Scale and diversity allow a three-farm operation to finish large numbers of homebred lambs. Russell Priest reports. Photos by Brad Hanson.
Iconic Hinau Station in the northern Manawatu is renowned for producing top stock. Being the engineroom of a large farming business its role is to produce store stock to populate two finishing farms; one of 530 hectares just down the road at Ohingaiti (Crosby) and the other of 263ha at Cheltenham about 10km north of Feilding. These two blocks are managed independently by Patrick Henderson.
Scale and diversity of contour are major strengths of the business enabling it to finish large numbers of homebred lambs and cattle to excellent weights while still having scope to take advantage of store stock opportunities that may occur.
Another of its strengths is its managers and staff. Hinau is ably managed by Jason and Rachel Gillespie. Jason who has been manager for the last 10 years believes in sticking to the basics and doing them well while setting new production targets each year.
He loves his job and claims one of the reasons for this is the working relationship he has with the owners John and Sally Henderson. John is a Marton lawyer and present chairman of Ravensdown.
“John is awesome,” Jason said. “We have a really good relationship. He leaves me alone to make the decisions but we still communicate a lot.”
Jason has high praise also for the staff he has had during his tenure describing them as hard working and reliable with the present shepherd Henry Wilson being no exception.
Much of the more mundane work like crutching, dagging and scrub cutting is done by contractors while over the summer a Lincoln student and a casual worker are employed. This temporary labour force plus Hinau’s excellent infrastructure enable the station to employ just two full-time labour units managing a total of close to 12,000 stock units.
Jason is a South Islander having drifted north to work for Charlie Duncan as a shepherd on Hunterville’s Otiwhiti Station then at Mangaweka before the move to Hinau. He married Rachel, a local girl in 2010 and they have two children.
Hinau (1376ha – 1215ha effective) at an elevation of between 400 metres and 700m lies on the road between Rangiwahia and Ohingaiti about 6.5km west of Rangiwahia. Large blocks of native bush are a feature of this picturesque station and these together with fenced-off waterways represent the ineffective area of 161ha.
Also a feature is the impressive infrastructure. This includes excellent farm sheds and covered yards, a 7km central lane and a farm track that would be the envy of most farmers, six satellite yards accessed directly by most paddocks and plenty of shade for the stock.
“You see stock under shade in the summer and they seem so content whereas if there’s no shade they wander restlessly about obviously not happy,” Jason said.
Most of the paddocks feed into the central lane making stock movement extremely easy. Horses are the preferred mode of transport from docking through to shearing.
Most of Hinau’s weather comes from the west or south-west bringing with it an average annual rainfall of 1200mm. On average two light falls of snow occur each year with the worst fall in recent years resulting in the power being out for a week.
Soils on Hinau are all sedimentary; mudstone, sandstone and silt stone with sheet erosion only being a problem after heavy dumps of rain. Jason is not a great poplar fan because of the damage to fences and tracks and the mess they make as they break up with age. However, the station has completed a Whole Farm Plan with Horizons Regional Council and will be planting areas with trees as outlined in the plan.
Most of the stock water on the station is supplied from natural sources using dams as storage.
In the grip of drought
Normally regarded as summer-safe, Hinau like much of the Manawatu, is presently in the grip of a severe drought. Its scale and diversity of contour gives it a few more options than the average farm when determining strategies to deal with the dry.
The inevitable outcome however has been reduced stock numbers; fewer ewes than normal have been retained, store lambs have been sold much earlier (normally all lambs except a small tail end are finished on the business’s two finishing farms) and lambs have been killed at lighter weights 17.5kg (normally 19-20kg).
“In a year like this it is better to cut your losses by selling store and putting your feed into your ewe flock,” Jason said.
Store lambs were sold on the place in early February for $2.65-$2.70 and went to the South Island.
As soon as the bulls come out of their mating mobs the cows and calves will be set stocked over much of the farm to take pressure off and minimise the damage to dams which are a major source of water.
