David and Mavis Bennett

Spring is harvest time on the Bennett family’s Mid Canterbury farm.

It’s when David and Mavis Bennett realise the productive potential of the Longdown stud ewe flock they manage on behalf of ANZCO Foods.

All their management is focused on this period. This includes maintaining the 450 ewes and managing pastures so the ewes have plenty of feed available as they hit peak lactation.

They retain all of their lambs until the end of February, which is when they begin selecting replacements and sale rams.

The sheep operation is just part of the 367ha business David and Mavis run in partnership with their son Andrew.

Andrew’s focus is on growing arable and brassica crops (for dairy grazing) while David and Mavis take care of the sheep.

Back when the couple ran a commercial ewe flock, they used to begin drafting in October. With the stud flock, they don’t have the luxury of having all the lambs sold by Christmas. They are now faced with the challenge of growing all their lambs through the summer dry period and use feed crops to help them do this.

David says rape crops are particularly useful for growing lambs out in late summer and these crops will re-grow to allow a second grazing in autumn. This year, a feed shortage meant he was forced to feed the rape crop early and says it was the best thing he could have done. The crop was used for ewe lambs and these went into mating weighing 51kg. The hoggets have continued to grow over winter and will be lambing at an unprecedented 75kg.

During summer, harvested grain and grass seed paddocks prove useful feed for ewes post-weaning and this year a harvested clover seed paddock was invaluable.

After lambing, the ewes and lambs are rotated around ryegrass and clover paddocks that have been spelled over winter so they’re ready to really grow in spring.

Lambing starts on 10 August and while DNA tests at tailing means the couple don’t need to tag the lambs at birth, they do keep a record of lambing dates of the ewes. They set-stock the ewes at lambing but will also move yet-to-lamb ewes around to ensure they have shelter in bad weather.

The ewes are consistently weaning around 160% from a scanning of around 185%.

Weaning takes place during the first week of December and in early January, the lambs are drafted into single-sex mobs. They are eye-muscle scanned in early February and the selection process begins. Up to 30 of the highest ranked ram lambs are then CT scanned for meat and fat yield. David says they continue to cull throughout the year as they determine which are the genetically and phenotypically best sheep to carry through as either replacements or rams.

The Longdown terminal sire rams are sold to farmers around the country; and for those supplying Waitrose, the progeny is able to be marketed under the Longdown lamb brand.

The focus of the stud is producing lamb that meets the requirements of the Waitrose supermarket chain – as determined by the company’s customers.

Preparation for mating begins shortly after weaning in December. Ewes are body condition scored and any lighter ewes are given priority feed as they aim for a mixed-age ewe liveweight of 80kg.

After scanning in early June, the multiple-bearing ewes are run on to a green-feed crop while the single-bearing ewes are on maintenance rations on pasture.

David says he’s continually assessing his feed supplies and monitoring ewe body condition. In this way he can partition feed into multiple-bearing lighter ewes while maintaining condition on the other ewes. When necessary, they will use supplement to fill any feed deficits in autumn and winter rather than eat into valuable pasture.

“It’s amazing what you can do on dryland if you just focus on that critical period,” says David.