Lamb or Lamb for dinner?

What do we need to do to ensure we can still sell lamb to our grand children’s friends?? How will people in 50+ years time be buying lamb? To me, we have two options:
1. be a price competitive protein source, or
2. be a specialty, high end product that has guaranteed quality and sold with the equivalent price tag attached.

Upon speaking to many people in Australia and overseas, maybe there is room for both. Different farming regions, intensities, and management styles emphasises that farming is not a recipe. Many people can’t afford lamb at the very high prices – but should these people be excluded from eating it??

A very good ‘fishermen’ friend and fellow Nuffield Wayne Dredge explained it really well to me one day. He said he was constantly asked if he was annoyed at the people who bought imported fish rather than Australian fish. He replies… “anyone who eats fish as opposed to another protein source is good for the industry. If the lower price of imported fish allows them to eat fish, then it plays a vital role. When that person gets a pay rise, they are going to want to buy the Australian fish”.

I believe, in reality, there is room for both lamb markets to exist. The only concern is that eating quality does not drop as a result of on farm production gains. We have seen this happen in other industries, we have to be smart enough to prevent it happening in ours. Current stats show that only 7 in 10 consumers have a good eating experience with Lamb. That leaves a fair few people who probably won’t rush back to get another chop for a while!

During my latest trip, I had the privilege of spending a day with Henrick Anderson, CEO at Carometec in Denmark. Carometec are working with Murdoch University, Sheep CRC and MLA to develop an inline eating quality measurement for all carcasses. To me, this is where the future lies in the lamb industry and is a really exciting space to be involved in.

I believe individual animal management would come into its own if we had some good product feedback. There are benefits of individual on farm measuring, however, if the information stops at the farm gate, it is very limiting. If we could get product feedback, we could fine tune our decision making on farm to produce a product that was consistently hitting the desired market. Getting paid on quality rather than weight and fat score is something that could be the way of further developing the Australian top end lamb market!

It is becoming very evident as I near the end of my Nuffield travel year that the more I learn, the more I want to learn. The sheep industry has so much to offer and some top people leading the way. This won’t be the last of my posts but thought it a fitting time to thank all those that have helped me this year, it has been the best yet – I can’t wait for the sequel!! I’d also like to thank my employer Burgess Rural for giving me the opportunity to take part in the Nuffield experience, as well as Nuffield Australia and my sponsor the William Buckland foundation. A truly rewarding year.

Until next time… Enjoy your lamb!!

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British ‘Shades of Sheep’

British sheep farming is interesting to say the least. There is an immense amount of diversity with about 75 breeds ( both introduced and local), a stratified farming system, (hill, midland and lowland breeds) an enormous amount of history and tradition and a good bit of industry progress as well.

Although EBV’s (estimated breeding values) are only used on 7% of the UK sheep, this 7% are not to be missed. They have worked out that improving maternal traits is 4-6 times more profitable than terminal traits. I find this extremely interesting and emphasises the importance the ewe plays in overall profitability. The Welsh family in the Scottish high country are breeding easy care sheep. This is a breed of sheep derived from a maternal Scottish blackface that now has exceptional carcase attributes. They lamb outdoors and breed animals that get in lamb, wean their lamb and have high growth rates. This family are among those setting the benchmark for the british sheep industry in my opinion.

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Another experience…..

I went to the Builth Wells Ram sale in Wales. With over 5000 rams offered across all breeds, only an observed small percentage were sold with any sort of breeding value information. I’m not sure about you, but I have to question when told horn placement, long ears and pink faces mean the rams were ‘better doing’ rams.

The preparation that went into these rams was nothing to sneeze at as obviously the breeders take an immense amount of pleasure preparing them for the show/sale. However, being a commercial producer that needs farming to be a viable business, the colour dipping, extreme clipping, naivety to grass and hoof paint are not traits that my lambs or replacement stock will benefit from! I’d be more interested in how the maternal and terminal genetic potential will impact my key profit drivers.

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With the geography and structure of the British sheep industry, the show or central selling centres are no doubt the best way to sell Rams. How good would these rams look if they had breeding values attached to them?? What an opportunity!

Most of the farms I visited throughout the UK were top farms both in the beef and sheep sectors. Whatever the enterprise, the concepts were the same on these farms – measure your key profit drivers and make decisions around maximising them based on the information that is collected. Match your land to your industry and don’t just do things because ‘that’s whats always been done in this area’.

A very interesting young couple in Wales, Nick and Francis Davies, have converted their sheep farm to a dairy farm. It is the only dairy farm in the area for miles and the neighbours all think they are nuts! They changed not because the sheep were not going well, but because they wanted to ‘do something’. The climate and soil suited dairy so they didn’t know why it was not done in the area other than because “it’s a sheep area”.

