have bought finishing farms near Johan and processing plants.

No winter feed is grown, it is all grass over the winter. About 300 acres of pasja is grown as summer feed. Chicory and plantain had been tried but they didn’t suit the farming system. Pasja is only in the ground for a short time before the ground goes into new grass.

Due to the wet weather this year, the pasja was late sown, towards the end of November.

They set stock on grass in about 8ha paddocks which is why they run steers. If the grass grows more steers can be added. If not, numbers are reduced.

“We put the dog out and pull four or five out of the paddocks.

“You can’t do that with bulls. I hate bulls.”

Johan did learn to love them briefly when 20 calves left to grow as bulls by a manager were sold recently for about $2700 each.

Johan says the farming operation works well because it is a family operation with good staff.

About 12 years ago it took off when there was a dairy boom. They sold a block of land for dairy farming and bought the Taihape farm. Then started leasing.

“Suddenly we had an extra 14,000 stock units in one week.”

They give Ovation an estimate of supply and over winter basically supply every week. The three finishing farms go around in a circle having a turn at supplying stock. During the year they supply 400/week and in August/September, 800/week.

They winter-shear the lambs, a cost they endure with wool virtually worthless.

Johan says dirty lambs are rare and only a handful need to be dagged due to good pasture management.

“That’s why the cattle are so important.”

The clay loam soils at Halcombe are ploughed mainly because they use a roller drill which gives a much higher plant population than other drills and direct drilling.

“The plant population is your income, you have to get it right.”

After a couple of grazings it looks like an older pasture because it has tillered so much.

“You can’t even see the dirt.”

They did direct drill last year and will do more as Johan was amazed at the result. But they find direct drilling also buries the clover too deep.

They regrass every seven or eight years and are now using Viscount with red and white clover.

They use plenty of lime and super with the pH all over 6, the Olsen P levels are 40 plus. To keep growing grass all Johan has to do is dial up a fertiliser truck.

July and August are the most difficult months when the wet slows pasture growth.

The Taihape farm feeds breeding stock to the other farms. Five-year ewes go to Halcombe and are run at the back of the farm. Ewe lambs go to Twin Rivers.

When buying in lambs to fatten, Johan likes strong Romney lambs, heavy-boned out of good ewes.

They buy two-year-olds in the spring because it’s too wet for wintering. If he did keep them they would need feed crops and not be able to winter lambs.

One important lesson Johan has learned from the 25 years of farming is, “Stick to what you know and it will grow.”

He didn’t give any financial figures but did say the margin relies on weight gain and winter premium.

Johan says the money is made on the price paid when buying the animal and picking the right window in the market.

Key points

  • Five farms mainly finishing and one breeding
  • Finishing 20-25,000 lambs and 1000 steers a year
  • They supply lambs all year round
  • During the year they supply 400/week and in August/September, 800/week.
  • Regrass with a roller drill as it gives the best pastures.
  • Olsen P levels 40 plus, pH 6.5