“Identifying cow and calf units and splitting them off mobs will be quite a process,” Jason said.
The economic powerhouse of Hinau is its 7300 Romney ewe flock consisting of 6000 A-flock ewes and 1300 B-flock and four-year ewes. The latter go to Suffolk rams on March 20 producing early cross-bred lambs while the former go to Romney rams on April 13.
This strategy enables Suffolk cross lambs and five-year ewes to be killed early attracting early-season premiums while freeing up much of the easier country for Romney ewes and lambs born on the steeper country. This in turn allows ewe hoggets which have been wintered on Cheltenham to be returned to Hinau freeing up finishing country for finishing lambs down there.
Producing strongly marked progeny is the reason Suffolk terminal sires are used – they can’t be mistaken for straight Romney lambs. The mating ratio for both Suffolk and Romney rams is 1:70 with all mating mobs being moved every two or three days ensuring rams and ewes are regularly mixed.
Average lambing percentage is 143% and Jason believes it has almost reached its optimum.
“It’s all very well getting high lambing percentages but there’s no point in weaning a lot of rats. There is a trade-off between lambing percentage and weaning weights on hill country,” he said.
Mating hoggets has not been practised however this may change with the recent acquisition of Cheltenham where the contour is predominantly flat.
“We may lamb hoggets in future when we get organised on the Cheltenham block,” Jason said.
Last year 2500 hoggets left Hinau in June for Cheltenham where they remained until returning to Hinau in early January. Further culling brings their number back to 2200-2300 to go to the ram as two-tooths.
Historically Romney rams have been sourced from Forbes Cameron and the Tods (Hollycombe). While still buying from the Tods rams are now also bought from Ross Humphrey. One of his breeding objectives is to increase hide thickness which has been scientifically proven to improve lamb survival. The latter happens to be one of Hinau’s main breeding objectives.
Focus on maternal index
In selecting Romney rams Jason focuses genetically on a high maternal index with good all-round breeding values. All rams must be born and raised as twins. Phenotypically (physically) rams must display good muscling with a medium-sized frame, good hind quarters and spring of ribs and a sound fleece of medium-micron wool. The average price paid for the rams is $1200.
Suffolk rams have traditionally been bought privately from the Sherriffs’ Pine Park stud in Marton. This year however they sold their rams at auction with Hinau paying an average of $850 for their successful bids. Jason looks for similar physical attributes in the Suffolks he buys to those he focuses on in the Romneys. Genetically his main selection criterion is early growth so as many lambs as possible can be POM (processed off mum).
Jason is a strong advocate of rotational grazing working on the theory that “grass grows grass” however this year with pasture growth being minimal he has had to revert to set stocking over the latter part of summer.
“We’d been rotating the ewes since weaning up until late February however I could see that if we’d gone another rotation we’d be in the poop,” he said.
Ideally, he likes to move stock into paddocks with 1800kg drymatter (DM)/ha and leave residuals of 1400kg DM/ha. This generally means ewes are in paddocks for only two days however his rotation lengths are normally flexible enough to cater for most adverse weather events. Ewes are rotated in age groups.
The winter rotations are briefly interrupted to enable the ewes to be shorn, scanned, vaccinated and the lighter ones pulled out and drenched. Set stocking for lambing occurs three weeks before the first lambs are born.
Hinau operates a split-shearing regime; two-tooths and four-tooths are shorn in January, six-tooths and five-year-olds in March with two-tooths and four-tooths shorn again pre-lambing. Then shearing times are reversed so that six-tooths and five-year-olds olds are shorn in January, two-tooths and four-tooths in March and six-tooths and five-year-olds again pre-lambing.
Only two-tooths and those ewes mated to Suffolk rams are scanned with MA Romney ewes being udder palpated before lambing. Dry ewes are almost non-existent at 0.35%.
Jason sees little point in scanning the MA ewes because by the time the better country is set stocked with two-tooths and five-year ewes there’s little difference between the remaining lambing paddocks based on historical lambing data to suggest lambing twin-bearing ewes separate from those carrying singles is going to improve overall lambing percentage.