I draw so much inspiration from people like this as it not only shows an immense amount of courage, it shows that there are always ways to do things better. I don’t think farming is a recipe and we need to continue to look outside the box. Will we ever maximise our own potential, the industries potential or the potential of our businesses if we don’t?

South Africa – the big five!

Merino, Dohne, Dorper, SAMM and Dormer………… They have got it all wrong on the postcards!!!

Selecting an animal on its suitability to the environment was one of the biggest trends I picked up from my time in South Africa. ‘They need to be robust and fit’ – was a repetitive statement.

Fitness – the ability of an animal to produce viable offspring capable of surviving to the next generation – Charles Darwin

Of the ‘big five’ sheep breeds, none of them are particularly known as a maternal breed. This means a lot of emphasis is placed on the ‘fitness’ of the animal and genetic values such as NLW (number lambs weaned) and EPI (ewe production Index) are used to select rams with a higher ‘potential’ for fertility.

However, there is again a huge range in farming practices, particularly when looking at ram breeding. From selling rams at shows on visual appearance only to selling rams on full genetic breeding values and pedigree including dexterity testing all rams. I found this interesting and since they started, cull almost no rams out now on dexterity. ‘It doesn’t matter how good the genetics are if they can’t pass them on’ – Swarco Dohnes.

Interestingly, the South Africans have a breeding value for phenotype or constitution. Even more interestingly, one one farm we went to, the animals that seem to be what they are looking for phenotypically, negatively correlates to fertility. They believe it is because the natural shape has been bred out of the animal in an aid to breed a ‘well balanced’ animal with a good carcase.

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Dormer Rams (SAMM Dorset Horn cross) – Kinko Domers, Swellendam, Western Cape

“nature didn’t have economics in mind” – a great quote by one of the merino breeders I met with. Although ‘balance’ for marketing purposes is important, it was interesting to consider the effect it may be having on the animals ‘fitness’.

I think I’ll leave you to contemplate the wool:meat ratio. The Dohne association and in particular Cameron McMaster who is a Dohne Consultant, says that CFW (clean fleece weight) should be 7% maximum of body weight at ‘yearling’ age. He says if income from wool is more than 30% of the gross margin, reproduction is being compromised. I found this very interesting and comes back to breeding a ‘fit’ animal that can reproduce and raise its offspring. I am interested in finding out more about this concept.

I was very impressed with the work being done in South Africa, a lot we can learn from.

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Dohne Rams – Swarco Dohnes, Calendon, Western Cape.

The sheep industry – up and up!!

I can’t think of a better industry to be in at the moment than the sheep industry. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. There is so much potential left in sheep, and this excites me every day. Imagine getting up and not wanting to go to work!!??……….

As a commercial producer, I think it is important we keep up with the latest knowledge, technology and genetic measurements (ASBV’s) as much as the studs do. If we don’t, the studs will be reluctant to change due to “lack of demand from the clients”. And if we rely on progress to start with the studs, we are relying on them to potentially try and sell something that there is no demand for – and why would they do that?? Demand leads to supply.

I’ve mentioned before that the variation in my flock is a huge point of interest for me. If I look at the average production figures year on year, it says to me that half of my ewes are below average! There will always be an average for sure, and there will always be animals that sit below that average…….this is just the thing that creates the constant drive to want to improve my ewe flock.

As an aid to start identifying these ewes, I want to understand more what the maternal influence is over the lambs born. If half the genetics comes from the ewe and half the ram, what other impact does the ewe actually give to the lamb expressing its genetics to their potential in terms of her direct relationship with her offspring?

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Getting the ewes in for lamb marking last month, there is a stark difference between mothering ability from those that will stand up the dog, to those just want out….. and fast!! And what about udder size and milk production – does this influence the lamb reaching its genetic potential? Or the ewes condition score, or whether she was a single or twin lamb herself??

This year I am attempting to mother up 400 ewes (1st and 2nd lambers) with 670 lambs using the Pedigree Match Maker system. This is a system that uses RFID ear tags that are in the ewes and lambs and by a repetition of close association past a scanner, we can identify which lambs belong too which ewes. I think it is important technology like this is usable commercially and on a large scale. If I can match up this many this year, I will do a larger number next year. It may be that we only need to match ewes in their first year to get an idea of what their genetic potential is if the traits measured are also repeatable.

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I am super Syked about the information this could potentially give us in terms of creating selection pressure and lifting the bar on the flock average as well as identifying those flying under the line. The fact that it can all be done electronically and information can flow from generation to generation, the animals become an individual by default with some meaningful information associated with them.

The information I want to get a better understand of is ewe efficiency. So kg of lamb weaned per ewe is of interest. The measures I will take are ewe live weight and condition at weaning, lamb weaning weight, lamb growth rate post weaning and ewe condition change and scanning rate the following year. A link back to sire group will help determine what my genetic progress is.

