Maximising Genetic Potential at Awapai
Awapai is a ram breeder for Focus Genetics finishing stock with quality pasture mixes
Awapai in Hawke’s Bay has 80ha of tonic plantain and mixed clover pastures, used for faster finishing and better yields on lambs, and for growing out replacement ewe hoggets, expressing their genetic potential to the maximum.
Awapai is 1700ha of hill country owned by the Beamish family, at Whanawhana, west of Napier/Hastings, in the foothills of the Ruahine Range. The property breeds rams for Focus Genetics (now owned by Landcorp) and owner Simon Beamish is a partner and director in Rissington Breedline, a predecessor to Focus Genetics. Awapai is a member of FarmIQ and for both Focus Genetics and FarmIQ, all aspects of farm management and livestock performance are recorded. All sheep fed on the plantain are electronically identified and weighed regularly.
The property runs 1300 electronically DNA-recorded Primera ewes for breeding Primera ram hoggets, 7000 commercial Highlander ewes, 1250 ewe hoggets and 1200 cattle. Focus Genetics sells around 400 ram hoggets each year from Awapai, while additional sires are transferred to other farms and sold as two-tooth rams in the autumn.
Primera is a composite breed of sheep for use as a terminal sire, producing fast-growing, early-maturing, high-yielding lambs. Highlander is a maternal composite sheep breed for ewe flocks on commercial farms.
Awapai also runs a range of cattle classes to suit the country and complement sheep production. Breeding cows, yearlings, finishing cattle, replacements and dairy-beef bulls are all included on Awapai and the adjacent Waitata station, also owned by the Beamish family.
The bulls are bought as 100kg weaners in November and December and typically sold store at around 450kg livewight 12 to14 months later. The same areas of the farm, rendered more “parasite-friendly” by cattle grazing, and the new pastures are also grazed with lambs once the big bulls have gone.
Five years ago farm manager Shane Tilson looked for higher quality feed for sheep, especially during dry summer months. He started sowing chicory, then moved to chicory and clover mix, and then realised that permanent plantain and clover mix would offer more protein and energy, persistence and the ability to control weeds like thistle and unwanted grasses.
Tonic plantain cultivar from Agricom is a broad-leafed, coarse rooted herb that can adapt to a range of soils, rainfalls and other climatic conditions. Tonic is an upright
cultivar with seasonal dry matter (DM) production strengths in summer, autumn and winter. It is usually sown as part of a mixed species pasture with grasses and clovers, but Awapai is using higher plant populations, oversown into pre-established red and white clovers.
Agricom says a pure crop sown at 8-14kg/ha can also be useful for eradicating grass weeds (e.g. yellow bristle grass, couch) as grass-specific herbicides can be used over the crop.
Without exact measurement, Shane Tilson believes the plantain/clover pastures are producing more DM than ryegrass and clover pastures in Awapai’s weather and soils. He estimates 8-9 tonnes/ha/yr DM, compared with 7T from grass. Also the plantain paddocks held on longer going into drought and bounced back more quickly when rain was received.
Well-managed plantain will flower and re-seed itself. It is a vigorous grower and will set seed heads several times during summer which may need topping to maintain crop quality.
Awapai has historically struggled to finish lambs during the summer months on the pasture quality available. Brassicas do not grow well in that environment. With the added requirement of growing out Primera ram hoggets to sale specification, Shane Tilson turned to other summer crops like chicory, clover and plantain.
Plantain offered a deep rooting system and natural re-seeding ability to provide more than one summer crop, possibly semi-permanent pasture. Awapai has limited area under cultivation and the level of production in the farming operations needs more than standard pasture can provide. That dictated a larger area of enhanced feed, so Awapai has 80ha of tonic plantain and mixed clovers, which are fed out to young sheep on 21-day rotation during the summer. This is on rolling country in the main.
Three sheep classes use the plantain paddocks during the year. Firstly from spring until weaning, the Highlander ewe hoggets with lambs at foot, both priority feeding classes. Then from mid-December to mid-March, the Primera ram hoggets, until their sale dates. The plantain is then restocked with Highlander ewe lambs about one month before mating as ewe hoggets, right through until spring lambing.
Trials have shown that lambs grow faster on plantain than grass pastures and kill out with higher yields. It has also improved the condition of ewe hoggets before first mating. Shane ran a comparative trial last summer whereby half of the Highlander ewe hoggets with Primera lambs at foot were grazed on plantain and the other half on normal ryegrass pastures for the last month of lactation before weaning. The lambs weaned off the plantain weighed 1kg CW heavier and the ewe hoggets to be retained were 1.2kg LW heavier. Overall, lambs on plantain gained 350g a day on average from birth to weaning, which was a much better growth rate than expected.
Tilson observed that lambs on plantain had less dags and that sheep survival was better.
The latest move has been to establish plantain under irrigation, where it is expected to perform even better. Shane expects the plantain/clover swards will need over-sowing with some more seed every two to three years after thistles and grass weeds have been sprayed out, just to top up the seed bank produced by the existing plants.
“Plantain has improved the growth and also the condition of livestock for mating. It is affordable and cost-effective, it suits our environment and is an all-round good alternative to pasture,” Shane says.