Rakaia Gorge farmer Paul Ensor is using farm software to help him bust myths on his farm.
Glenaan runs 5650 stock units of sheep – including nearly 3000 ultra-fine Merino ewes as well as cattle – on 1035ha of high-country land in the Rakaia Gorge.
They have used farm management software over the past few years to benchmark livestock performance and understand opportunities, and also to do some “mythbusting” around the value of inputs.
This season the value of closer monitoring has shown up in the Glenaan two-tooth mating weights, Paul says. “In the past we were doing well to get 51kg, and this year they were averaging over 55kg for the first time.”
They set up a weighing schedule in their online diary, to ensure that weighing was done at regular intervals and they could see any developing trends.
“We saw that growth rates had decreased in one mob in January,” Paul explains. “We then checked faecal egg counts and discovered that some of the two-tooths had a worm burden that was affecting their growth rates.
"With the regular monitoring, this lower performance was picked up faster than it may have been if relying on various staff to observe some physical changes.”
DEVELOPING LUCERNE AREA
Paul wants to use the software to get a better understanding of the effect of different feeds – especially for the lambs and hoggets. “With no possibility for irrigation, we want to develop a robust system that is flexible and can generate a good profit every season,” says Paul. “Selecting pasture species that perform well in our environment will enable us to do this.”
They aim to develop the area of lucerne to 260 of the available 297 hectares of river flats. Over the past 18 months 110 hectares of the river flats has been renovated – on top of the 50 hectares done previously.
This past season they got to see how the lucerne performed through a dry patch. “We’ve had an extended dry period right from spring,” says Paul. “We had a bit of rain in January and then it got very hot. Our weather station has reported soil moisture at well below stress point for most of that time. It showed how quickly that January moisture was lost.”
Under these conditions, Paul says he was “amazed” at how well the lucerne performed. “It’s a good addition to the farm system. The lucerne coped well with the moisture stress and was able to source water from lower in the soil profile than other species whilst continuing to provide high-quality feed.”
ASSESSING VALUE OF ADDED SALT
Lucerne is known to be low in sodium, Paul notes. “Anecdotally some farmers have suggested that including salt with fertiliser dressings was improving lucerne production and animal performance.” Paul has taken the opportunity to test this – an example of what he calls “myth busting”.
“When you’ve got some good measuring and monitoring tools, you can do comparisons and get answers about how things work in your farm system and whether the additional investment provides a return.”
He’s worked with Dominion Salt and the New Zealand Merino Company to design a salt trial, which included regular weighing of animals. An area of lucerne-based pasture received agricultural salt along with fertiliser in October, and stock on this 20-hectare area also had access to rock salt.
Plant tissue testing at the start showed that before the addition of salt the lucerne was just short of the recommended sodium level in plants being fed to stock. Along with the lucerne, the pasture also contains grass and some plantain – which is naturally higher in sodium.
Hoggets went on to the lucerne-based pasture from October and were monitored until the end of February. Things were “tracking quite well”, Paul says, and the salt area mob were doing about 6% better than the one on lucerne areas without added salt.
“Then in December-January the wheels came off. It turned out there was a worm burden in part of the flock. Faecal egg counts showed a lot had no worms and quite a few had high counts. The salt area mob was affected worse. By February things were back on track, and at that stage the salt area mob were doing nearly 20% better.”
“The supplemented mob had a better look in the paddock – what I would call a bloom, and I felt we did get a more even graze from the salt area.” The figures show that overall the salt mob grew 12% faster more weight (excluding the time of the worm burden).
While the trial has shown a biological effect, Paul says the real question for him is the return on investment. For the extra cost of $40 per hectare for the salt, he needs to grow an extra 16kg of liveweight per hectare in a season. So while there is a return for Glenaan, it is “not hugely significant and other ideas are to include more plantain in the sward which tested very high for sodium even in the control paddocks”.
Paul has been using the software to investigate other inputs too, such as B12 supplementation for lambs. “It’s a seasonal issue and with livestock grazing lucerne the effect of Vitamin B12 deficiency is limited.” So far he’s not convinced it’s worthwhile for Glenaan. “The first year we broke even; this year we made a loss on supplementation with long-acting vitamin B12.”
Lamb survival is an issue that he will look into. “I have bought four rams with high yearling-fat EBVs which should give us higher rates of lamb survival.”
Paul is also involved in a new wether trial being run by the Canterbury Merino Association. He’s taking 10 animals each from around 15 flocks after weaning and they will be run together at Glenaan under the same conditions. He will record and compare aspects of performance including wool production, average kill date and meat yield. This will provide insight into the value of wethers as a finishing scenario.
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