Merino Farming and FarmIQ at Glenaan Station

June 2013

A Primary Growth Partnership Programme is underway at Paul Ensors sheep and beef farm

The benefits of FarmIQ to Paul and Prue Ensor at Glenaan Station.

The objective with the FarmIQ programme at Glenaan Station is to improve production by 20% by 2016 and keep farm working expenses below 45%. This translates into an additional $130,000 of profit by developing forages, improving animal performance and opportunities, measuring and recording, taking a measured approach to fertiliser, and animal health actions.

The FarmIQ programme began in June 2012 at Glenaan, which is a focus farm, and has a steering committee made up of an agronomist, a bank manager, a fertiliser rep, a farm advisor, reps from the NZ Merino Co and FarmIQ, an extension agronomist and a vet. This team has developed a business plan for the farm. Paul says this is a very powerful group, and they are all getting a lot out of it. The programme is running for another four years.

The farm is 1035ha with 598ha of high country tussock, 140ha of cultivated paddocks and 297ha of river flats. Of the flats, 37ha are in lucerne and mixes and 60ha are oversown. The farm runs from 500m asl up to 1200m asl.

There are three different enterprises on the farm:

  • 2640 ultrafine Merino ewes including 600 two-tooths. There are 1397 Merino hoggets, of which 760 are in a Silere fixed price meat contract with Silver Fern Farms.
  • 700 Romney ewes to terminal sires, with replacement two-tooths brought in.
  • 200 Angus cattle including 107 in calf cows and heifers, and steers sold store at 15 months.

Paul farms the property by himself at least 50% of the time, with help from a Lincoln student in the summer and casual workers, as well as both Paul and Prue’s fathers at times. They are also part of a machinery syndicate of four farmers, which gives them a day a week with an operator. Paul and Prue have been farming here since 2004.

Collier Isaacs, Chief Executive of Farm IQ says it is a large Primary Growth Parternship programme with major shareholders Silver Fern Farms, Landcorp Farming and the Ministry for Primary Industry. “We are trying to build an integrated value chain in the meat industry to make the red meat industry boat go faster. As part of the programme there are a variety of projects, starting at the consumer end with product development and market research. The most common example of that is Silver Fern venison and lamb products retailing in NZ, and test marketing in the UK. At all stages we are making sure we can deliver the consumer a great eating experience every time.”

One step back down the value chain there is a lot of work being done on tracking animals through processing plants, including measuring meat quality and related aspects including animal health. Another project is around genomics using the SNP chip, and this work is being led by AgResearch.

Collier says “This work will allow us to improve selection for both eating quality and productivity on farm. Behind this work is the on-farm programme, making the farmers’ boat go faster whilst ensuring all the changes don’t impinge on the eating quality for the consumer.

We now have nine FarmIQ farmers, and we will have 12 next year. These are leading edge farmers.

What we are doing is quite unique, especially here at Paul’s. The programme here is linked right through the value chain including sheep meat (Silere), beef (BeefEQ soon), wool (NZM contracts) and leveraging farm servicing people who are working with farmers every day.

We are promoting an environment all farmers can adopt to advance their farm business. The IQ farmers like Paul are showcasing this, challenging existing thinking and providing a convenient venue for participating farmers to come together to learn and share ideas.

Underpinning all of this is our work in building a farm management system to pull all this work together.”

Paul Ensor says “We are excited by the FarmIQ programme. It is a real catalyst for change. We wondered what else we could do, as one of our limitations is a lack of scale and size, and the price of land is extremely challenging, and in this area doesn’t come up for sale very often.

The programme challenges us to try things, and we have no regrets about getting involved.”

All the animals on the farm are electronically identified. This enables a great deal of recording work, not just on liveweights and condition scores, but also on fleece weighing and testing. Before the programme they did some testing, and this has been increased with FarmIQ.

Right from birth animals can be tracked. “If you didn’t know the birth rank of an animal you would automatically select the first born, because they cut more wool and twin lambs have a stronger micron.

We feel now we are making better decisions around what animals we keep as replacements. With a lot of the measuring, the payback time is very quick. For me a lot of what FarmIQ does is give you the ability to make better decisions through more information. It enables you to benchmark yourself and identify areas you should doing well in.

One of the challenges is that there is a lot of recording to do. You have to be interested in numbers and trying to improve your performance that way.”

EID tags cost $1.65 an animal. “We were sold on this straight away. I am not saying it is for everyone, but we have seen real value in it and wouldn’t hesitate again.”

The ultrafine Merino ewes produce wool averaging 16.3 micron. In the last six years the Ensors have increased income by $21/head by improving wool quality, enabling them to make the most of improved markets.

Measuring and monitoring by using EID is going to help them reach their breeding objectives of reducing micron size to 15.5, consistently weaning over 100% (now it is 92%), finishing surplus hoggets to 20kg carcass weights at 13 months, improving the fleece quality and at least maintaining wool quantity.

The rams they use across the ultrafine ewes are in the top 5-10% of Australasian rams for reducing micron EBVs.

Glenaan is also part of a NZ Merino PGP to develop markets for Merino meat.

The Ensors grow lambs for the Silere Alpine Origin Merino joint venture between Silver Fern Farms and NZ Merino and are just completing their second season. They have one more year to run on these contracts which are locked in at $8/kg for this coming season.

“It has given us certainty about doing more development on the river flats as well. It is de-risking our investment. At the moment the river flats carry one stock unit to the ha. This is the biggest opportunity on the farm, so we are looking to renovate that land into a lucerne system. The water table is only 0.5-1.0m down.” They hope to grow 6tDM/ha with the lucerne.

Already 37ha have been developed, and the rest of the work will continue over the next four years. Paul says “There would be too much risk in developing this land all at once. We are also trialling some lucerne mixes with grasses and herbs such as plantain. We had some really good results with it this year, which is our first year of using it.”

As this area is developed they are changing stock policies to reduce cattle numbers from 20 to 16% of the business. Instead, they will be finishing more Merino hoggets.

It has cost the Ensors $2500 to soil test every paddock on the farm. As a result they found paddocks which didn’t need fertiliser, and some which needed more targeted specific fertilisers. The farm now has a fertiliser plan for every paddock. The 140ha around the homestead is the engine room of the farm with the best soils and most development. The savings they made from being able to reduce fertiliser use there paid for the tests on the rest of the property.

“It’s all about best practice and new technology. I would recommend farmers do a full farm soil test”, says Paul.

In terms of animal health, Paul says “With our vet we put together an animal health plan for each stock class, and looked at all our vaccination programmes. We’ve done a lot of blood testing in cattle to test for trace element status, and a host of things around animal health. We are hoping to get incremental improvements. We’ve found a a bit of a copper problem. Regular monitoring is showing us what is happening. We want to know if we are wasting time using B12 shots on the lambs, and how we manage the pre-lamb treatments.”

This work is an example of a whole lot of things going on right across the property in every aspect.

Collier Isaacs says “All of our FarmIQ projects are continuing, and around November we will be putting the farm management system, which includes a lot of benchmarking like you have seen at Paul’s farm, on the market so anybody can use it commercially.”