As we head into the last few days in New Zealand, we'd been saving one of the largest segments of agriculture for last - the sheep industry. As Kate and I are both born to sheep ranching we were very interested in seeing how NZ sheep stations and operations compare to home.
However, where you are makes a big difference in a country dominated by coastline. The climate changes literally every 10 kilometers as you head east or west, so different types of operations can be found. We ended up visiting three, and the topics of discussion, questions, and sights could fill up a great number of website real estate, so we'll stick to the highlights.
High and Dry = Merino Country
If you are familiar with sheep, you know there are two 'types' that our sheep breeds today go back to: the open-fleece, meat types of England and the fine wool breeds that harken from the highly coveted and guarded Merinos of arid Spain. The high country of New Zealand (as seen in the second Lord of the Rings - it's all the brown hills and fields) is where Merinos can be found, and in force.
We pulled into a sheep station whose drive is literally the 55 kilometer highway that runs up to the base of Mt Cook, NZ's highest elevation. There 20,000 hectares stretch most of the valley, and is home to 8,500 ewes. Which you can see they move up and down the road when necessary.
The other interesting thing about this place is how they shear. Mark, one of the guys who were working the sheep that day, told us that all these sheep were shorn by hand with blades -not the motorized handpiece you usually see but with the old fashion method. The crew of eight shearers who come in can do nearly a 1,000 a day this way; a conventional crew would be getting nearly 2,400 done in the same nine hours. But the hand shearing leaves more wool on the ewe, as they shear in the winter, and also the heat from the handpiece is purported to damage the wool follicle, and limits regrowth. A very interesting way of doing things.
"The Customer is Always Right"
Later that day we continued our way east, away from the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and closer to the Canterbury plain. As the average annual rainfall increased, so did the number of meat-type breeds. We were most fortunate to be able to meet with and be hosted by Anne and Phillip, two long-time sheep and cattle ranchers. Both have a great deal of experience in agriculture; Anne currently sits on a national beef and lamb industry board, and both are very engaged in what markets and trade are doing to and for NZ's meat animal industries.
A clear focus of their operation is improving quality of product and best management practices so that they can fulfill the needs of more valuable contracts for retail stores overseas. This commitment to quality and meeting those demands of the customer - who as Anne said is always right - allows them to market their product at a higher value.
Staying with them was an excellent, and I'm afraid we only scratched the surface with our questions of what we could learn from them. It was very interesting to see how these folks who were very engaged in what markets and trends were happening and were helping to promote and improve their industry.
"200% Lamb Crop with No Triplets"
After an evening and morning with Anne and Phillip, we headed another 20 kilometers eastward and stopped in on a farm that has been in the same family for a hundred years. Warren was a contact made from a college roommate who spent some months down here his senior year. While the family place has grown a great deal since they started there, sheep have always been on the place.
Warren is also running his operation as a "Demonstration Farm," which there are about 12-14 of across NZ who are supported by the beef and lamb industry group (same one Anne is part of the leadership of) to develop and demonstrate best practices. This support allows him to try new things and collect data while doing so. There are three things he is working on with his farm:
- Achieving 200% pregnancy in scanned (ultrasound) ewes with no triplets. Possible? Yes. Probable? No. But collecting the data on which ewes twin, when they twin, how soon they are bred, etc is working to that goal. The large amount of data they are collecting is meant to help find those factors that make the difference. They are using electronic ID tags (EID) to track information on the ewes.
- Achieving 100% bull calves born using natural service. Again, are there factors in nutrition, timing, age of bull, behavior, etc that can lead to more bull calves?
- Using fodder beet as winter feed for cattle. Many people here use kale or brassicas for winter feed, but this crop may have some large benefits. They are currently trying it with cattle.
And Then There Were Cows
An interesting conversation that was had with Anne, Phillip, and Warren was the rise in dairy cattle and dairy grazing happening, especially with sheep, beef, and deer farms. Both of their operations have some dairy grazing happening, which is where a dairy farm ships them their replacement heifers to be grown out until they are ready to calve and be milked. The ranches who graze these cattle are paid on a head/week basis. This has provided a high level of consistent income year round, compared to volatile markets and once-a-year livestock shipments. While this helps the bottom line, it also competes with sheep and cattle for land.
Only time will tell how long NZ is known as a 'sheep country' and instead Kiwiland is known as Dairyland.
Road Report: icy, but not too shabby. We've been moving right along, and up a few steep hills for the views. Although my streak of hitting the windshield wipers at least once trying to make a turn signal has been consistent. And after driving through about 50 of them I finally understand two-lane roundabouts! Too bad/just fine that we have very few of them in Oregon, and even if we did I would probably drive into them in the wrong direction...