Stocking the better country (40ha autumn-sown in young grass) with 5yr ewes gives them the greatest opportunity to exploit their potential lamb crop while putting on weight themselves. This allows the business to capitalise on early season price premiums for both lamb and mutton.
The first draft of terminal lambs occurs late November/early December when about 30% are POM at 17-18kg. The remaining terminal lambs are returned to two of the young grass paddocks with the others being stocked with MA Romney ewes and lambs off the steeper country. Ewe hoggets from Cheltenham return home and replace these ewes and lambs on that steeper country.
After weaning 5yr ewes are checked for soundness and any that are considered capable of doing another year are trucked down to Crosby. Those that are not are killed (space is pre-booked) and last year these returned more than the first draft of lambs at $170.
A second draft of terminal lambs is taken when the MA ewes are weaned in the second week of January with numbers killed being boosted by any suitable Romney male lambs.
At weaning as many Romney male lambs as feed covers allow are trucked to Crosby and Cheltenham.
Those male Romney lambs remaining at Hinau are shorn together with any remaining Suffolk cross lambs and put on summer crops of pasja and rape from where they are trucked down to the two finishing blocks as required.
Romney ewe lambs are also shorn at this time and are subjected to continuous culling based on size and soundness over the summer resulting in 2500 being retained and wintered.
Ewe hoggets retained for breeding used to be wintered on swedes on Hinau however with the recent acquisition of Cheltenham they are now wintered there so swedes are no longer grown.
Ewe udder palpation is a regular chore on Hinau. A month after weaning all ewes’ udders are checked for soundness and any that have lumps, are droopy or displaying any other defects are culled. Research has shown that unsound udders are responsible for lowering lamb survival rates significantly. Udder palpation at docking identifies most of the wet-dry ewes which are also culled while palpation of the MA ewes pre-lambing is a guide as to when ewes are going to lamb.
Cattle vital part of mix
While sheep are the primary income earners on Hinau, the 370 mixed-breed cowherd (Hereford, Shorthorn and Angus) forms a vital part of the livestock mix while generating significant income mainly from progeny finished on Crosby. The steers from here are killed at 22 months at around 330kg carcaseweight. Finishing cattle for Cheltenham are likely to come from outside sources although Jason said he may suggest to John that he send his first calvers down there for a while.
Not many years ago cows were regarded as second-class “citizens” however farmers attitudes have changed in recent years as the income generated from breeding cows has sky-rocketed. While they are still used as pasture groomers they are no longer ‘abused’ as they used to be on many hill country farms and as a result their performance has improved significantly.
On Hinau breeding cows are highly regarded and a lot of effort goes into creating an environment in which they can perform to their potential.
It all starts with bull selection. Jason knows exactly what sort of bulls he needs to buy to provide the genetics that will allow the herd to achieve the production targets he has set.
In selecting bulls Jason thoroughly scrutinises the bull sale catalogues of vendors whose bulls he is interested in.
“I go through the catalogues before I attend the sales and circle only those bulls that have the genetics I am looking for. Once I get to the sales all I have to do is inspect these bulls to make sure they are sound and are the right type.”
The right type for Jason is a moderate framed, meaty bull with a good temperament, shoulder and hind end. Genetically he looks for a good maternal index, a moderate birth EBV and positive fats. He likes to see that most of the other EBVs will give him a positive economic response.
Jason no longer buys Shorthorn bulls mainly because of the lack of choice. He gets his Hereford bulls from Riverlea, Otapawa and occasionally Koanui. Angus bulls are sourced from Totaranui, Ranui and Brookwood. All are bought at auction and he generally pays an average of $9000-$10,000 for Angus and $8000-$8500 for Herefords.
“Gone are the days of budgeting $5000 for a bull,” he said.
When sorting cows into their mating mobs Jason puts the coloured cows to Angus bulls and straight black and white-faced cows to Hereford bulls. He’s not concerned about the multi-coloured appearance of the herd because all cattle are finished on the two finishing farms, mainly Crosby.
