Six-month lambing a reality on Canterbury farm
The sheep industry has grappled with the idea of six monthly lambing for many years but Anne and Alan Reid are showing that it can be done.
The Oxford couple has proven that with the right mix of genetics, feed and management they can get two crops of lambs in the same year, year-on-year.
The Reids farm 228ha of flat and terraced country near Oxford, running 1200 crossbred ewes and 400-500 hoggets. In what is a flexible farm policy, they also trade around 100 cattle and grow various cash crops depending on market returns.
Anne describes them as being "rubber band" farmers, in that they have the flexibility to change their policies in response to market dynamics and economic returns.
Tucked into the foothills, they enjoy a micro-climate with higher rainfall than farms further east on the Canterbury Plains and their proximity to the Waimakariri River minimises the number of frosts they experience over winter.
This means they have security around feed supply all year round which allows them to push the boundaries with livestock performance.
Anne, a chef by trade, has a deep interest and knowledge of nutrition – both human and animal – and this is reflected in the mixed, legume-rich pastures and forages they grow to drive stock performance, including sheep.
They began six monthly lambing in 2010 with a small number of older crossbred ewes. They decided to give it a go after a conversation at a processor meeting about increasing the return on investment in their ewe flock.
They did discuss trying the five-star system – a lambing system developed by agricultural scientists at Cornell University where three mobs of ewes lamb five times in three years – but the Reids felt it could see them lambing at an unfavourable point in the season with either snow or drought.
All of the ewes in the couple's back-to-lambing system are older ewes and many are producing multiples. One ewe weaned 13 lambs in two and a half years and another had twins every six months – give or take four days – until she needed to be culled.
For the Reids, this has been a proof of concept exercise. They are trialling Finn genetics in their flock to help drive fertility and fine down their wool, and down the track they are hoping to stabilise their genetics.
"It's all a matter of eye. At the moment we have sheep I don't particularly like the look of, but they are producing and that's the most important thing at this stage," says Alan.
The couple uses ram lambs in the six-month lambing system as they have found these testosterone-fuelled teenagers are more virile than older rams. They pick the eyes of the autumn born lambs and these are retained for breeding, the balance is sold prime (22-23kg) as new season lambs in October.
Anne says to avoid in-breeding she keeps a complex breeding chart and brings in clean lines where required.
Importantly the couple has the feed to make the system work and Alan says despite the fact that these ewes are lambing every six months, they have more of an issue with ewes getting too fat than struggling to get condition on them.
Financially, the six-month lambing outstrips dairy support and they say the extra lambs they produce are worth equivalent to grazing 100 dairy heifers (depending on the season) – without the damage to soil and infrastructure.
"It's all about dollars," says Anne.
"When you're playing with your own money you need to be efficient, you need to get a return on your investment," she says.
Anne and Alan say they are constantly challenging each other in what they describe as a low-input farming business and their focus is always on the weakest point.
While they can't describe their business as organic – they do use glysophate – they try to minimise inputs without compromising productivity.
The couple is pleased with the gains they have made in the past eight years. They have shown that six-month lambing can be done with the right mix of feed, genetics, management and attitude.