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All about taking Southdown ‘to next level’

Posted by Christina On December - 4 - 2018

By Sally Rae, Rural Life, ODT Dec 3 2018

Don Murray, of Lawrence, views some of his Southdown sheep.

Don Murray, of Lawrence, views some of his Southdown sheep.

 Southdown sheep might be a breed steeped in history — it is the oldest of the terminal sire breeds in the UK — but a group of breeders in New Zealand is firmly focused on positioning it for the future, as  Sally Rae reports.

Lawrence farmer Don Murray quips he is a novice when it comes to breeding Southdown sheep.

There were stalwart breeders who had been there “forever” and from whom he had learned a lot since establishing his stud in 2006.

Mr Murray said he had always liked breeding sheep and was interested in recording. His father-in-law, who had bred Southdowns, further encouraged his interest to venture into stud breeding.

He had always been impressed by the breed, particularly its early maturity and ability to get lambs on the truck early.

His stud ewe numbers had built up to about 240 and were run in conjunction with a total operation of just under 5000 stock units on 550ha, following the recent acquisition of more land.

It was a hill country property and so it was a different environment from some areas where stud sheep were farmed, and had larger paddocks and gullies, yet the breed thrived.

He sold 60-odd rams a year and with many being used for hogget mating, he thought he had better go back to that himself.

Now two years into hogget lambing, it was “just so easy”, resulting in good lambs at weaning and a very saleable product.

Last year, 40% of his works lambs went on the truck at weaning and a lot of those would have been Southdown-cross, he said.

 

Southdown-cross progeny test lambs being graded by Miles Medlicott at weaning, watched by John Macaulay.

Southdown-cross progeny test lambs being graded by Miles Medlicott at weaning, watched by John Macaulay.

That was where the real advantage of the breed was — “the ability to be gone” — and to yield at a variety of weights.

Now breeders were trying to the breed “to the next level” and the establishment of a Southdown progeny test was about providing validation, he said.

The progeny test, based at Simon and Kirstin Engelbrecht’s property at Stoneburn, near Dunback, was now in its second year and involved 20 sires from 14 breeders from Northland to Southland.

The Engelbrechts did not traditionally use Southdowns but were interested in supplying breeding ewes for the programme.

The couple were very successful commercial farmers, winning the Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards and the New Zealand ewe hogget competition.

Mr Engelbrecht was responsible for getting the ewes in the trial mated and the lambs on the ground.

Lamb survival of the Southdown-cross progeny was excellent with less than 4% losses from lambing to tailing. Lambs would then go to Southdown breeder Chris Medlicott’s specialist fattening operation near Waimate to be finished.

One of the drivers of the programme, which is being supported by Beef + Lamb NZ Genetics, is Oamaru Southdown breeder and veterinarian Dave Robertson.

It could be difficult for smaller breeds to get scale to get good performance recording numbers, Mr Robertson said. The solution was to have a progeny test where the environment was standardised.

Objectives included getting better accuracy and reliability with performance recording, better genetic connectedness between breeders, comparing commercial meat quality traits within the breed, exploring some of the genetic technologies that were available for modern sheep breeding and looking at things like intramuscular fat and eating quality, and demonstrating the commercial relevance of the breed to industry.

There had always been the perception that Southdown and Southdown-cross had good eating quality but one of the aims was to get numbers around that.

Stoneburn farmer Simon Engelbrecht (left) and South Canterbury Southdown breeder Chris Medlicott discuss the logistics of the Southdown progeny trial.

Stoneburn farmer Simon Engelbrecht (left) and South Canterbury Southdown breeder Chris Medlicott discuss the logistics of the Southdown progeny trial.

“We want Southdown sires that produce lambs that grow fast, yield well and taste good — with the science to prove it,” he said.

Traits other than production were also important to breeders, with the likes of structural soundness and feet still important to the breed.

To be able to have a “snapshot into the future” of what a ram lamb could produce was very powerful. It removed some of the “guesswork and hoping something clicks” with a breeding programme.

The next step was how to harness that information and it had the potential to change how genetics were chosen.

Southdown New Zealand president Todd Anderson, of Winton, said the breed had continued to evolve over time to meet the requirements of the industry.

The main focus was to maintain “killable growth’ — meaning that lambs were killable at any stage, from 14kg or 15kg if need be through to 25kg “or whatever”, Mr Anderson said.

Breeders had a strong belief that it was not just about mass production, it was about quality of product.

The only way for New Zealand to economically progress was to sell a premium product to people that had the means to pay for it.

