With crossbred wool fetching ever-lower prices, farmers are switching to breeds that don’t require shearing. Sandra Taylor reports on the work of one Marlborough farmer. Photos by Lucy Hunter-Weston.

For a family whose love of wool extends to having a framed sample of the fibre hanging in their hallway, it could seem unusual that they would run a sheep breed that doesn’t require shearing.

But for Andrew Heard, running a commercial Wiltshire flock is the perfect fit for the low-input, organic farming system he runs on 1800 hectares of North Canterbury hill country.

Formerly fine-wool producers from Marlborough, Andrew and his wife Sara run the Mt Cass sheep and beef business in partnership with four other shareholders including long time organic producer Tim Chamberlain.

Andrew and Sara joined the partnership because of the people and the opportunity it presented rather than any strong philosophical desire to farm organically and it was the partnership that bought Mt Cass, a former Landcorp property, with an eye to converting it to organic production.

Andrew’s initial challenge was shifting his mindset away from a reliance on agrichemicals and finding a resilient breed of sheep and management system that did not compromise production and enabled them to capture an organic premium.

“I was terrified thinking about how we were going to deal with fly and internal parasites,” says Andrew.

After exploring the options, Wiltshire were the best fit and 12 years ago, Mt Cass bought their first Wiltshire rams, to put across the farm’s existing Corriedale and Lamb Supreme flocks, as well Wiltshire ewe lambs from Southland.

With 8300 ewes, they struggled to buy the quantity and type of rams they wanted and while the genetic pool is growing, the Mt Cass team have not ruled out exploring the importation of genetics from overseas.

But for Andrew, it has been a matter of working through the process of breeding and selecting and today their commercial ewe flock is an even line of Wiltshires. They have also established a Wiltshire stud flock and will be hosting their first ram and surplus ewe lamb sale on the farm early next year to meet a growing demand for the breed, particularly in light of recent poor returns for crossbred wool.

Andrew says the progression to a no-shear flock is quite rapid and in the first cross, the progeny typically has no wool on their belly – so no belly crutching.

“It’s not guaranteed but that’s pretty much what happens.”

No more crutching, dipping or flystrike

Within a couple of generations crutching, dipping and flystrike is eliminated and within three to four – so too is shearing.

Mt Cass still shears about 3000 older ewes and next year this will be reduced to 1500. With no belly, hindquarter wool and very limited fleece, shearing is quick and easy.

“The shearers love coming here, I used to shout the shearers a beer, now they shout me,” jokes Andrew.

He admits it has required a mind-set to be running sheep that don’t produce wool.

“I miss the wool but I don’t miss producing something that’s worth nothing and has a lot of associated costs, added stress and labour.”

For a large-scale operation such as Mt Cass, this eliminates much of the work typically associated with sheep over the summer months which block managers Will Pears and Steph Tweed admit can be difficult to get your head around.

“They are more like running cattle.”

Being organic producers, the Heards have an input framework which they work within and this allows the ewe lambs one drench and other classes can be drenched depending on faecal egg counts and approval from Biogro, but only when absolutely necessary.

“This was all quite alien to me as a “chemical-dependant” fine-wool farmer,” Andrew says.

The Wiltshires’ inherent parasite resistance and resilience, coupled with an aggressive pasture renewal policy means internal parasites are not production-limiting.

When they took over the former Landcorp farm, the owners identified new pastures, new genetics and fences as their top priorities.

They immediately sowed a legume-rich forage mix of lucerne, chicory, plantain, prairie grass and clovers and this mix has proved invaluable for growing out and finishing lambs.

Mt Cass spreads across three topographical and climatic zones, from the warmer coastal block, (they have 5km bordering the sea) to the higher, more exposed top country – which rises to 550m – and then onto the irrigated flats.

Andrew and Sara describe this mix of terrain and micro-climates as a real strength. They have a good balance of north and south facing country which means they have mix of warmer and colder, wetter and drier country.

This allows them to operate a split lambing with the older terminal sire ewes lambing on August 1, the mixed-age ewes on September 1 and hoggets on October 1.

Drought conditions over summer meant this year’s scanning was back by 10-12% to 156% across mixed-age ewes and two-tooths.

In drought, the ewes are flushed on organically grown barley and this year the station will be growing its own crop to give more control over availability and costs.

After mating, the ewes are wintered on grass and balage and after the scanning, the multiple-bearing ewes are run onto short-rotation ryegrass while the singles stay on pasture.

Pre-lambing the ewes are given a five-in-one vaccine and mineral drench, both of which are acceptable in an organic system.

Typically, the ewes are weaning 135%-145% and Andrew says the higher percentages are in the later lambing ewes that have been put to the Wiltshire ram.

Tailing is again quick, as they are just tailing and marking lambs – nothing else.

“They literally get tailed and then we don’t see them again until weaning.”

About 40% of the lamb crop is sold prime at the pre-Christmas weaning draft at 16.5-17.5kg and Andrew says yields in the straight Wiltshire lambs are more akin to a maternal/terminal cross than a straight maternal breed lamb.

The lambs are sold to Alliance and the partnership receives around a 70c/kg premium for their organically-produced lamb.

With prices for crossbred wool hitting new lows, Andrew says he has been contacted by a number of farmers interested in the Wiltshires.

These include farmers in their 50s, 60s and 70s who no longer have the appetite for the work associated with wool production and from farmers whose woolsheds need upgrading.

The Mt Cass owners are considering alternative uses for their largely redundant woolshed.

But the breed also appeals to younger farmers who are coming into farming with no memory of ever seeing strong returns for crossbred wool and no improvement in prices looking likely in the future.

After 12 years of breeding, Andrew is very happy with the ewes although as with all flocks, it is a matter of continuous improvement.

“They are not magic sheep, they are just easy,” says Andrew.

Having been working with a limited gene pool, Tim Chamberlain believes there is potential for more genetic gain within the breed, particularly with fertility and they find this exciting. Within their own stud, fertility is a focus and any hogget that doesn’t rear a lamb is culled.

The ewes are run alongside 200 Stabiliser breeding cows which play an important role in managing pasture quality and worm burdens as producing a calf every year. The cows winter amongst a 500ha forestry block which is part of the farm and are put to work managing pastures over spring, summer and autumn.

The business is audited by BioGro annually and can be subject to random audits at any time.

Compliance can be challenging from a practical point of view.

However, the rigor means stock have to produce within this regulatory framework and the Wiltshires are ticking the boxes on all counts.