By LYNDA GRAY

West Otago farmer Brian Howden has ticked off his 53rd consecutive lambing beat and is counting down to the next one. Aside from the snowstorms that have occasionally put an icy dampener on things, lambing is the bright spot in his farming year.

‘As long as I have my health…I enjoy it and that’s why I keep doing it,” Brian says.

His first lambing beat was in 1968, the same year as the Wahine disaster. He was a 16-year-old school leaver and got three weeks’ work with a local farmer helping out with 2000 Romney mixed-age ewes on the 120-hectare farm near Benio. He was quickly in the thick of typical lambing problems of bearings and mis-mothered lambs. There was also the problem of the full-wool ewes taking things that didn’t belong to them.

Brian Howden

“They would pinch another ewe’s lamb, so we had to deal with them by catching them and shoving them in another paddock.”

The morning beat started at 7am and if everything went according to plan on the evening round, Brian was stepping out of wet and muddy waterproof leggings, jacket, and boots by 6pm.

“It was hard work. Nothing was set-stocked, and we were shedding out every second day. I practically lived out in the paddock, but I was getting $60 a day so I thought I was made.”

He did another four or five lambings elsewhere before returning home to the family farm on Donald Road at Waikoikoi. On the first lambing back home Brian got around his beat in a Land Rover.

“It used about 300 gallons of petrol over lambing, so it was the one and only time I used it.”

After the retirement of Brian’s parents, he and Nola took on ownership of the farm in 1982. A couple of years later is when the Howdens had a lambing from hell due to a severe southerly blast.

“It sticks in my mind. I had to come in early evening because the snow was too thick and the next day, I ended up putting 320 dead lambs at the gate. It was really tough.”

Reflecting on 50-plus consecutive lambing beats Brian says it’s the same but different.

Lambing performance has lifted considerably at the Howdens due primarily to a change in breeding tack. Brian and Nola persevered with Romneys during the early part of their farming career, but they struggled to get a decent lambing percentage.

“When we first took over, we were struggling to get 100%, we managed to crack 141% but it was hard work.”

In the search for better lamb survivability and growth rates they turned their attention to Texels and in 2005 bought the Meba Texel stud. The infusion of Texel genetics led to a half-Texel half-Romney commercial flock of ewes which Brian says are a more resilient breed.

In 2009, coinciding with the return home of son Nathan, the Howdens bought 170ha next door, expanding their operation to 397ha. Last year the 3900 ewes (including two-tooths and stud ewes) lambed 153%. This year’s drier than normal autumn was reflected in a lower across-the-board scanning of 180% which will transpire to a 148-151% lambing.

Technology aids lambing performance

Aside from changed genetics, simple technology now taken for granted such as pregnancy scanning, and electric fencing has been another contributor to improved lambing performance.

The Howdens were among the first to start scanning ewes back in the mid-1980s. It helped greatly with feed management, enabling them to prioritise the feeding of single and multiple (lamb) ewes.”

Feed planning and management is everything and needs to start well before the lambing beat, he says.

“You have to manage lambing according to your grass growth curve. I always maintain that the grass cover you have on 1 May (late autumn) is a good indicator of what you’ll have when you start lambing.”

Management aside, some things with lambing remain the same. Brian still likes to be about among the ewes by 7am and more often than not is bundled up in woolly hat, and waterproofs to stave off the weather.

“Good wet weather gear is part and parcel of it, I can count on two hands when I’ve managed lambing without leggings and a parka.”

It’s still an intensively managed exercise, especially with the stud ewes that are checked three times a day and get their lambs tagged at birth.

Nowadays Nathan, Brian and a shepherd are the core lambing team with back up as needed from Nola and Nathan’s wife Charlotte. As with the wider farming operation Brian is happy to take the back seat role these days, leaving the overall running to Nathan.

“We get on well. I’m the worker and do what I’m told, but I know what needs to be done.”

The big question is: how many more lambing beats has Brian left in him?

It’s a year-by-year decision but indications are he’ll be counting the beat for another few years.

“I’m still a passionate sheep man… if you’re not dropping many stitches, why change?”

Awards and rewards

The Howden’s passion and success at sheep farming has been recognized over the years through several awards: Romney Farmer of the Year; winners of the 1991 AC Cameron South Island Farmer of the Year and the 1995 Clutha Farmer of the Year 1995; and 2005 runners-up in the Lincoln University Lamb Producer/Finisher Awards. Brian has also been on numerous judging panels, a role he’s always enjoyed.

“I reckon you get a pretty good idea of how good an operator a farmer is by the state of their driveway. If everything is tidy and in order it usually means their livestock and business are too.”

It’s not surprising then that the Howdens’ driveway is all in order with well-strained fences and neatly clipped shelter belts and hedgerows.

The award recognitions have been satisfying but more fulfilling has been supporting and mentoring the next generation of sheep farmers. Brian used to run a farm discussion group with a lot of young farmers and enjoyed sharing advice and tips. Another example of his support is a lease-to-buy arrangement of ram lambs with a number of the Howden’s ram buying clients.

“It’s a bit of a risk but it’s nice to be able to help young guys get started.”

The Howdens sell about 130 two-tooth rams a year comprising Texel, Romney-Texel, Suffolk-Texel, Beltex-Texel and Charollais-Texel. The Texel-based range, evolved to include a greater choice of terminal genetics, gives clients the potential for a one-stop-shop for ram buying.