Part of that was that the consumer would want a story. The Southdown  was one of the oldest sheep breeds in the world. And as far as meat quality was concerned, it was about grain, colour and marbling.

Mr Anderson said the breed was  the wagyu of the sheep world in some ways and produced “beautiful quality meat”.

There had to be a conscious effort not to lose those attributes and so the instigation of the progeny trial was very exciting.

Carcass attributes, finishing ability, feed efficiency and killable growth were factors that were important to  Southdown New Zealand  as breeders, as well as to its clients in the sheep industry,  if it wanted to be in that global niche market.

New Zealand needed to realise that if it continued to sell based on commodity needs, then it would fast-track itself to the “bottom of the rung”.

Southdown breeders had always been proactive in terms of embracing science, so that was not something new, while stockmanship was also an important aspect.

The future — by continuing to maintain killable growth and a quality product for the consumer — was looking bright, but breeders also acknowledged they could not “stand still and rest on our laurels”, he said.

Veteran Southdown breeder John Macaulay, of South Canterbury, applauded the progeny test initiative.

He watched last season’s lambs go through the process at Alliance Group’s Smithfield plant on January 31,  almost 450 lambs weighing in at an average of 19.4kg.

He was impressed with things in the cooling room, where the lambs were a “sight to behold”. Looking across at comparable lambs of other breeds, they were “all over the place with no uniformity”, he said.

Ultimately, it was about growth rate, muscling and protein  being produced as quickly as possible and the Southdown was one of the breeds that could do that.

There were about 70-odd registered breeders in New Zealand and most were “totally dedicated”, which was one of the reasons the breed was performing, he said.

Easy lambing with lambs that grow

Posted by Christina On March - 2 - 2016

Easy lambingBy Peter Burke

Roger Tweeds runs 2300 Romney ewes and 200 hoggets on his 300ha farm near Lawrence, Central Otago.

Tweed’s been 30 years on his present farm, a mix of river flats and steep country and typically dry in summer.

He’s experimented with a variety of terminal sires over the years, but has settled with the Southdown which he puts across up to 500 ewes in his B flock and all his ewe hoggets.

Tweed says the Southdown makes for easy lambing and what he likes most is that the lambs grow well and come weaning time he has a good product to sell. He reckons with some other terminal sires he’s tried, while the lambing percentage was good the growth rate was not and that’s what counts!

Tweed says this is especially so with the lambs from the ewe hoggets.

“My place is steep and gets hot in summer. I notice that the Southdown rams and their progeny do well in this environment. I love the Southdown because they just keep on growing,” he says.

He selects his B flock ewes based on how the animals look, not on their age. As for weaning, this depends on the state of the lambs.

“The first lambs are generally weaned in mid-December, a mixture of those put to the terminal sire and those from the commercial flock. I don’t lamb an early mob as some people do.

“For example, last year I weaned after new year. I don’t farm by the calendar, I farm for the betterment of the animals.”

Tweed says the Southdown ram produces a “good meaty sheep” and he’s especially pleased with the lambs from the hoggets. He reckons the weight these lambs put on sets them aside from some other terminal sire breeds available.

Farming couple to keep pushing the boundaries

Posted by Christina On May - 2 - 2014
Mangaotea Farm looking to Mt Egmont

SHOWCASE: Mt Taranaki provides a backdrop to Mangaotea Farm owned by Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell, who enjoyed success in the 2014 Taranaki Farm Environment Awards.

The taste of success in the 2014 Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards has whetted the appetite of Tariki farmers Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell.

Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell

PASSIONATE ABOUT FARMING: Robin and Jacqueline Blackwell won four merit prizes in the 2014 Taranaki Farm Environment Awards.

The couple, who own Mangaotea Farm, a multi-faceted operation that includes breeding and selling bulls, dairy grazing and a sheep stud, won four merit prizes in the competition, held in Taranaki this year for the first time.

Now held in 10 regions, the Farm Environment Awards are organised by the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust which formed a partnership last year with the Taranaki Regional Council to bring the contest to Taranaki.

Tikorangi’s Trewithen Farm, owned by Faull Farms and operated by sharemilkers Loie and Tony Penwarden, were the supreme winners.

Contest judges highlighted the Blackwells’ commitment to and passion for Mangaotea Farm, which winters 11,327 stock units on a 90:10 cattle to sheep ratio.

At Mangaotea Farm the Blackwells breed angus, hereford and murray grey bulls and buy jerseys as weaners for their annual on-farm sale. The sale has grown from 60 bulls at their first one 17 years ago to 180 yearlings and two-year-olds at this year’s 18th event on September 18.

