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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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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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!

Individual Animal Management at work in Kenya.

Individual Animal Management (IAM) in Kenya! Who would of thought? It’s happening and they are measuring production from it. Fortunately (or unfortunately) they need herdsmen to stay with the stock every day to avoid predation from lions, hyena and stock theft. Stock are locked up in ‘Boma’s (portable yards) every night. Due to this reason, it is fairly routine for commercial farms to mark calves at birth and most document genetic relationship with mother and father.

Each calf will get a card where records will be kept for future joining and calving dates. Cows are culled on inter calving period making sure they are not taking too long to get back in calf. The potential for these farms to do some further measurements is a realistic one to improve profitability.

The thing that has been most interesting to me Over the past two weeks is that regardless of the industry, the best farms are measuring production. It comes back to the theory that if you don’t measure, it is hard to really know what the biggest factor is that is limiting improvement – apart from making a fairly educated guess.

Below is a group of pictures collected over the past two weeks in South Africa and Kenya and all have one thing in common – all measure to manage.

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What I’ve been asking myself as a result of this common observation between industries – how do we make our inputs work for us? My conclusion is – through accurate and relevant measuring we can select for efficiency.

A New Zealander showed me a picture of two mobs of sheep and asked me which one I thought earn’t him $20,000 more – visually I couldn’t tell and it emphasised how important this concept is. If we are going to have sustainable farming businesses into the future – inputs need to be turned into outputs as efficiently as possible.

To finish up, some of the animals of Kenya that have to exist together – and this is a only a snap shot!

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Heading to Russia – will be interesting to see if the trend continues……..

How exciting is agriculture!!?

Taking a leaf from the apple tree

Who would of thought an apple farmer could teach me a thing or two about sheep farming – I didn’t!! Until today…

Today we went to a farm where they manage their production through measuring the right things. The amount it related to sheep production truly amazed me and this really excites me how much we can learn from other industries.

If I let the tree represent a sheep, it may help put it into context (for me at least!). They knew exactly what genetics they had in the trees (Merino, first cross, composite). They knew what they were bred for (wool, meat), what their market was (domestic, export, main stream, premium), how to manage pre-production (lambs through to first lambers), and what the key profit drivers were (lambing %, weaning weight, wool cut??).

He has just introduced a root stock which he considers a real industry revolution. The genetics of this root stock allow the plant to:

– Mature early – quicker return
– have less leaf to fruit ratio – important as they are not paid on wood and leaf
– higher yield per Ha

They said when they have the right tree, they can manage it accordingly to allow it to reach its genetic potential.

Yield per Ha is the key profit driver – everything they measure relates directly to how they can influence this. Collecting data that does not affect this is a waste of time and resources.

They process 700million apples a year and every one is managed individually through modern technology. The apples are graded into 120 different lines to meet market specifications. Because they know the quantity down to the last box of apples, they can make changes back at the farm level. This absolutely blew me away. ‘Making sure we don’t lose attention to detail’ was something they kept on top of. Some pictures below show some of the apples in the production line.

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Apples that have been graded into separate lines.

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Taking the apple bob to a whole new level!

Nuffield Study topic

Welcome all to my new Blog. It’s all very new but hopefully I will get the hang of it soon. I was awarded a Nuffield scholarship to study how Individual Animal Management can be used in the Australian sheep industry to improve production on farm. This blog will share some information I gather on what farmers are doing overseas to improve production on farm and what Australian farmers could do differently.

I first got interested in this a few years ago when I was observing the variation in our ewes and lambs. I got frustrated at the lack of information I had on my sheep to enable me to select the best from the worst and make some objective decisions. If we can identify the most productive sheep and multiply them, the production gains on farm could be much faster than traditional mob based management.

Statistics like lambing percentage have been the same for over 20 years (80%) and to me, this suggests there is enormous potential for improvement. There are many factors that would influence this figure and I can’t help but see that poor performing ewes could be one reason contributing to the lack of improvement in this area. Variation in growth rate of lambs is another area I have been also amazed at. Twenty kg difference in weaning weight in my twin lambs this year is something I want to investigate more!

I would like to thank Nuffield Australia and the William Buckland Foundation for giving me the opportunity to study this topic in more detail and I can’t wait to start!

Please post any questions or comments you have.

I hope you enjoy reading.