Attention to ewe lifts survival
Western District sheep producer Philip Gough’s ambition is to make money and go fishing.
But his first priority is to produce 400 kilograms of liveweight per hectare annually, from lambs which meet the supermarket trade with an average 22kg carcase and a fat score of three.
To achieve this he has unrelentingly targeted a main profit driver – lambing percentage – to improve production, lift lamb survival and provide him with a break from the farm.
It’s a brave new world at Gough’s prime lamb operations at Branxholme and Hotspur which average 700 and 800 millimetres rainfall respectively, across the combined 900 hectares.
In the past 25 years, they have shifted from a seedstock focus to commercial sheep.
Since 1991, the Goughs have increased their lambings from 1800-head, which averaged 85 per cent lambs to ewes joined, to about 5600-head currently which averages nearly 150pc.
During the LambEx conference in Albury, Mr Gough said the start of the dramatic change was in 1997, when homozygous Booroola rams were purchased from the CSIRO flock dispersal.
The highly productive gene was to facilitate faster fertility gains and stimulate hybrid vigour in the flock, however, marking nearly 200pc of ewes joined led to a short period of devastating lamb losses across the 5000 ewes due to pregnancy toxaemia.
It was a catalyst which refined the Gough’s production goals, and instigated a tireless focus on lamb survival as a key profit driver.
“Stocking rate is easy to change, don’t put as many on, but marking percentage requires a lot more work,” Mr Gough said.
“We want production efficiency and to maximise returns from using the least amount of animals - lambing percentage is the easiest way to do that. We want lower inputs and bigger outputs.”
They set out to produce a ewe that could wean 150pc of lambs per year to suit the supermarket trade by 130 days old.
Corriedale and Coopworths were selected to alternate cross progeny with, while White Suffolks were the terminal sire.
“Corriedales and Coopworths complement each other very well maternally, and they also have enough difference genetically to give us a good dose of hybrid vigour,” he said.
The long wool breeds recovered the wool cut to 5.5kg across the flock – which had dropped 1kg with the Booroola genetics – averaging 30 micron and producing 70kg of live lamb per year.
Maternal ewes were aggressively selected based on high fertility Lambplan figures, while rams were selected on their purity of breed to maximise hybrid vigour.
As part of a change in management strategies, paddock and mob sizes have been reduced from 700 to 200 head and are run at 21.6 dry sheep equivalent per ha.
Mr Gough said the former high stocking rates aimed to increase wool cuts, however had an adverse effect on the ability to grow out lambs and get ewes back in lamb.
“By slightly decreasing ewe stocking rates through lambing, we achieve higher lamb numbers per ha at weaning… High stocking rate hasn’t always provided us with the best financial outcome,” he said.
The smaller mobs allow stock to be rotationally grazed from weaning until a month before lambing.
Time of lambing has moved from mid-September to the end of August, which has improved lambs weights prior to weaning.
Mr Gough said the change fits with the Hamilton region’s pasture growth, with ewes requiring 11 megajoules of metabolisable energy (MJME) per day, while twin bearing ewes require 19.5 MJME at the point of lambing and 34 MJME at day 30 of lactation.
Lambs are weighed and sold directly to Coles, which Mr Gough said forced the business to focus on a target. “We get paid for what we produce,” he said.
Last year, attention to maintaining maternal ewes’ condition score in the last month of pregnancy saved a further 550 lambs from 5400 ewes.
“We have lifted production through our crossbreeding program because of hybrid vigour, we’ve lifted lambing percentage through vigorous breed selection, and we’ve lifted our management skills by taking a break from the business to go fishing,” he said.