As well as breeding bulls, they also graze young dairy stock for long-term clients and operate a southdown stud. Demand for their southdowns rams is so great they can’t breed enough.

After the bull sale, bulls can remain on the property until November 20 when paddocks are shut up so 1500 bales of hay can be made in late summer for winter use on the farm and for sale. They also make 350 bales of silage.

Last year’s drought and this year’s dry spell have been challenging. Last spring they made extra supplement to fill any feed deficit. “I like to have it there in case, to have feed in the bank. We’ll keep doing that,” Robin Blackwell said.

The two dry years have also prompted the couple to investigate ways of harnessing water on the property, where annual rainfall is 1800mm.

The 658ha Mangaotea Farm consists of flat to easy rolling country with some steep ridges and gullies. Its high point is 307m above sea level.

Robin grew up in the Tariki area and in 1980 he took over the original 80ha block of Mangaotea that his father, Maurice, had bought in 1963. The couple have gradually increased the size of their holding, purchasing five neighbouring blocks between 1991 and 2009 and leasing a 215ha adjacent property. Their total effective area is 591ha.

They’ve established infrastructure like fenced drains, laneway and shelter with an eye for ease of management. Four kilometres of fenced laneways across the farm allow stock to be moved easily.

The farm takes its name from the Mangaotea Stream which runs through the property. Fencing and planting the stream began in the 1990s and so far they’ve fenced 14.4km of streambank and planted 3300 plants.

They’re also fencing and planting minor tributaries to keep stock out of waterways. “It saves time and money. We don’t lose stock and we don’t have to clean the drains,” said Jacqueline Blackwell. “Fencing the drains means less work in the long run. We don’t have to spend time clearing them because they don’t get blocked and we never lose stock.”

Robin said riparian fencing and planting was part of any development both because it protected the environment and made wintering of cattle much easier. “Any development is viewed long-term. We do it once and we do it properly.”

They’ve also placed two 1.5ha peat swamp areas with mature kahikatea in a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant and they’re planning to establish covenants on other areas of the farm.

Under a Taranaki Regional Council land management plan, they’ve left erosion-prone land in native vegetation or retired it.

They were persuaded by TRC land management officer Jessica Hyland to enter the Ballance awards.

“We hadn’t thought about it but we thought we’d like to give it a go. We like to push boundaries because it’s good to benchmark against others,” Robin said. “But there’s no such thing as the perfect farm.”

The contest provided an opportunity to step back from their business and look at it objectively. “You get so busy in the day-to-day activities that you don’t always sit back and look at the big picture.”

Despite their success, Jacqueline said their involvement with the contest didn’t feel complete.

“We’re always open to opportunities to showcase what we do and we work well as a team, bouncing ideas off each other. We love to showcase our product and compare it against the rest of the country. We genuinely love what we do.”

The couple want to be in the top 10 per cent of farms for performance. She said with repeat clients in all facets of their business, they believed their customers were satisfied. “We think ahead and think about the consumer and the way they would view our property.”

Robin described the level of competition as impressive. He enjoyed the positive atmosphere of the awards evening and found the stories of other contestants stimulating.

Feedback from the judges highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of their operation. “The weaknesses they mentioned were those areas in the back of our minds where we thought we should be doing more. So we’re acting on suggestions to build strengths in those areas.”

One weakness was the lack of written health and safety documentation which, with just one staff member, they had not developed.

Judges said the way the couple managed their multi-faceted operation was a strength, as was their infrastructure, biodiversity, animal health and sustainability. The judges were impressed with their measures to protect stock health and their awareness of the risk posed by movement of multiple stock classes in and of the property.

In time their adult children want to be part of the business. “Our job is to build the brand and set it up for them to diversify and carry it on,” Jacqueline said.

Daughter Zarrah works on a sheep station in Australia, son Hamish is an earthmoving contractor in Marlborough and Daniel is a software engineer in London.

In the past the couple have succeeded in Beef + Lamb NZ’s Steak of Origin awards, three times as semi-finalists and once as a finalist.

This year is the fourth they have entered the contest. Two angus animals and a murray grey were processed at Taranaki Abattoirs at Stratford in March. Semifinalists will be announced on Monday.

Jacqueline said the couple was thrilled with their success at the awards. They won Beef+ Lamb New Zealand’s livestock award, Hill Laboratories harvest award, Donaghys farm stewardship award, and the Taranaki Regional Council sustainability award.

