A key driver of profitability is how much of the pasture grown is consumed, whether by sheep or bulls, vet Trevor  Cook writes.

The sheep industry has never had meat prices as high as they are now. A high-performing sheep flock run at or above average stocking rates is very profitable. It justifies the use of better land that previously would have been the preserve of trading stock, even bulls. 

I recently did the budgets for a summer dry farm of easy contour that the prospective buyer thought bulls-only would earn most. The mixture of an early lambing flock and bulls was in that analysis the most profitable, driven not just on sheep meat prices but a policy that consumed the most of the pasture grown. 

The profitability of enterprises cannot be taken in isolation. It’s as much about how they fit with other enterprises. A key driver of profitability is how much of the pasture grown is consumed. 

As weaning approaches of sheep flocks the outcome of management decisions going as far back as last autumn become apparent. While the slow onset spring for many will have had a significant effect, so will ewe condition and past feeding. 

We know that a big proportion of ewes that are off the pace with body condition at lambing were lighter going into winter. We also know that multiple ewes lambing in lighter condition will have poorer lactation so have lower lamb weaning weight. 

For those summer dry areas those lighter ewes in May often stem from being lighter at weaning last year. So the old adage, next year’s production begins at weaning is very valid. 

I talked last month about the high lamb survival flocks sharing a management background. The consistently high lamb weaning weight flocks are the same. 

For some farmers weaning is a fixed-time event and the overall farm management is set around this. Labour, markets, paddock allocations, shearing and holidays can all be anticipated. There are so many benefits from this approach. 

The downside is that every spring is different and adjusting weaning date to the variables should deliver better outcomes. The bigger the farming system the more attractive the fixed time approach just because the logistics very often do not accommodate variation. 

Feed conditions, lamb growth, ewe condition, weather predictions and market signals are all different each year which justify varying weaning dates. This year I have come across more farmers than usual planning to wean early because lambs are behind. Giving lambs first access to the declining pasture quality should give them a boost. 

However, on an East Coast farm last week on which pasture is abundant the decision had been made to delay weaning on the basis that the lambs are still growing and ewes still putting on condition, so why not let this continue a bit longer. 

As for so much of farming, no decision is absolutely correct. 

But there are some factors that should be taken into account. Young ewes have a shorter lactation curve than mature ewes so will cease contributing to lamb growth rate earlier. Often these young age class ewes, ewe hoggets and two-tooths, struggle to maintain body condition the longer lactation is being stimulated to go. 

In general for mixed-age ewes once beyond 90 days mean lactation the milk is adding little to lamb growth rate. Usually by then the lamb is competing with its mother for access to declining quality pasture. 

Again on another East Coast farm the 90-day mean lamb age was January 2. To wean pre Christmas the mean lamb age would be 70-odd days. To wean that early requires planning and must allow for later lambers to not be weaned. Christmas and New Year are significant obstacles to efficient flock management for later-lambing flocks. Given that cost, should lambing dates be tweaked to allow more flexibility?

Farmers in the United Kingdom very often quoted their image of New Zealand sheep farmers as: wean, drench and shear before Christmas and go to the beach. Some truth in this, but often the driver is not having to be bothered about fly, drenching and shearing over that time. 

Interestingly many of those same UK farmers now wean as much as a month earlier than they used to in their newly perfected pasture-based systems. For them a huge change delivering not bigger lambs but much lower cost lambs. In fact for many the lambs are as heavy when they get to that previous weaning age. 

The sentiment of being free to relax over Christmas is very valid and applies to farmers almost more than to most. For a vocation that can be demanding every day, is intrinsically coupled with family life and can often be lonely, creating free time is so valuable it justifies taking some short cuts or compromises to get there.