Sunday, July 3, 2022

Beefing up the sheep job

Mangaheia Station on the East Coast north of Gisborne has flexible sheep and beef policies to help cope with whatever nature and the market throws at it. Anne Calcinai found as it’s summer dry anyway market prices will probably have a bigger impact on the bottom line than the drought. It’s hard to put an exact value on the beef cow’s contribution to Mangaheia Station’s bottom line. As well as producing progeny to meet the prime and store markets, the Angus cattle work hard year-round, maintaining pasture quality for the breeding ewes to help lift sheep production on the coastal hill country station at Tolaga Bay. “The Angus cows are a big driver of our sheep performance,” farm manager Leo Edginton said.

Between 850 and 900 Angus cows are mated every year. The cattle policy is based on maintaining pasture quality for the Romney-Perendale breeding ewes. All cows calve under lambing ewes – stocked at 0.7 cows/ha – and last year achieved 89% from cows mated to calves weaned.

“They’re pretty tough cows on hill country,” Edginton said.

“We don’t save them any calving tucker at all.”

Despite a tough season, 96% of this year’s breeding cow herd was vetted in calf.

After pregnancy testing, the cows are set stocked until calving. Sheep are rotated underneath the cows through winter.

Calving starts late September to avoid staggers and to ensure calves hit the ground when grass growth is at its peak.

“There’s a bit more grass coming away, which enables cows to accelerate their intake to keep hold of the pasture quality for lambs and allows her to regain the weight she lost over winter.”

The Angus bulls go out at a 1:40 ratio in December and cows and calves are rotated in mobs during summer.

A small mob of terminal cows is mated earlier to a Hereford bull.

Mangaheia has very wet winters. With cows pushing into steep country, it is safer for them to be left alone and helps avoid too much track damage.

The biggest driver of profit on Mangaheia Station is sheep performance so Edginton said the focus is to have cattle maintaining the pasture quality all year round, rather than letting it get away and having a big clean-up job come winter.

The focus on pasture quality for ewes and lambs did require some compromise in calf weights but Mangaheia steers are well sought after at store cattle sales.

Depending on the season, steers are sold from yearling age onwards, either in spring after their first winter or the following autumn if feed allows.

“If it’s dry in spring, they all go straight away and it’s a big outlet for us but last year we sold them all in autumn.”

That was a good season so 30% of the steers were finished on the station at over 300kg CW.

In contrast, this season two-thirds of the steers were sold at Matawhero in spring at 350-400kg LW. The tail enders were sold at 400kg LW in mid March.

“We get a lot of repeat buyers.

“Mangaheia steers have a good reputation for being quiet and shifting well.”

The steers attracted a good premium at the saleyards and finishers were killing them in excess of 400kg CW, Edginton said.

All excess heifers are finished on Mangaheia if the season allows. Last year an extra 200 trade heifers were bought in but this season’s culls had to be sold store.

“Heifers finish easier and they’re quite flexible,” Edginton said.

“If we get a dry season the cull heifers can be sold store if they have to.”

Constitution was the most important factor when selecting replacement breeding cows. They are selected strongly on type, temperament and constitution with good bone and structure.

“We try to keep cows a moderate size for the steep hills.

“We push our cows pretty hard to make sure we keep the faces clean and tidy and get good clover growth.”

Edginton said they aimed to have at least 90% of any rank pastures cleaned off before autumn – the critical time for clover germination for next season.

“The biggest driver for us is keeping good quality tucker for our sheep.”

Weaner cattle are drenched through their first winter. Heifers are drenched again going into their second winter then again in spring. Cows get their final drench pre-winter before having their first calf as a three-year-old.

A dry spring can make it challenging for cows to get back into calf.

“For two months, when the bull goes out, we look after them pretty well. We’ve got to get them back up to weight to take a bull.

“It’s not profitable if we don’t get a decent calving percentage out of them.”

Despite the focus on ewes and lambs, they still aimed to make as much profit from the breeding cows as possible, always striving for higher calving percentages, better weaning and saleable weights.

“We buy very good genetics and we’re still pushing every year to try to produce the best calves we can.”

Mangaheia buys about six Angus bulls each year. All are east coast bred, most coming from Kaharau Angus stud as well as Ratanui, Turihaua and Turiroa studs.

This year’s weaner cattle were lighter than usual but still averaged 240kg despite the dry season and being weaned three weeks early.

“If we saved country for them we’d have to set stock ewes heavier or carry fewer ewes.”

At weaning, cows and calves are usually mustered to a gate and drafted into separate, neighbouring paddocks.

“It only takes them a few days to settle because their mothers are right there.”

A 30ha crop of interval rape is grown for the weaner steers on medium hill country where they are wintered for three months before being put back onto grass.

Heifers and hoggets are not mated, allowing room for them to be farmed on harder country not suitable for calving or lambing, saving better pastures for the breeding stock.

Grass grows in winter 

Flexible cattle policies are helping Mangaheia Station through a tough season.

Gisborne, like many regions, was declared a drought zone this autumn but manager Leo Edginton said Mangaheia was typically summer-dry anyway, with the advantage of a longer growing season.

“It’s warm country here so we’ll keep growing grass right through the winter.”

They did off-load cattle earlier than usual because of the drought – selling the steers at the Matawhero saleyards in Gisborne in mid November and the cull heifers store in March.

Calves were weaned three weeks earlier than usual, in mid March, to allow breeding cows a better chance to gain weight for the winter.

The cows were lighter than usual but Edginton said being back to the winter cattle numbers by mid March would give them more time to recover.

If feed becomes too tight they have the option of selling weaner steers but that would be a last resort.