Their team of supporters, including sole employee Mike Johnson, Merial Ancare territory manager Tony Hammond, PGG Wrightson’s Kim Harrison, CMK’s Brian McFarlane, of Stratford, Taranaki Veterinary Centre vet Craig Hassell, BNZ’s Leean Nelson and Alison Sulzberger and Silver Fern Farms’ Phil Morresey, joined them at the awards evening in New Plymouth earlier this month.

Breed looks to bright future

Posted by Christina On March - 31 - 2013

Published Rural News 23 October 2012

FAST GROWING, easily delivered Southdown lambs

FAST GROWING, easily delivered Southdown lambs

FAST GROWING, easily delivered lambs with great survivability and conformation: that’s what you can expect when you use a Southdown ram, says breed society president Blair Robertson.

“We’re focussed on maintaining that [early] mean kill date for our clients and continuing to keep the meat content up.”

Eye muscle area scores have been steadily increasing over recent years and fat content, once a point to watch with the breed, has come down to the point where breeders are now careful they’re not taking it too low with their selections, he adds.

“If we take it too low we might start to lose some of that early maturity.”

Breeders are also taking care not to take them too big, too leggy, as can happen if selection for growth isn’t handled carefully. They’re really grunty, nuggetty, lambs,” he stresses.

That’s already showing in lambs born this spring to 1200 ewes he’s conducting a trial with to compare performance of the breed with five other terminal sire breeds.

The ewes were all in-lamb when he bought them, so other than the breed they’d been mated to, sire selection was out of his hands. Growth rates, and kill dates and weights will be monitored, with carcase yield data too if possible.

“We’ll either do all the twins, or all the singles.”

Another initiative the society is considering is a spring/early summer retail or restaurant promotion based on the breed’s earliness and quality of meat. To that end last year a restaurant survey found all but one of 23 diners were 100% satisfied with the meat in their meal, and the exception was due to excess gravy.

“It was so successful we’re going to do it again this season. What we’re thinking is rather than promoting Southdown lamb as a year-round product it should have a season, a bit like the oyster season, so people look forward to getting those early lambs.”

Robertson notes Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Golden Lamb Awards, aka The Glammies, held at Wanaka A&P Show in March, while a laudable initiative for rewarding farmers producing high yielding, high quality meat, isn’t the ideal timing for the Southdown.

“Our focus is early maturity. A lot of the good Southdown lambs are long dead by then. We’re taking the first draft at 10-11 weeks off their mums. We had a line of Romney x Southdown lambs out of hoggets that did 16.8kg in the first draft last year. They’re the ideal ram in my opinion.”

The meat off the “tight-wool” lambs is particularly fine, he notes. “You could cut it with the back of your fork it’s so tender. It’s the only thing we kill for the house.”

While schedules typically reward those who get lambs away early with the best prices, if producers want to grow the lambs out to heavier weights they can, he adds. “I’ve got ram clients who are killing Southdowns at 22kg. You can grow them out if you want to. They’re not like the old Southdowns that would go overfat.”

The move to yield payments should also suit the breed, he believes.

The number of breeders has been creeping up in recent years, with just over 80 in the Southdown Breed Society now. Most rams are sold before the traditional sale season starts with a few held back for the main North (ie Feilding Ram Fair, December) and South Island auctions.

“There are three breeders holding on-farm sales too now.”

Focussed on growth rate

Posted by Christina On March - 2 - 2013
Bruce Westgarth

Bruce Westgarth with a Southdown cross
lamb at tailing late September.

SOUTH CANTERBURY sheep and beef farmers the Westgarths run 4000 Coopdale ewes across two farms, one at 500m above sea-level on The Brothers range inland of Timaru, the other on the town’s outskirts.

“The two properties work so well together,” says Bruce, who runs the inland unit with wife Rosa. “We take all the older ewes down to Timaru where we put them to terminal sires: Southdown, Poll Dorset and Suffolk. We’ve had Southdowns for years. They produce good lambs, and early maturing.”

Nearly half the ewes on the 200ha down-country farm, which is run by their son Hamish and his wife Amanda are put to Southdowns, plus 300-400 at the 368ha Brothers property.

Replacements come from Coopdale hoggets, 1250 of which were run with the ram last autumn, with 1000 scanned inlamb.

While he’s well placed to do so, Westgarth’s wary of comparing performance of the different terminal sires he uses. “There’s good in all breeds.”

Most have made marked improvements in recent years and the Southdown is no exception. The short, stumpy lambs prone to running to fat if taken too heavy are long gone. In their place are rams which throw a longer, leaner lamb that’s still solidly built and fast finishing.

