Multiples, short pasture, good genetics, careful paddock management – essential elements in this successful hill country farm business, as Russell Priest reports. Photos by Brad Hanson.

Unlike many hill country farmers who regard triplets as a liability, Ormondville’s Brent Mathews welcomes them.

“Good triplet results allow us to do our capital development out of cashflow,” Brent said.

Not surprising, given that last year the farm business showed a cash surplus of $1034/hectare (gross income $1551/ha less operating costs of $517/ha) and extremely low personal drawings.

In the seven years Brent and his partner Carlene Belcher have been on their farm (Bywell) they have completed significant capital investments including 12km of traditional fencing, new cattle yards, four sets of satellite yards and are about to build a new woolshed.

Last year, cashflow also provided $200,000 to buy a herd of cows and to buy out the investor who helped finance the farm.

Brent believes anybody who doesn’t capitalise on triplets is missing a huge opportunity. His aim is to maximise their potential. In a good mating about 28% of his wet ewes are scanned with triplets. They are kept separate from the rest of the ewes and lambed on some of the easier country at 6/ha, docking between 230-240%.

Last year Brent weighed a randomly selected set of triplets. The lightest was 32kg and the heaviest 38kg so the ewe would have weaned over 100kg of lamb.

Brent continually sets new performance targets. He entered the National Ewe Hogget competition recently, winning the wool section, and one of the judges asked him what his docking percentage goal was.

“When I told him it was 200% he looked at me as though I was joking but I believe you’ve got to have production targets otherwise you’ll go backwards.”

However, he’s still got a long way to go. His average over the last four years has been a creditable 164% with a high of 169%.

“Our aim in farming is to keep things simple and do the basics well. Our system works for us. We farm the classes of stock that we like, and at present sheep and beef cattle are very profitable.”

Brent and Carlene farm 642ha (594ha effective, the rest in plantation forestry) near Ormondville in southern Hawke’s Bay. It is strong, predominantly medium-to-steep hill country rising from 360 metres at the house to 625m at its highest point. Most of the farm sits on a limestone seam that runs up the east coast of the North Island. Brent classes it as late country that doesn’t experience a lot of weather extremes (rainfall 1300-1400mm annually) but when it does it recovers quickly. Summers have a lot of misty days keeping ground moisture levels up. The predominant wind is from the west, but the south-easterly is the most damaging because it can kill a lot of new-born lambs.

While Brent maintains their success can be attributed to the strong country and the genetics of the cattle and particularly the sheep they use, there are other contributing factors.

Foremost is his excellent grazing management and stockmanship with a strong emphasis on animal condition, maintained by micro-managing paddock stocking rates.

“While many farmers’ primary focus is on pasture covers, mine is on animal condition and welfare. Observation to me is the most important part of farming.”

For many farming operations Brent prefers to deal with paddock mobs rather than, for example, bringing his whole ewe flock in for vaccinating. This means he is better able to avoid bad weather, and doesn’t have large numbers of animals hanging around yards for long.

“Animals are not eating and producing when they’re in the yards, and ewes with multiple pregnancies can develop metabolic problems if held for too long off pasture.”

Although Brent prefers set stocking he doesn’t avoid rotational grazing. Ewes are rotated from weaning until the end of July/early August, then normally set stocked for lambing, with triplets at 6/ha, twins at 8/ha and singles at 13/ha. Ewe condition mainly determines when ewes are set stocked, not a fixed date.

Bywell ranges in contour between easy rolling and steep.

Short-grass farmers

Long grass a mere 5-10cm high is like a red rag to a bull to Brent, so he doesn’t shut paddocks up because he believes quality can be lost very quickly. Lambs are often weaned onto paddocks they’ve just come off. He aims to feed short, leafy pasture to his stock all year round.

“We are short-grass farmers and believe in quality feed and in getting the best out of the whole farm, not just the good country, cos it’s the whole farm that contributes to the bottom line.

“When you buy a farm you pay for every hectare so why not graze every hectare.”

He confessed he had to take the short-grass farming philosophy to the extreme this year with the drought, and consequently production will suffer. Rather than accept giveaway prices for some of his lambs he held on to them at the expense of ewe bodyweight.

“I had to box all the ewes together in the rotation this year; it was the only way I could get through the winter.”

When he and Carlene took over the farm in November 2013 it was covered in rank grass, so 350 beef breeding cows were brought in.

“All the neighbours thought we were nuts, and we probably were, but it cleaned the place up to the state in which I wanted it to be.”

Grazing cows continued as part of the farming philosophy until last year when they outlaid $200,000 for their own Angus herd.

“The cows improved our sheep performance markedly by cleaning up the roughage, and now the quality of grass doesn’t change from the bottom to the top of the hills.”

Operating a farm with such low pasture covers all year round and at a stocking rate of 12.2 stock units/ha requires a large degree of confidence in the ability of the soils and the climate to deliver the grass when it is required. The timing of lambing and calving in relation to the pasture growth curve is pivotal, and Brent admits that the late winter period immediately prior to lambing can be a real juggling act.

He goes around his farm regularly, constantly manipulating paddock stocking rates to ensure stock condition is maintained.