About 370 cows are put to the bull for 60 days to calve around October 15-20. Once dries and culls have been killed between 320 and 330 cows will be calved. The calving percentage last year based on cows wintered was 94% (7% dries) and has been increasing steadily from the late eighties. Jason attributes this improvement to better herd constitution resulting from his selecting bulls with positive fat EBVs.
Heifers are calved as three-year-olds as Jason believes they haven’t the flexibility on the station to calve two-year olds. He also finds the R3 heifers useful for cleaning up pastures when the bulls are out with the cows and calves and on other occasions.
Light-conditioned MA cows and R3 heifers calve on some of the easier country while the rest of the cows calve amongst the ewes and lambs.
Calf weaning occurs in May. All weaned calves except 70 replacement heifers go straight onto trucks destined for Crosby where they are finished.
Bad feet, low-slung udders, large teats, temperament and poor constitution are faults that Jason particularly targets when culling his cows and heifers.
“I’ve noticed a big improvement in herd constitution now that I’m culling poor-conditioned heifers. I don’t like seeing skinny stock.”
Dries, wet-dries and any cows that fight the dogs also get a one-way ticket.
After receiving a 7-in-1 vaccination, a selenium, copper and ivomectin super injection (kills liver fluke) the cows are spread out over the steeper hill country for the winter.
The contour on Hinau consists mainly of medium hills with about 40ha of flats and a few steeper areas. Any cropping is confined to the flats and easier hills.
Forty hectares of Pasja are sown on some of the easier hills in November and used to carry finishing lambs over the summer before being sent to the finishing blocks. The Pasja area is sown in young grass in the autumn with several different varieties of ryegrass.
Goliath rape is sown on 4-6ha of flats and fed to lambs over the summer then shut up and break fed to the replacement weaner heifers over the winter.
“I love my rape. It displays such good regrowth that I’m able to break feed 70 weaner heifers for two months over the winter on it, so it gives me great value.”
The injection of 150kg/ha of DAP when crops and young grass are sown helps to elevate already healthy soil fertility levels.
Hinau has a better fertiliser history than the average farms in the area according to Ravensdown rep Ryan Tait.
Good fertility levels are another of the station’s strengths with average phosphate levels at 22, potash at 8.5, PH at 5.7 with the limiting element being sulphur at 7. Organic sulphur is also low.
“With sulphur being the limiting element and one of the more mobile in the soil it is important to get at least 30 units of sulphur on each year before the growing season,” Tait said.
Hinau’s annual maintenance fertiliser is 250kg/ha of super or sulphur super 15. Up until recently 2.5t/ha of lime has been applied every third year.
With predicted feed shortages during the winter and maybe early spring as a result of the drought Jason is planning to use urea at 70-80kg/ha to fill the feed gap.
One of Hinau’s features is its numerous gullies and swamps and these are occupied by the snails which host liver fluke. In a dry summer animals graze these swampy areas and ingest the fluke so this year Jason’s drenching programme will include treating all animals for liver fluke.
His normal drenching programme involves a lot of faecal egg counting to determine what stock need drenching. He’s working on extending his lamb drenching interval from three to four weeks. Lambs are first drenched at docking along with the ewes. They get a second drench at dipping in December and one at weaning in January. Thereafter they are drenched every month. Light ewes receive a drench after weaning and are given preferential treatment over the summer. Any ewes that are in light condition before set stocking for lambing are also drenched.
While some hill country farms are being planted in manuka Jason is busy getting rid of it. Contract scrub-cutters were paid $10,000 last year to cut scrub and some gorse. Four hundred hectares of mainly ridges were sprayed last year for wing and scotch thistles to improve stock movement.
- Hinau Station in the northern Manawatu.
- Owners the Henderson family.
- Hill country sheep and beef breeding unit.
- 1376ha (1215ha effective).
- Supplies lambs and cattle to two finishing units.
- Total farming business area 2169ha.