A farmer struck by two years of drought says farm management software is helping him make timely decisions and get better results.
Rob Lawson farms with his brother Willie and father Jim on the 2300ha family farm Moana, just north of Dunedin.
While many parts of the East Coast seem to have dodged the predicted El Nino, Rob says it has been “very typical” in their area over the past two years. In fact the rainfall has even been lower this year than the worst drought his father has experienced before now – in 1998 and 1999. “That’s East Coast farming, and that’s what we’ve got to contend with,” Rob says.
Despite the severity of the drought, so far they have not lowered their capital stock numbers at all. Rob puts that down to close monitoring of stock.
The big focus on Moana over the past few years has been maximising maternal performance, using farm management software for recording and analysis. Their overall aspirational goal is to tail 10,000 lambs.
To help with this, they have set a series of targets for their ewe replacements – to grow them from lambs into productive 2-tooths. They have a calendar of measures they take to check how it’s going. They record them in the software, replacing spreadsheets or paper notebooks.
“During favourable seasons, with our suite of measurements you feel like you are grabbing the business by the scruff of the neck and shaking every last dollar out of it,” Rob told farmers during a recent field day.
But now these regular checks are also helping them manage fairly effectively through the current drought. “In these challenging years it is more about using the measurements to make good strategic decisions. That will hopefully allow us to bounce back quickly when more productive periods come our way again. The software has helped us to make sure we’re aligning feed supply and demand."
After weighing the ewe hoggets in September 2015, they could see these animals were a bit behind what they needed to be – and keeping them all on-farm probably wasn’t going to help. So Rob made the decision to send half of them off to South Otago for three months, only the second time in the family’s farming history that they have grazed off. Those hoggets came back 4kg heavier than the ones on Moana, at 60.5kg. With the software, they will be able to continue to compare the performance of the ones that went off and the ones that stayed.
After that, the next target was to get 1500 lambs away before Christmas. In fact, they got 2345 away; 300 of them as stores. They killed at a lighter weight than previous years – 16kg average compared to 19kg, which has Rob reflecting on having to lower the sights in tough conditions.
In late December they weaned 1800 lambs early off the hill. “That was good for the ewes, but then we had lighter lambs that we had to do something with so that created its own issue.” And they sent off a mob of older ewes before Christmas rather than waiting for the annual draft in February. They are now feeding nuts to 1800 older ewes, and the ewe lambs are on crop.
The good news was that the first weight for this year’s ewe lambs, in Febuary, showed them averaging close to 30 kg. “That’s not too bad considering,” says Rob. “If we had a better Autumn, a big chunk of them could have gone to the ram. The next key weight for them is September. At that time we will have to be able to do something with ones not at the target weight of 42kg.”
On the cattle side, they weaned calves earlier than usual – in mid March, and now all bar replacements and a few light ones have left the property.
The next call is about whether to send hoggets off again for grazing. May 2016 has brought some welcome rain – 20 ml in about a week, so Rob is wondering if they might sneak through with all animals on the farm.
Overall they are close to 3000 stock units down now on where they would usually be. Rob has calculated that the cost of sending stock off for grazing and also the bought-in feed adds up to about $70,000 of direct costs for the year.
On the bright side, Rob notes that livestock trading has been pretty good this year. “Beef has been exceptional to get out of stock, and store lambs have been easy to move, which is unusual. Normally you take a hiding on everything. And price of wool is not too bad. So it’s not a complete disaster.”
Want to know more about the farm management software Rob is using?