Toughest sheep in NZ

By keeping buying local, Northland farmer John Blackwell reckons his are the toughest sheep in the country. By Glenys Christian. Photos by Malcolm Pullman.

In Livestock22 Minutes

By keeping buying local, Northland farmer John Blackwell reckons his are the toughest sheep in the country. By Glenys Christian. Photos by Malcolm Pullman.

Arapohue sheep and beef farmer John Blackwell is a rare breed.

Unlike many Northland farmers he is still farming sheep.

But with the triple risks of viral pneumonia, facial eczema and fly strike he believes it can take 10 years to get stock from outside the north to the point where they’re safe.

So that’s why he’s so strict about buying sheep locally.

“If they can survive in Northland they should survive elsewhere,” he says.

“But not the other way around.”

Most of the sheep are run on a property of 200 hectares bought four years ago close to their 345ha home farm. They better suit its larger paddocks which average between 1 and 2ha. And the kikuyu pastures are not as good as those with none of the species on the home farm. But there are plans to carry out more subdivision. Chicory is being used in their pasture renewal programme of about 40ha, annually, 30ha of which is on the new farm.

John farms with his wife Lurline and their son Peter helps out. Peter runs a fencing business, employing five workers.

The Blackwells with farmhand Stacey Lawrence who started in February this year under an intern programme.

In total they now carry about 650 ewes with a lambing average of 150 to 170% as well as 250 hoggets which average from 110 to 120%. They were scanned on July 19 showing 153% in lamb, 5% with triplets and just 9% empty. From the late 1980s John concentrated on breeding a high-fertility flock as well as keeping eye on facial eczema tolerance. This led to a switch to Coopworths, mostly sourced from Northland’s west coast then there was a change to Ashgrove genetics to speed up progress. Now all ewes and hoggets are scanned and every hogget that doesn’t get in-lamb leaves the flock, averaging $180 nett. Tail-end ewes will be put to a terminal sire, which used to be a Suffolk ram.

“I liked them because the lambs were easy to identify as not being replacements,” John says.

But first he switched to Texels, then the Beltex breed, two years ago. They show good weight gain and finishing as well as looking quite different from the Coopworths. Lambs will go off the farm at 17 to 18kg from November each year in monthly drafts with prices last year ranging from $90 to $120.

“Then by April the next year we’re pretty well cleared out of the hoggets’ lambs.”

John does his own shearing, helped by Peter, who has run his own shearing gang for the last six years. He’ll also help out other local farmers when it comes round to their shearing time which he admits he finds “cruisy”.

“They’re making all the decisions.”

Buying cattle all year round

When it comes to his buying in of Friesian weaners over 100 kilograms John’s policy couldn’t be more different than his sheep strategy.

“I’ll buy from anywhere,” he said.

Replacing one finished bull with three weaners he buys all year round which he’s been doing for 40 years, initially on handshake deals which could be worth up to $100,000, but more recently over the phone.

On the beef side of the operation he decided to largely change to Friesian bulls in the late 1990s because of the better profitability.

“We only have about 20 steers now but can go from 700 up to 1000 bulls from late summer drought through to spring,” he says.

“We buy in a lot of bulls through the winter now as steers were becoming more expensive to buy. While bulls are more work, once you’ve set up a temporary fencing system they’re easy to shift.”

A local private discussion group he belongs to tested out a variety of different fencing systems around that time so the various pros and cons could be seen at close quarters. Thanks to that knowledge, temporary fencing cuts paddocks down to an average 0.2ha by use of a technosystem of polywire and fibreglass rods and “hundreds and hundreds of reels”.

“Because we’re quite a wet farm we tend to move the cattle every day,” he says.

The average rainfall is about 1.3 metres annually but with three recent very dry years it’s fallen under 1m.

There will be up to 28 bulls in their largest mob through the winter, which will be sold once they reach 600kg in the new year. They’ll go either to Silver Fern Farms in Dargaville, Auckland Meat Processors or Greenlea Meats in Hamilton. In winter and spring John will buy in the next generation with weaners costing from $550 to $900 going from 140 to 400kg. They’ll go into mobs of up to 90 when they arrive on the farm.

“That helps in summer as we’re not summer safe and it’s more effective to feed out silage to mitigate facial eczema.”

