New Zealand Best Practice Mission

NEW ZEALAND - The Task Force Primary Producers’ Group that was part of the Best Practice Mission to New Zealand (NZ) has now finalised its report to the Task Force. This article is a brief ‘taster’ of just two aspects of the report, which might be simply described as “breed” (for easy management) and “feed” (for cutting out high cost inputs whilst maintaining animal performance).
calendar icon 17 April 2009
clock icon 3 minute read

“Breed”, Scale and Easy Management

One of the major differences between NZ and NI farms was the much bigger scale of NZ farms. The group visited farms that ranged in area from 310ha to 40,000ha with stock numbers ranging from 1,350 stock units to 105,000 stock units (as a predominantly sheep country one stock unit in NZ is one ewe, whereas in NI it is one dairy cow).

The message is not that NZ farms are bigger than those in NI, as historically they always have been, but that NZ farms have increased in size since subsidies ended in 1984 (known in NZ as ‘deregulation’) through consolidation after the withdrawal of some producers from the industry.

When the Task Force determined that sheep farming in NI would be unlikely to reach economic viability unless its scale increased to allow one man to manage 2000 ewes, there was reaction from some producers about the impossibility of this. However NZ recognised that one of the major costs that had to be cut was that of labour, and it is now common place for one shepherd to be managing 5000 to 8000 ewes. Additionally the fixed costs associated with machinery and buildings had to be cut. The way this has all been done is to use easy lambing/calving genetics and to increase the use of contractors.

Ewes, and the rams to which they are mated, are genetically selected with high positive EBVs for easy lambing regardless of breed, to enable ewes to lamb and mother their lambs without human intervention. The best farms are achieving a ’tailing percentage’ of 150, whereas NI struggles to get up to 175% reared with a high labour input at lambing.

The same applies to suckler cows – they must be able to look after themselves by being good foragers, easy calvers, good mothers and fertile to produce a calf every 12 months. Genetically most cows are crosses or composites to capitalise on hybrid vigour, and are based on easy-keep traditional breeds (Angus and Herford), which are more suited to grassbased systems. New Zealanders feel that big continental suckler cows would require too much extra feeding in order to maintain breeding performance (the same applies to big Holstein dairy cows) in what is predominantly a grass-based production country.

One of the other management processes that allows one man to look after a large number of ewes and cows is that all of the common tasks – shearing, dagging, vaccinations, worming, spraying – are done by contractors, using skilled labour gangs that have all the necessary equipment. Fixed costs have been pruned to the bone and the only buildings on most farms are the woolshed and a small workshop for an old tractor, pick-up or quad bike. Fenced-off stock lanes enable large mobs of sheep to be moved from paddock to paddock by one man and his team of dogs. On the station with the biggest number of stock there were 100 dogs, and they required 25 carcases a week to feed them. There wasn’t a lame sheep on the place. Any animal that could cause the least bit of additional demand for labour has to go.

NZ farmers believe that producing slightly fewer lambs with no labour is the way towards sustainable profitability. Conventional UK and Irish practices of breeding suckler cows for bigger taller frames, muscular conformation and even colour are just not considered – it is getting a live calf every 12 months without human labour that is the performance key to NZ success. One of the recommendations of the group is that NI should focus more on selection for overall economic performance.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

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