Squash and seed maize provide the bulk of the farming income, but as soon as practicable after harvest begins in January, work begins on preparing the ground again, this time for new high-quality ryegrasses to finish lambs.
“As soon as we’ve got some new grass growing, we start buying store lambs in to finish over winter on the cropping land that has been put into new grass,” said Frank Briant, who, along with his wife, Vivienne, farms in partnership with brother David and his wife, Mary.
“We don’t finish harvesting the seed maize until May, but in a good year we’ll have grass by late March, early April.”
Frank and David’s father Den started farming a small block on the flats in 1930. He, too, finished lambs, but on a much smaller scale to what his sons and their children do today.
The Briants buy in at least 8000 store lambs each winter, aiming to finish them as best they can to meat processing specifications, but also to the weights they require to make a profit.
“This year we had to finish them bigger to get a return,” Frank said. “Profit margins come down to the buy-and-sell price.”
That varies each year, depending on schedules and store lamb demand.
“Our target is to farm them for the margin we’re expecting, but once they’re prime they’ve got to go. Fat’s a dirty word these days.”
Lambs are finished mostly on short-rotation ryegrass, but if they can start planting early enough after harvest, it is sometimes worthwhile sowing a fodder crop like turnips and pasja.
On arrival, the store lambs are given a triple combination quarantine drench, then a double combination drench later as required: “Sometimes the triple combination is the only one they get, if they’re not here long before they’re finished.”
The Briants have most of the store lambs shorn with a cover comb during winter, again depending on their wool lengths when they arrive and how long they stay on the farm for finishing.
“It is a cost and a time-consuming thing,” Frank said. “Some years you can make money out of that; not this year.”
The distance between parts of the farm means some lambs need to be trucked to the shed for shearing.
Shearers come in once a week during the winter shear to do 500-600 each time. Because the store lambs are sourced from different farms at different times, their wool lengths vary, so they don’t all need shearing at the same time.
The first draft of winter lambs usually leaves the farm early in June. Lambs are weighed weekly from then until mid-October.
“The scales get a lot of use,” Frank said.
Finished lambs are replaced with more store lambs, because the farm is not big enough to hold all the lambs at once. Most of the lambs are sent to the Ovation plant at Gisborne, so the sheep don’t have far to travel and are killed on the same day.
The average lamb takes about seven weeks to finish, depending on whether they are a ewe or ram lamb.
“Ewe lambs settle down easier while ram lambs stalk the boundaries trying to get out.”
New grass and genetics key
The Briants work closely with stock agent David Streeter, who sources most of their store lambs and helps select finished lambs at drafting.
David said the Briants fed their livestock especially well. When sourcing their store lambs he paid particular attention to how well the rams were sourced for those breeding flocks and how well the sheep had been farmed.
“I try and buy something I know farmers have used good-quality rams and the progeny we buy are going to carry on and fatten well.”
Frank said finishing store lambs well relied on being hands-on farmers, giving the lambs what they needed, when they needed it.
The rotation between cropping and lamb finishing also provided the opportunity to feed lambs new pastures every year.
“Being able to feed them high-quality new grass is the key. We couldn’t do it on old pasture to the same extent.
“When we’re buying store lambs we’re looking for something with a good frame on it that can grow into a good sheep.”
A winter lambing flock adds another dimension to the Briant family’s farming business at Patutahi near Gisborne.
The 500 Romney ewes are run on a 70ha hill block, lambing during June and July to meet the early market. Following a busy winter finishing at least 8000 store lambs, the Briants aim to have their own winter-born lambs finished by Christmas.
Ewes are mated mostly to Poll Dorset rams and this season lambed 125% from mating to docking. Frank Briant was fairly pleased with that performance, given the early lambing.
While feeding was top priority, Frank said the other vital components to breeding and finishing a good lamb was ram selection. They look for a well-muscled ram, with good confirmation and prefer Poll Dorset for their suitability to early lambing.
The breeding ewes are drenched as required – usually twice a year – and shorn in December and late inApril.
“So when they start to lamb they’ve got four weeks of wool on and they’re reasonably safe,” Frank said.
His son Hamish is generally in charge of the breeding ewes and entered an especially even line at the 2012 GisborneA &P Spring Show. Specifications for the Ovation Chilled Lamb competition are 16-18.9kg lambs with 3-16mm of fat. After being judged on-hoof, lambs are slaughtered and judged at the Ovation processing plant.
The Briants’ winning pen of three lambs on-hook weighed 17.8, 17.3 and 17.5kg, all with 6mm fat measurements. Another lamb they entered claimed champion lamb title, weighing 18.2kg with fat depth of 10mm.
“It is very difficult to select three lambs which have such close figures,” said Ovation regional livestock manager Grant Allen. “Full marks must go to the Briants for their selection and the support they have given to this competition over a significant number of years.”
Sowing female maize seed late in October.