Hildreth Romney Stud

September 2009

A large scale high-tech ram breeding business

David and Vanessa Hildreth, Farm owners and Romney breeders, have a large scale high-tech ram breeding operation with 3000 recorded Romney ewes.

The Romney stud has been going for 45 years, and was started by David’s father. As well as the 3000 recorded Romneys they have 120 South Suffolk ewes as well. They produce 1100 ram hoggets, and sell just under 1000 of them a year.

They bought Glenross Station in 2005, and did a huge development programme, which was all planned before they took over. It’s 486ha. They also have two other blocks within 10km. Altogether they have 850ha effective.

David came back to the farm in 1985 after an agricultural commerce degree at Lincoln and then a couple of years overseas. He said the late 80s were a tough time to farm.

Now the couple have three blocks which are all run together, with the home block Glenross Station backing up against the Kaweka Ranges.

“Our philosophy is quite simple really, we just focus on our rate of genetic gain. The faster we speed that up, the better, just like compounding interest,” David says.

The flock has been recorded since 1966 when they went on Sheeplan, then it went to Animalpan, and now using SIL.

We’ve been doing it for 45 years, and at 2% improvement in genetic gain a year, then that gives a lift of 250% over 45 years. “It all adds up over time.”

Their weaning weights, for example have gone up just under 5kg since 1990, which is only a 1% genetic gain. “It doesn’t sound a lot but when it compounds over time it adds up quite quickly.”

So farmers buying these rams to breed across their ewes get half of this genetic gain in the progeny – and immediately tap into all the genetic gain we have made and where we are today – they don’t have to start where we started.

David says it takes about five years to get the full benefit of genetics throughout a flock – until the female progeny of the rams come through into their main breeding flocks.

He says they are making the most of farmers moving away from composites and back into high performance well bred Romneys.

Their points of difference are their scale of operation using electronic identification, what he calls their relentless focus on quality and the elimination of structural faults.

David says the more traits you select from, the harder it is to make progress. So they only select on fertility, growth rate and structural soundness.

They have a really young flock, with a third of it being two-tooths. As well, half of the rams they use each year are young rams. “We have a huge influx of young blood coming in every year.”

All their animals are tagged with electronic ID, and as a result David says they can weigh them a lot more often. They weigh the ewes pre and post mating, and tag the lambs at three weeks of age. They also condition score the ewes then.

It’s labour intensive, but the rewards are huge. Their hard work then makes it easier for everyone else.

At weaning they weigh the lambs and ewes.

They are also using Farmax with John Cannon from Challenge Consulting. “We are trying to marry up the actuals and theory to make sure we are in synch.”

For example, their top producing ewe at the moment is a 62kg ewe which weaned two lambs weighing 88kg.

And David’s ideal ewe would be a 65kg ewe having two 35kg lambs at weaning. If you run 8/ha, which is a conservative stocking rate, then they would gross about $1400/ha.

He says the accuracy and speed of the data collection has just revolutionized their business.

He says too many people under feed their ewes. Their mixed age ewes weighing 66-67kg and the two-tooths 62kg. The ewe hoggets for example average 45kg in May are very fertile, scanning 105% this year.

While the most efficient ewe would be a light ewe rearing triplets, he would rather have ewes producing twins than triplets, and get better weaning weights as a result. For every kg of weaning weight it is equivalent to another 5% lambing.

The whole idea is for farmers to maximize net profit/ha.

David says it’s an exciting time to be a sheep breeder, especially as there is a shortage of quality stock.