“I carry enough stock through the winter to be able to fully control pasture growth through the spring and summer, with late winter/early spring being the pinch point.”

Brent believes that a high stocking rate offers production opportunities in a good year, while the bad years can be dealt with by adjusting stock numbers.

Pasture growth starts to lift significantly towards the end of September, and by December the place is a sea of white clover, ideal for weaning lambs onto.

Single-bearing ewes and late-calving cows are his safety valves as they are able to be closed down if covers get too low. This is one of the reasons why he calves his cows so late.

Fertility, fecundity, longevity and lamb survival are the four traits Brent emphasises, and being able to get this information is one of the reasons he buys his rams from Forbes and Angus Cameron.

“There wouldn’t be another Romney breeder in the country who gets such a high lambing percentage while putting his sheep under so much pressure.”

Brent only buys rams out of ewes that have scanned and reared twins at every lambing for a number of lambings rather than young ewes that are unproven and may be culled subsequently.

“A significant number of the Cameron ewes are over eight years old and are still rearing good twins and triplets.”

“Good triplet results allow us to do our capital development out of cashflow.”

For their first year they ran mainly grazing ewes on the property. Brent did, however, buy some ewe lambs from two sources of high performance genetics. This allowed him to compare their lambing performances. He found the Cameron’s cull twin and triplet ewe lambs docked 15% more lambs as hoggets, so he has bought these ever since and said it has been the quickest way of getting the genetics he wanted.

Within their own flock, dry ewes and hoggets are culled. Ewes that scan singles and ewe hoggets that don’t rear a lamb go into the B flock.

Brent now tracks all hoggets that have scanned multiples to identify those consistently rearing multiples. Of the 389 out of 1100 hoggets that scanned multiples two years ago only 11 have been scanned with singles as two tooths.

Of the 3400-3600 ewes wintered, 600 are in the B flock and are mated on about April 25 to Willie Philips’ Dorset Down rams. The balance of the ewes go to Cameron Romney rams on about the same date for three cycles. Most of the ewes are in lamb after 20 days.

Brent regards the mating period as most important. The ewes are split into four groups, each having a four-day rotation. Ten days before and ten days after the rams go out, mobs are shifted daily.

“Shifting them seems to stimulate their appetite and also mixes them up with the rams.”

Ewe hoggets (1100) with an average weight of 42-44kg are mated to Cameron low birthweight Growbulk rams on May 1 for 35-40 days. Normally 900 get in-lamb, scan 138% and dock 92%. Brent’s goal is to get 1100 hoggets in lamb from 1300 put to the ram.

To challenge the hoggets at lambing time, Brent lambs them on the highest and most exposed country.

Normal docking numbers are 6300-7000 and Brent’s aim is to kill about 3000 of these off mum at about 17kg in early January, with about 4000 gone by the end of February and the rest by the end of March.

All single ewe lambs are killed with quite a few being killed off hoggets in early January.

Focus on sire selection

Last year, Brent and Carlene bought their own herd of Angus cows from the pick of those grazing on the farm, supplemented by 35 cull stud yearling Cameron heifers. The first crop of weaners were sold because of the drought but in future the heifers will probably be kept.

Three bulls Brent bought from Camerons last year averaged $12,000. He puts a lot of time into sire selection, focusing mostly on maternal traits that will deliver a live calf, like fertility, calving ease and scrotal size. The bull must have good intramuscular fat and be from a cow with high milk estimated breeding value (EBV) good longevity, and his mature weight EBV must be as close to his 400-day weight EBV as possible.

Bulls go out in mid-January for 60 days – the late October calving date allows wintering enough stock to control the spring flush.

“Late calving’s like carrying dry cows through the winter.”

The first mating of their MA cows produced a 4% dry rate. However, last year as a result of the drought this rose to 10%. Brent is aiming for a long-term calving percentage based on cows wintered of 93-95%.

Cows are set stocked among the ewes during the winter and the ewes and lambs during calving. Some of the lighter cows are calved on better feed while the heifers are calved on a paddock shut up after ewes have lambed on it. Few, if any, calving problems are encountered with the R2 heifers, which are mated to a low birthweight EBV bull.

Brent admits he should have weaned the heifers two weeks earlier this year but didn’t because no weaning feed was available. The heifers suffered a significant loss of bodyweight, hence they are currently lighter than they should be.

In spite of the soils being predominantly limestone Brent is an avid user of lime, claiming it is the secret to pasture palatability. Soil pH is 5.8-6.0 with Olsen Ps 18-30. Annual fertiliser application is 300-350kg sulphur-super, and no nitrogen.

Brent and Carlene do most of the work on Bywell, with some help from friends. Casual labour is used during the busy part of the year between Labour Weekend and the end of February.


  • “Bywell” – 642ha (594ha effective)
  • Sheep and beef breeding and finishing farm
  • 25km east north-east of Dannevirke
  • 30% flat-to-medium hill, balance steep
  • Owners Brent Matthews and Carlene Belcher
  • Strong focus on stockmanship and animal welfare
  • Last four years averaged 164% lambing
  • Short, high quality grass
  • GFI $1551/ha, working expenses $517/ha