Tackling challenges and jumping at opportunities to advance on-farm productivity is the key focus of farm system planning on Blue Cliffs Station.
The historic station at Otaio, inland from Timaru, is owned by the Rolleston family and managed by Tom Bell as a specialist sheep and beef operation.
The 4750ha station, including 125ha of forestry, 310ha of native plantings and 1600ha of developed paddocks, ranges from lighter stony soils to heavy clay downs and steep undeveloped country.
Blue Cliffs was host to a recent Beef + Lamb New Zealand Farming for Profit field day, at which a good portion of the afternoon was focused on maximising both lamb and beef production while matching pasture and forage types to soil and the environment.
In his introduction, Bell acknowledged the long association of the Rolleston family with Blue Cliffs, which has been in the family for 145 years and is currently owned by former Federated Farmers national president William Rolleston and his twin brother John.
“They don’t try to be farmers, they have other individual business interests, and I feel privileged to manage the farming operation for them,” Bell said.
Outlining the business plans and production, Bell highlighted matching pasture and forage types to the differing soils and environs of the flat to rolling country.
Focus areas of the environmental plan include continuing to fence off waterways and wetlands, considering the potential for more forestry in marginal areas and preserving soil structure during winter grazing while also minimising cultivation.
This includes maximising pasture quality and increasing legumes while using crops through strategic grazing management and pasture renewal.
“Kale is an important crop in pasture renewal, more to breaking in ground, with summer to spring rape in keeping with slope regulations,” Bell said.
“For a winter feed there is not as much utilisation out of the kale for the beef, but this is good feed for ewes.”
Weed challenges include nodding thistles while in the dryland, lucerne horehound is an ongoing challenge.
“The red clover is great for liveweight gains but has huge nodding thistle challenges.”
Fodder beet has proven its worth in the winter feed management, though this year, with the wet and late planting, it has cost significantly more to grow.
“The sheep transition to the fodder beet more easily than cattle, there’s not the same risk.”
Questioned about swedes, Bell said, “I have tried swedes, yes, but not keen on them.”
Other forages and crops include Italian annual grass and oats with the overall agronomy system taking in kale to Italian to new grass, red clover or lucerne.
With changes to winter feed regulations, more summer crops, rape or grass, have been grown more recently as a first stage in pasture renewal.
Blue Cliffs runs 7850 mixed age breeding ewes, 3100 two-tooth ewes and 3200 ewe hoggets with the Romney lambing percentage at 152% and the Perendale hill ewes at 139%, making a total 17,570 lambs weaned this past season.
“The goal is to maximise lamb production to wean as many kilograms of lamb per ewe mated per hectare,” Bell said.
In the beef operation, all calves on Blue Cliffs are retained and finished, supplying steers at 15 months to the Five Star Beef feedlot with all other cattle going to Silver Fern Farms
Friesian cross steers and heifers are purchased as yearlings and finished, with the property running an average 1300 cattle across a season including 480 mixed age cows, rising two year (R2) in-calf heifers, R1 weaned heifers, steer and bull calves, R2 beef heifers, R2 dairy cross steers and heifers for trading, and Kakahu Angus breeding bulls.
Technology coming into the breeding is aimed at increasing production with improved herd selection.
“We have started inherit select, but only one year into it so not expert at that yet,” Bell said.
“We have taken out 150 R2 heifers to look at size, condition and temperament with confirmation being the big one, to measure traits and give us individual DNA.
“Also importantly, it gives us a measure, ticking a few boxes of how we look over the whole herd when we are selecting bulls.”
Discussing the technology, Amy Hoogenboom from Zoetis Genetics referred to inherit select as a heifer replacement tool.
“Effectively it is multi-breed for EBV prediction for heifers based on DNA only.”
Zoetis is a global company working with breed association and researchers globally to future-proof breeding and give commercial farmers an improved herd selection tool.
With Blue Cliffs in its first year of inherit select, it’s about determining a baseline group as it takes three to four years to see a real difference on farm, Hoogenboom said.
“When trialled in NZ for launch we did trials across a variation of herds and genetics and it was found that cattle genetics in NZ on a genotype basis are not as different as we might think.”
Questioned on accuracy, Hoogenboom said animals are ranked in a group and research shows this compares favourably alongside individually ranking off the carcase.
“At the end of the day it is what is appropriate for your farm system, not about what everyone else is doing,” she said.