Drought strategies tough but invaluable

Drought strategies tough but invaluable
The farm dogs keep an eye on spring calves and cows at Mt Sandford farm in North Canterbury. Angus and Ruby Maxwell take a break from farm chores.

Coming out of three years of drought Mt Sandford Farm at Ethelton Valley in North Canterbury is finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Dan, whose grandparents obtained the farm as a ballot block in 1947, says that strict strategies during the drought has set the farm up well. “During the drought we would set a date and if we didn’t get the right amount of rain by then we’d take a predetermined action.
This would be one of three things – buying in feed, a certain line of stock would be sold or a certain line of stock would be put off to graze. That way we were sure the animals were fed well and we could sleep at night.
“They were hard decisions to make as each one cost around $20,000 but we had to do it to keep going forward. At the back of our minds we always knew farming goes in cycles and you win some and you lose some. It was important to be really decisive – make a decision, put a line in the sand and get on with it.”
Dan grew up on the 550ha farm, which is located near Cheviot. The farm runs 2500 romney ewes, 600 ewe lambs, 80 angus cows and 100 plus trading cattle.
It also runs some trading hoggets and has around 360 of these at present. Dan says investment in the farm was continued during the drought as he saw this as an investment for the future.
He is now seeing the rewards of this work, which included re-grassing and subdividing paddocks.
He has replaced some existing ryegrass pastures with cocksfoot clover mixes and lucerne, which, as more tolerant to dryer conditions, has enabled the farm to grow more feed with less water.
Lucerne has been planted in exposed country, which was no good for lambing anyway. It has enabled the farm to get more lambs out of the gate at a younger age, before the dryer weather could hit, also helping to further drought-proof the farm.
Dan shut up some native sheltered gullies on the farm to lamb on to improve survivability.
At 10 days old around 850 lambs and 500 ewes head to the lucerne resulting in good growth rates and leaving other parts of the farm free for their other lambs to graze on. It also means the gullies, which contain waterways, don’t need to be grazed as often improving environmental footprint.
“It’s about focusing on the right farming suited to the right land,” says Dan. When the lambs are 60 days old they are weaned.
He can then get rid of the cull ewes at this point rather than December/January meaning an average $10-15 more per head. A terminal sire ram is put over 60% of the ewes so he is only breeding from the very best of the younger sheep.
Dan is aiming for a tough, easy care sheep with good fertility that produces a good lamb. The farm objectives are 35 kilogram lamb weights at 90 days and 150% lambing. He is on track to achieving this with ewes scanning at 177% this year and good weather meaning plenty of quality feed.
The cattle policy is to sell calves and replace them with older trading cattle, which graze the hill country with the ewes and cows to improve feed quality for the spring.
The trading cattle are then fed well through the spring and they are all slaughtered by Christmas.
“This way we only have our cows and calves through the summer when it generally gets dry and we can feed them well to achieve target weaning weights. While this system works really well for us, it wouldn’t work for every farm,” says Dan.
He and wife Emmy have two children, Angus, 7 and Ruby, 6, and like to include the children in the farming operation as much as possible.
They have just employed one part time staff member which Dan hopes will free him up to keep up with farm maintenance projects.
Dan, who has just taken on the role of Federated Farmers meat and wool chair for North Canterbury, remains optimistic about the future of the industry.
As far as some of the main things he would like to see is for dryland farming to remain a permitted activity, hill country and other sheep farms to be excluded from fencing off waterways and for livestock emissions (methane and nitrous oxide) to be excluded from the emissions trading scheme.
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