Animal health costs are about $3/stock unit.

He prefers straight Friesians over Kiwicross. “They eat grass really well.”

He tried Wagyu animals from First Light, saying it was very refreshing to work with a meat marketing company rather than a meat processor. He bought in 25 as weaners and took them up to weights of about 660kg, and recently bought another 50 weaners.

“The new farm may suit them better.”

Sold on chicory

About 70ha is made into silage every spring, half of it in big round bales and the rest in pit silage.

They used to make round bales of hay.

Pastures on the home farm are mainly ryegrass and clover with the odd paddock of fescue. He used to grow brassicas but found lambs took some time to adjust to the taste. Then he started growing chicory for his lambs back in 2000 and found there was no such problem. They started eating it on the first day. “It’s just like rocket fuel.”

It can survive for 20 years.

“It hangs around longer than ryegrass.”

About 80ha of the home farm pastures are chicory rich with the species only slowing down in July. One week this June delivered the best growth rates on the farm for the whole year.

Impressed by his lambs’ high intake and weight gain in 2014 John took part in a Beef + Lamb project, finished in 20 months, where five Northland farmers trialled different cropping regimes. In his case chicory showed up as the cheapest option with the best growth rates, and grazing it simply involved shifting a wire. And John is quick to counter arguments from fellow farmers about the amount of tractor hours involved in putting the crop in.

“Match that up against the tractor hours involved in feeding out silage,” he says.

The trial looked at how farmers could improve profitability and sustainability by growing cattle faster to finish them at a younger age. Young cattle in the trial achieved more than 1kg liveweight gain/day during summer and autumn when they were grazing chicory. They got to their slaughter weights earlier than those on ryegrass-based pastures.

Over the five farms taking part in the trial, chicory grew three to four times the drymatter (DM) compared with ryegrass-based pastures. This was during summer and autumn, with similar growth during winter and spring.

Chicory carried twice the number of stock during summer and autumn compared with ryegrass-based pastures with a significantly higher quality of an average of 11.3 megajoules of metabolisable energy (MJME)/kg DM, compared with 9.7 for ryegrass.

By May autumn-born bull calves grazing chicory for four months came in at an average of 44kg heavier than bulls on ryegrass based pastures. And in June spring-born bull calves on chicory for five months were 76kg heavier. But about half the liveweight advantage gained by grazing chicory was lost after bulls were put back on ryegrass for six months.

Extra profit of $200/ha

Using farm system modelling it was shown that if 7% of the farm area was sown in chicory which lasted 2.5 years, it could mean an increase in farm profit of about $200/ha.

John’s also grown a 3ha paddock of plantain which has shown good results.

“It’s a herb that hangs on well in the summer and is facial eczema safe.”

About 245 tonnes of superphosphate and urea goes on each year using their own spreader. Just over 1100t of lime went on this year from a lime quarry just three kilometres away run by friends. It’s usually applied every three or four years. On the home block the pH ranges from 6.1 to 6.2 while on the new block it’s slight lower at 6. Olsen P on the home block is from 30 to 45 but on the new farm is in the low 20s.

Bush blocks on the farm have been progressively fenced off since the 1970s, including more than a hectare containing a kauri so large that John can’t get his arms around it.

“I don’t know how it escaped milling.”

Drains have also been fenced and there’s a block of 15ha of pinus radiata which is due to be harvested shortly.

“We will replant it because it’s easier to muster the bulls when they can’t see each other.”

A strong community man

Dealing with every agriculture minister over the past 20 years has been the norm for John Blackwell, due to his representing a large number of different organisations.

He’s recently retired as president of Northland Federated Farmers, a position he took up five years ago with the goal of increasing membership, which has doubled. He had been its Kaipara chairman after resigning when a breakaway northern group split from the national body back in the 1990s.

The biggest recent issues he says have been non-farmers buying up forests for carbon credits which often means the trees aren’t pruned so the income isn’t seen locally.

“We should be following science.”

He says the Government is not doing that and they’re not giving farmers credit for the grass they’re growing.

However, he was pleasantly surprised during the Government’s last term when he made a personal plea to Regional Development Minister, Shane Jones, for donated feed to be brought north for drought-affected farmers. The minister rustled up 100 rail carriages in Auckland at short notice for its transport but it was already too late in the drought to be able to get the supplements up from the South Island.

