Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Super-charged weaner finishing

Weaners have to work around David and Hilary Ward’s super-intensive mid-Canterbury cropping enterprise.

“They have to fit in with us and not vice-versa,” David says. “Cropping is our focus and we use lambs and weaners to convert drymatter into dollars.”

Between 8000-14,000 lambs and 1000-1300 weaner deer are finished most years on Radfield, their 384ha irrigated farm at Fairton, 10km from Ashburton. The weaners fit in well cleaning up crop residue and grazing out pastures over autumn. They’re fed well, achieving daily average growth of 150-200g, and most are slaughtered during the higher paying early spring market, which frees up land for the sowing of spring cash crops.

A feed assessment in March and May is done to finalise winter numbers once sorted hybrid-cross weaners of between 55-65kg liveweight that “will hang on the hooks at 57-58kg” arrive from mid-March. After a two to three-week settling-in period the bottom cut of weaners is drafted off.

The medium and top weaners are sorted into mixed-sex weight mobs of 200-250 and spend most of their time behind electric tape, grazing ryegrass and white clover pastures. They quickly become used to the tape and the biggest problem is getting them to move out of a hot-wired paddock, David says.

For winter usually one area of up to 10ha of either kale/swedes or fodderbeet is grown. It has to be a top-performing crop producing at least 10,000kg DM/ha but preferably closer to 15,000kg DM/ha. This year Spitfire rape was grown and produced 8800kg DM/ha.

“We haven’t grown it for years but are very pleased with the result.”

What weaners graze is planned 10 days in advance and if feed conditions look tight, grain is fed. Pea vine silage is a valuable back-up and a smart way of reusing on-farm nutrients. The 250-300 wrapped big bales made each year are fed out during bad weather.

“We make sure they’re used to it beforehand so when we feed it they know what it is.”

Once the first weaners leave at the end of September, the rest are open grazed on Italian ryegrass.

“We’ve got to get them away early; it’s a bit like a 100-metre race … they’re on high-energy feed of premium value.”

From then the weaners graze red clover pastures until November 20, and the final few the last remaining paddock of grass.

The last of this season’s 1030 weaners left Radfield at the end of November. In hindsight it has been a mixed season, David says.

“We had good early growth, an average winter, great August and poor early September and early October, but we’ve managed to stay within striking distance of 57kg.”

Last season they finished 748 weaners, running 15/ha and achieving a $189/head gross margin ($2835/ha over eight months).

Weaner finishing in an intensive system requires a pro-active animal health programme.

“You have to take a preventative approach rather than be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”

Weaners get a pour-on as they come off the truck and are put in a paddock and left to settle for two to three weeks.

“We do that first up because we don’t want to put them in the yards and stress them and we know we’ll see them within 28 days.”

When they’re brought in for the first time they get a Dectomax, 5-in-1 and, if required, a Yersiniosis vaccine.

The last Dectomax is scheduled for early in July.

“It’s the worst time (for worm burdens) and gives us the right withholding period for the start of killing in mid-September.”

The Wards budget on a maximum death rate of 1.2% each season. 


David and Hilary Ward

Radfield, Ashburton

384ha intensive irrigated crop, lamb and weaner deer finishing farm.

Radfield weaner finishing. 

Key points:

  •  Aim for higher paying early spring schedule
  •  Feed them well
  •  Budget on 500-550kg/DM/head of high-ME feed
  •  Aim for daily average growth rate of 150-200g/day
  •  Proactive animal health management.


A spadeful of Radfield’s medium to light Lismore and Eyre stony silt loam soil reveals a friable, nutty profile with plenty of worm activity. The Wards have used a no-tillage system since 1995, apart from some surface cultivation for vegetable seed production. The move has greatly enhanced moisture and nutrient retention. Over the past three years the irrigation return time has increased by two days and soil moisture holding capacity by an estimated 10 to 12mm.

The no-tillage system works well with weaners.

“They can pug the hell out of soil but it doesn’t hurt it.”

Radfield is irrigated by two Rotorainer, two Briggs linear and two lateral irrigators applying water at 5mm/ha/day. David values the water at $2/mm.

“(Irrigation) brings reliability and also cost so you need a system that creates greater output.”

They deep nitrogen test in September and apply capital dressings of sulphur in spring rather than autumn.

“It’s better targeted use. You can’t cut an input that’s going to make you money but you can be more targeted in how you use it.”

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