Imagine if we could then get carcase traits and eating quality figures back from the abattoir on top of this! It would enable better and more informed decisions to be made on farm by simply sorting and drafting on objective information. When wool is added to the mix – it will create an even bigger picture which is the benefit of a wool/meat sheep combined in the one animal!

As I prepare to head to South Africa, UK, Ireland, and Denmark in a few days, I am really looking forward to the information I will gather from both the sheep industry and other industries.

Will keep you posted!!

Why are New Zealanders known for sheep?

In short………because they are dam good at running them!!

Secondly – because they have put themselves in that position. But more on that later!

On completion of two weeks, 18 visits, magnificent scenery, interesting people, hugely welcoming hosts, many kilometres of car singing and great conversation, there’s one more thing I want to do……..go back!!

When it comes to knowing what goes into every kg of product produced – the kiwis have a pretty good idea. They have a mix of terrain and climates they have to work with and by breeding the right type of sheep, they are doing it very well. The dairy industry has ensured land value stay at a reasonably high level for the very productive land. This has ultimately pushed sheep production “further up the hill.” Saying this – there are sheep farmers competing with the returns of the dairy sector per kg of dry matter which is pretty exciting.

In anticipation that I could go on a little long about NZ, I’ll just touch on some of the common themes; – and this is just a snap shot!!

Product or Commodity?
Is Lamb and wool a niche? Lamb is one of the dearest proteins on the shelf and wool is one of the most expensive fibres. Lamb is also a minor protein consumed on a world scale in comparison to other protein sources, and wool is a minor player in the fibre industry. But does this make them a niche??

……..”If its a niche, then why is it still sold as a commodity”? was the response I got. Do we have a good idea of who our consumer is, why they buy and what they expect when they do buy. The NZ sheep industry has realised that long term, if they keep farming a commodity without keeping an eye on the end product and consumer trends, they may fall into the trap other livestock industries have in concentrating on farm production alone (high growth, lean meat yield) at the expense of the market.

Imagine what would happen if a product bought for high quality…….didn’t have any?? If consumers buy lamb on quality – should it not be one of the most important traits we monitor?

Farm IQ:
Is an initiative that was established to create a demand driven integrated value chain for New Zealand red meat. It involves flow of information from processor to farmer on an individual level through eID tags. Farmers can use this information to make decisions on farm to ensure they are progressing in the right direction with their management, genetics and feed – and how this affects the end product.

The beef side of farm IQ are now paying on eating quality. Up to 30cents/kg extra for the right product. With future plans to role this over into lamb, the sheep industry is in a good position to make sure we maintain eating quality WHILE increasing the production factors on farm. Ultimately, it may mean eID tags have the ability to create value on farm as well as further down the supply chain.

Industry Cohesiveness
“If I help out my neighbour, it’s not going to mean I make less” – was what someone told me when I expressed how impressed I was that NZ seems like such a cohesive country. Being a small country may allow this to happen a lot easier than Australia, but the attitude of the farmers was that by working together, the result will be a better outcome than all working individually.

New Zealand Merino have done a fantastic job at marketing the story and the quality of a specific type of NZ merino wool – ‘Icebreaker’ is one of the success stories. ‘New Zealanders are known for sheep – because they put themselves in the position’. Merino sheep producers have a market and grow a product for Icebreaker. Same goes for the meat side under the FarmIQ program, amongst others.

So what are our options? stay producing a commodity and hope it keeps meeting the market specs. Or collaborate as an industry, turn technology into an opportunity (and I haven’t even started on the DNA technology!!) and let the market drive our production goals? Maybe theres a place for both??

Some pictures below, Top – Sign on every Icebreaker supplier farm, Central Otago area. Middle – Me in my element and station Manager, Huanui high country. Bottom – Merino lambs strip grazing Kale to grow at 100g/d over winter, Central Otago.

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Why ask ‘Why’?

Over the past few months (well years probably), I have been asking ‘why’, quite a lot! I love asking ‘why’ because I get the insight into so many peoples points of view. If I don’t ask ‘why’, how do I know all the possible answers? and can I expect to progress?

Without the question, how can we expect to get answers? Is this not when things start to stagnate, and progress is haltered? It is very comfortable to keep doing ‘what we have always done’ because there is an element of risk doing something different. What if it doesn’t work? Will I just end up broke?

Neophobia, or fear of the new, will deter most species from trying something unknown. Think of introducing lambs to grain having never seen it – they don’t go flying up and guts themselves – they don’t even know what it is! So what do we do, we slowly introduce it to them so they get used to it and get to recognise it as food. And when they do, they benefit from it.

Through out my travels so far this year, I have met people who have very strong beliefs in something. So strong in fact that I ask myself whether it is actually realistic or practical. Content aside, the thing I love about people with an opinion, is it makes me think about what my opinion is and why.

