Mixed arable farmers cut lamb stocks

Methven farmer John McCaw usually trades 4000 to 5000 lambs each year, but is planning to reduce...
Methven farmer John McCaw usually trades 4000 to 5000 lambs each year, but is planning to reduce numbers. PHOTO: FAR
Poor lamb returns and fewer contracts for ryegrass seed crops are leading some Mid Canterbury mixed arable farmers to reduce lamb finishing numbers in favour of dairy grazing this season.

This was the key message from a panel of four growers outlining drivers for profitability at a Foundation for Arable Research and Beef + Lamb New Zealand winter grazing seminar in Rakaia.

Methven farmer John McCaw told farmers that his arable farm was focused on cocksfoot and ryegrass seed production as well as growing vegetable seed and cereals.

The property normally traded 4000 to 5000 lambs a year, but these numbers would be back this year, he said.

"We buy lambs based on our ryegrass seed crop area for the following spring, at 35 lambs a hectare. This gives us a few extras, so we can get a draft away before winter."

Lambs were bought in autumn, after harvest, and initially grazed autumn-sown cocksfoot before being wintered on greenfeed oats, rape and fodder beet. In early spring, lambs were used to graze ryegrass paddocks before these were shut up for seed production.

"Every paddock on the farm, apart from two last year, had stock across them.

"We find the system works well for income generation as well as crop management, particularly the cocksfoot in the autumn and the ryegrass control in the spring."

Dairy grazing was another income earner as the farm had had an arrangement with the same dairy farmer for 15 years.

About 300 heifer calves arrived just before Christmas, and stayed until they were 18-month-old in-calf heifers and ready to return to the dairy farm. About 750 dairy cows were grazed in winter.

Methven farmer George Lilley said in the past couple of years lamb numbers at his farm had dropped by 1500 lambs to 2500-3000, while dairy cow numbers had lifted from 400 to 600 cows.

This was mainly for profitability and to reduce the risk of holding so many lambs.

The farm was largely ryegrass based, with wheat, barley and break crops in a four-year rotation.

While the return per kilogram of dry matter was better with dairy grazing, this needed to be balanced against the damage dairy stock could do to paddocks and the potential difficulty in establishing crops in them the following spring, he said.

Rakaia farmer Simon Lochhead said as a mainly no-till farmer he aimed to limit soil damage and in recent years had been exclusively lamb grazing.

However, the farm had historically carried out dairy grazing and cows would be returning this year. This was for more profitability, and to diversify and spread risk.

Lamb numbers were bought to suit the grass seed area.

"As there are fewer contracts for grass seed I will be reducing lamb numbers to match."

The leaving date for the last lambs was determined by the closing date of new season grass, he said.

The last load had to go then, irrespective of whether they were fully finished or not.

Lepoutre-Kroef Farm arable manager Lachlan Angland said its system was arable and vegetable production with grazing used for seed crop establishment and grazing cover crops during winter.

It only carry lambs and occasionally the neighbour’s hoggets and ewes.

Foundation for Arable Research senior environment researcher Abie Horrocks told the seminar New Zealand’s arable growers had some of the most diverse crop rotations in the world.

Compared with arable soils overseas, the degree of livestock carried on them meant arable soils were in better condition because rotations including livestock could support restorative crops, such as ryegrass, that built soil organic matter.

In addition to soil quality, nutrient cycling and cashflow, there were other reasons why arable growers had livestock, such as weed control, natural tillering — managing the height and bulk of grass seed crops — managing crop residues and helping to fit rotations, Mr Horrocks said.

Regulators needed to be well informed of the role livestock played in arable farming systems as new environmental and greenhouse gas emissions regulations came on-stream.

"If soil quality declines, more fertiliser and irrigation may be required.

"Removing livestock from mixed rotations may have an unintended consequence of increasing pesticide use and if weeds become more problematic as a result it could introduce a risk to the production of weed and disease-free pure seed lines.

"Quality seed lines are the ultimate driver in an arable business."