Importantly, all lambs on Mangaheia would still be finished this season, even after weaning 2000 more than the previous year.

Edginton said the falling lamb prices would probably have more of an impact on profit than the drought.

Focus on lambs 

Maintaining optimum breeding ewe condition is helping increase sheep productivity on Mangaheia Station.

Last year, more than 14,000 lambs were docked. The Romney-Perendale mixed-age ewes scanned 178% and weaned 140%. Two-tooths scanned 165% and weaned 135%.

A mob of 3000 ewes is mated early to a terminal sire South Down or Suffolk ram in February. Last year they scanned 160% and weaned 125%.

The early lambing ewes can’t keep up with the main mob in terms of lambing percentages but they are a vital part of the sheep policy.

“We have to do it to make a bit of room so we can kill lambs early,” Edginton said.

“We kill a lot of those ewes and lambs in mid-November. If it’s getting dry here it’s an important outlet for us.”

Last season, Mangaheia finished 10,500 lambs, averaging 20kg CW and $135/head.

This season, 4500 milk lambs were sent for slaughter at 18kg CW. Mangaheia targets a minimum lamb weight of 17.5kg CW and up to 22kg in a good season.

Lamb prices are down but Mangaheia was still averaging over $90/lamb so far and Edginton hoped to end the season with an average between $90 and $95/lamb.

This season 10,500 ewes have gone to the ram.

Facial eczema can be a problem on the warm, coastal station, so tolerance is an important factor in ram and breeding selection.

As the cattle continued working hard to maintain pasture quality for breeding ewes, the team at Mangaheia focused on good lambing percentages, finishing all lambs, striving for a high percentage of lambs being processed straight off their mothers and good weaning weights.

Ewes are condition scored before tupping – aiming for a minimum score of three – and Edginton said they were constantly working on lifting the quality of the poorer condition ewes.

“We’re always taking the tail end ewes off when they go through the yards because it’s worth a lot to us, trying to bring that tail end up.”

Gone to the dogs 

Leo Edginton has returned to the station where he once worked as a shepherd.

When Howard Ingles retired two years ago Edginton returned after 10 years away from Mangaheia Station, this time as farm manager. He and partner Lydia have two children and another due in June.

“Howard was a bloody good manager. I learnt a lot off him and I was rapt to come back.”

Edginton enjoys working on big stations and the hill country mustering that comes with it.

Ingles is a top dog trialist and that tradition has continued on Mangaheia, which hosts the Tolaga Bay dog trials.

Edginton is a dog trial judge and keen competitor, qualifying for the New Zealand championships every year.

Even the station’s youngest shepherd Mark Kennedy, 17, qualified for this year’s NZ dog trial championships.

As well as the manager Mangaheia employs three shepherds, a cook, general and a tractor driver.

Shepherding jobs are sought after on Mangaheia Station, mainly due to the hill country mustering and the three meals a day provided by station cook Cas Morrell.

Edginton said it was worthwhile ensuring staff were well fed and healthy.

“You’re nothing without your staff.

“Howard deserves a lot of credit for how many good men he’s trained up over the years.”

The steep country and wet winters require all stock work on Mangaheia to be done on horseback. They also breed and break in all their own horses – another drawcard for a keen stock person. 

All credit to Ingles 

Hard work during the previous manager’s reign continues to pay off for Leo Edginton and his team on Mangaheia Station.

Edginton took on the manager’s role two years ago when Howard Ingles retired after 35 years in the job.

Ingles did a lot of medium hill country cultivation and regrassing, providing high quality feed to stock on more than just the 217ha of flats.

“He did patches in every paddock he could get to,” Edginton said.

“I’m reaping the rewards of that.”

To help finish every lamb born on the property, sometimes more, a 60ha hunter brassica crop is sown in early October and 10ha of chicory/clover/plantain in autumn. The combination crop provides three seasons of grazing before being sown in grass.

Pastures on the flats are renewed every six-seven years, this year using Trojan and Samson. Edginton said the flats were key to being able to survive the dry summers and still finish lambs.

“Without it we’d struggle.”

While lamb finishing was an important part of the farm income, Edginton said they strived to achieve a balance so the focus on finishing lambs was not to the detriment of ewe condition.

A 30ha crop of interval rape is grown for weaner steers on medium hill country where they are wintered for three months before being put back onto grass.

Another 100ha of medium hill country has recently been developed. Part of that area was sown with new grass this autumn while the rest will grow its first crop for the coming winter.

Hill paddocks range in size from 40ha to 130ha.

Edginton said the hills were sensibly fenced and didn’t lend themselves to further subdivision.

Station owner Annette Couper supports a good maintenance programme. Fertiliser, mainly super, is applied annually as well as nitrogen on the crops plus occasional dressings of lime.

Couper has invested in development, mainly through fencing, scrub-cutting and a new set of concrete sheep yards to the point that the fences and scrub now only require maintenance.

She remains passionate about wool so sheep on Mangaheia Station are still culled on wool quality, despite current poor returns from the fibre.

Edginton said it was a challenge taking over a farm that had been so well run by the same manager for many years.

“The challenge for me is to keep it at least at the same level and keep improving.

“I base my management around what I’ve learnt off Howard more than anyone.”

Edginton said the country at Mangaheia was prone to weed growth but plenty of spraying during Ingles’ tenure had weeds well under control.

The thistles are few enough now that the staff can keep on top of it themselves and they carry prills while working, to drop on thistles if they do see any.

Edginton said he and Couper had a good working relationship, dealing directly, without a supervisor or consultant.

Farmax is a valuable tool for the manager, used in planning, budgeting and keeping an eye on the trends.

“I can access any information I want but it’s only as good as the information you’re putting into it,” he said.

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