If everyone sitting around a board table had the same opinion – do you think we would get any progression? It only takes one person to disagree to start a discussion. And when we have discussion – we have people asking ‘why’ and progress will start.

While studying my topic this year – looking at how individual animal management can maximise efficiency gains on commercial sheep properties through measuring and objective decisions – it is quite interesting observing the differences in responses. From people who can’t possibly see how it can be any better than what we currently do, to people who will go out of their way to help, offer ideas and experiences and encourage some great conversation.

‘We just have to keep doing what we are doing to increase efficiency – we’ll get there’ was one persons response to my study topic. Can we really solve a problem by doing the same thing that got us here in the first place?? It doesn’t make much sense to me but I am always up for discussion! With the current production rate of some of the key performance indicators such as number of lambs weaned not increasing all that much in the past 30 years, I’m not convinced we can solve the problem by doing the same thing.

How often do you hear people in the chicken, pork or dairy industries talking about how good their production was 50 years ago – yet it is what the sheep industry prides itself on. The sheep industry has a wonderful history and tradition, and should be respected, but do we need to go broke over it?

I had a marvellous week last week driving through NSW into QLD catching up with some of the great minds – who are pushing the traditional thinking – and doing a fantastic job at it. I thank each of them for their time and support and ‘having the conversation’. My trip in NZ for the next two weeks will add to this and I can’t wait to start talking to some of the great minds in this part of the world!!

Measuring key profit drivers – Initial thoughts.

Every time I get my ewes into the yards, I look at them quite intently and it both intrigues me and bothers me that I cannot tell which ones are making me money and which ones are costing me. I look at a big 75kg animal in CS3 (condition score 3) and standing right next door is a 60kg animal also in CS3. I start to ask myself – how much lamb did you raise last year? Were you a twin or a single bearer and if you were a twin, did you raise both of them? Did you maintain CS throughout lactation or did you drop CS? And what are your genetics?

I think to myself, if I want to improve the genetics of these animals, I need to know what I am starting with. The other thing I must have to enable me to take my flock forward is selection pressure. For this to happen, I need to make sure I have a sufficient number of replacements coming into the system so I am not forced to keep unproductive stock for the sake of maintaining stocking rate. If we are forced to do this, the result could be insufficient rate of gain to counteract natural inflation increases in costs.

Running a prime lamb enterprise, the key profit driver for me is kg’s of lamb produced per DSE (dry sheep equivalent). This will take into account the weight of the ewe in CS3, NLW (Number Lambs Weaned) and at a certain stocking rate, I can work out kg produced per Ha (Hectare).

I think it is important I also look at the change in CS of the ewe as this will tell me a bit more about her efficiency. If she looses weight over the 100 day lactation, should this also be taken into account?? If the ewe is milking off her back for the lambs benefit, would it be logical to take this into consideration when working out total kgs produced? Putting that weight back on her costs money, particularly if the season cuts out and we need to supplement her.

So then I thought to myself, what do we need to measure to ensure the ewe gets more efficient at converting grass to milk while maintaining body weight? My current thoughts are around measuring CS before and after lambing. This should tell me part of the story. Not knowing how much lamb she has produced is very limiting though. I can’t get stuck in the trap though. Selecting on CS alone does not distinguish between those that simply eat more! That’s where genetics comes in, particularly around the carcase traits such as genetic fat and muscle. To my knowledge, selecting for genetic fat has a direct benefit on feed efficiency of the ewe, which in turn has a positive effect on both lamb growth rate and fertility.

Apart from scanning data, and assuming all dries are identified at lamb marking, is there much else we can select a prime lamb mother on if we can’t select on kg produced per DSE? I personally think we really need to be able to link ewe and lamb/s to have any real selection pressure and efficiency gains through individual animal management.

To my knowledge, in a merino operation, kg of lamb produced as well as NLW is also a very important profit driver which would also require mothering up to gain maximum benefit. Selecting high genetic fat here can also play a key role in ewe efficiency and therefore profit. High genetic fat will positively influence fertility, feed efficiency, lamb survival and lamb growth. The added bonus in a merino system is the value of the wool. Under an individual animal management system, without the luxury of having ewe and lamb linkages, a ewe can at least be selected or culled based on wool production alone.

So I am still asking myself (and I hope you are too) – can individual animal management give me a better return on investment through higher rates of gain than a mob based management system? As well as be complimented by simplicity and practicality at the same time?

In a few weeks time I am making a trip through NSW and into QLD to talk to some of the great minds about this very thing. This will be followed by two weeks in New Zealand. I’ll probably be talking mostly about my Nuffield topic and please remember they are only my ‘views’ so welcome any feedback, comments and conversation around how we can collectively improve the Australian sheep industry.

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I hope you enjoy the next chapter!