John spent two years as Kaipara District councillor and was the last chair of the Northland Beef Council, after being put forward by the late Richard Drake. He was a member of Beef + Lamb’s Northern North Island farmer council and is a mentor for a Paparoa sheep and beef farmer in lower Northland. It is part of the Extension 350 (E350) programme set up five years ago to encourage long term farmer to farmer learning.

He’s also been a judge for the Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards and the Young Farmer of the Year regional final. His involvement with the Arapohue A & P Society goes back to his early farming days with him regularly running the sheep classes of its annual show.

Last year John became treasurer of the Northland Agricultural Field Days, held in early March, after serving on its committee for six years. He’s also on a local lake catchment group with the Northland Regional Council.

The farm was a case study for Beef + Lamb during the drought. The farms are used by its economic service for data collection.

Development work needed

John parents took on the 200ha home block as a rehab farm in the Clear Ridge block, southeast of Dargaville, after his father returned from the Second World War. They ran about 400 Perendale ewes which provided most of their income, adding an adjoining 145ha in 1977.

“They were really chasing wool then,” John says.

About the same number of Angus Hereford steers were also run, being bought in at weaner fairs and finished at 18 to 24 months, with 12 animals a week going to Hellabys in Whangarei through the winter.

“The price reflected the cost of feeding them through the winter and we did that for about 15 years,” he said.

He was always keen on farming, with him joking later on that the 11 years he spent on the Ruawai College board of trustees was more time than he’d spent there as a pupil.

So he came back to the farm, buying it from his parents in 1977 with his wife Lurline. Their son Peter’s fencing business is mainly for farmers but sometimes caters for urban dwellers wanting a bit of landscaping work done.

The new farm needed a lot of work on

infrastructure with a dam and water lines being put in, more than 10 kilometres of fencing, a big set of yards and a shed built. A quarter of the farm has now been regrassed. It was running only cattle and the house hadn’t been lived in for five years.

“..but it did have a nice four-stand woolshed and covered yards,” John said.

Farm intern programme

For the second year the Blackwells have hosted a student on their farm.

It is part of a farm intern programme run by the Whangarei A & P Society.

It aims to give students interested in a future in the agricultural sector some good, basic onfarm training. So for two years from February to December students attend a day of theory in Whangarei, run by Land Based Training tutors. Then they spend four days living and being trained on a Northland farm before having the weekend off.

Previously, the training the students went through didn’t prepare them for the many practical tasks farmers expected them to be able to perform such as tractor driving and using a chainsaw.

“The difference with this scheme is that they’re living onfarm, and not going home every night and getting into bad habits,” he says.

The programme is free with no fees paid, and if eligible a student allowance may be paid in the first year. There’s flexibility between individual farmers and students as to whether they live in or commute and what they are paid.

While some theory work needs to be completed there are no exams, however tutors will make onfarm visits twice a month to sign off that practical skills have been attained. At the end of the first year students gain the NZ Certificate in Agriculture Level 3. Then in the second year they will move into paid work and gain Level 4.

Whangarei A & P Society chief executive Chris Mason says eight students graduated from the first year of the programme last year. This year 21 are taking part with roughly half on sheep and beef farms and female. For the coming year there have already been expressions of interest from about 50 students as a result of being introduced to the programme at careers roadshows.

She says they may struggle to find that number of farmers so may have to limit students next year. “The key is farmers like John putting up their hands to do it because they believe in giving back to the farming community.”

Last year Chantelle Cook, 20, spent the year on the Blackwells’ farm, before leaving with two dogs, one of which she’d trained there, to take up a position on a Taupo Bay farm. This year Stacey Lawrence, 17, started learning the ropes in February.

• Location – southeast of Dargaville, West Coast
• 350kg/ha meat production
• 4000su over summer droughts, up to 5800 in spring
• Coopworth Beltex-cross lambs, every hogget not in-lamb sold
• Friesian bulls moved daily on 0.2ha techno-fenced blocks
• Two farms, one with kikuyu-dominant pastures
• 20 years of using chicory on the home farm
• Chicory part of a pasture renewal programme on second farm