“Some people still have the wrong impression of them,” notes Westgarth. “They still think they’re wee fat things, though views are starting to change now.”

The growth of his Southdown x Coopdale lambs is rapid. Last year they started lambing August 22 and in the last week of November drafted 230, averaging 19.8kg.

“They always weigh heavier than they look.”

Admittedly, there were other breeds among them, but the Southdown at least held its share, if not more. Over the whole season, and all breeds,  average kill weight was 20.3kg cwt.

“We drafted lambs every week from the end of November through to May.”

Getting more lambs away early, plus an end of season contract for the last 2000, helped them average $136/head “without counting the wool off  them.”

As a rule they’re shorn at 38kg and go on the truck at 44kg, all to Silver Fern Farms.

Picks breeder more than ram

WESTGARTH’S APPROACH to ram selection is simple: find good breeders, stick with them and reward them.

“I don’t mind paying a good price for good rams because if the breeder can’t make money, they can’t improve the genetics can they?”

His three suppliers are all from South Canterbury. The Southdowns come from Chris Medlicott’s Tasvic Downs and Clifton Downs studs;  the Poll Dorsets from Steve McCall’s Castlerock stud, and the Suffolks and Coopdales from Peter Darling’s Coryston Stud.

 

Westgarth points out better prices for the lambs isn’t the only benefit to early finishing: their mothers make better money as cull ewes.

“We try to get them on the truck the next day.”

Space freed up on the down-country farm also allows more lambs and other stock to come down from The Brothers. With no irrigation, both properties can get dry. Again, fast growing, early finishing lambs are an advantage, in that more are gone before feed gets tight.

Distant producers but common goals

Posted by Christina On March - 2 - 2013

Published Rural News 23 October 2012

Southdown rams ready for sale this summer.

Southdown rams ready for sale this summer.

TALK TO commercial lamb producers using Southdown rams and you’ll find common threads running through all their comments, even if they are from opposite ends of the country.

Take Wayne Bloxham, at Whitiwhiti Station, north of Gisborne: by the time you read this, he will probably have sent his first draft of lambs to the works. “We aim for mid to late October, off their mums at 16kg carcase weight, sometimes a bit heavier.”

Southdown terminal sires are a key part of that early finishing strategy.

“We find they’re quite early maturing and quick to fatten. Normally we get a good pick off their mums and another big one when we wean them.”
At least half will be gone by the December draft and by the time it gets dry, as it can on the 1350ha medium steep coastal property, “there are bugger-all left.”

He lambs in July, the Southdowns running with 1200 of a 3000-head Coopworth flock.

“Their survival rate’s normally pretty good, though this lambing wasn’t exceptional because they dropped into puddles, it was so wet.”

He’s been using Southdowns for about nine years, and while he’s careful not to let lambs get too big, “they’re not like the old Southdown where the lambs went straight to fat,” he notes. “Now we try not to let them go over 23kg, though we have slipped up in the past and it’s not uncommon for some to hang up at 24-25kg.”

This year he’s lambed hoggets for the first time, using Southdowns as the sire with 80% of 600 mated getting in lamb. “There have been no lambing issues with them. They’ve been spitting them out like a piece of cake,” he said midway through the hoggets’ drop.

Down in Southland, Bill and Beth Gordon, Garston, are also keen to get lambs away early, albeit from much later lambing. “It can get quite dry here in the summer and if it gets dry, having quick maturing lambs means there’s more space for the Romneys,” notes Bill.

That means better grown replacements and better condition in the 2200-ewe Romney flock, feeding through to the following year’s lambing result. Even if it doesn’t get dry, having the crossbred lambs away sooner means more feed to do something else with, such as fatten cattle, he adds.

“We wean [lambs] the week before Christmas and take a draft then, up to 300 or 350 depending on the season.”

That’s from lambing starting the third week of September. He’s also using the Southdown across his hoggets.

“They seem to lamb reasonably easily.”

And while they don’t have the same coat as the purebred Romney lambs, there’s no problem with their vigour and survival as lambs, he adds.

Unlike Bloxham, Gordon’s stuck with the Southdown as his terminal sire of choice through thick and thin – “since the mid 1970s” – but makes similar comments to Bloxham about how they’ve changed over the years.

“They’ve got more stretch in them now whereas they used to be a bit short and dumpy and went to fat. They’re leaner now.”

And in recent years the Gordon’s have had the competition results to prove it: three times they’ve had lambs in the finals of the Golden Lamb Awards at Wanaka A&P Show.

“It’s just for interest really. Competitions are more interesting if you take part, rather than watching from the sidelines.”