Richard and Victoria Gorman's award-winning farm system may be simple but it is the couple's attention to detail that drives livestock performance and profitability.
The couple won Westpac and Bayleys Marlborough Sheep and Beef Farmer of the Year competition with a business that generates consistently strong financial returns, thanks to the performance of their 2200 composite ewes and 900 hoggets.
Richard and Victoria have invested in high-performing genetics, however it is their ability to feed their sheep throughout the year that makes their business so outstanding.
A 160ha lucerne platform is the engine room of Dumgree, their dryland hill country operation near Blenheim. It is this high-quality forage – and Richard's careful management – that allows the Gormans to realise the genetic potential of their ewes.
Their Landmark ewes are big – going to the ram at around 78kg – but Richard makes no apologies for their size. He believes they need to run large ewes to get the large, fast-growing lambs they require in their summer-dry environment.
"We need to have lambs that grow really fast and we can only do that with a good-size ewe," says Richard.
This combination of lucerne, subterranean clover on their hill country and sheep genetics drives average pre-weaning lamb growth rates of 315gms/day and this allows Richard and Victoria to sell 72% of their lambs finished straight off their mothers.
Depending on the season and feed availability, the remaining lambs are either sold store or finished on lucerne or summer brassica.
Blenheim-based vet, competition judge and Stockcare consultant Peter Anderson says the Dumgree ewes are producing 52 kilograms of lamb per ewe mated. This measure of efficiency puts the Gorman's 6kg of lamb per ewe mated ahead of the top quartile of farmers in the nationwide StockCare programme – and vindicates the couple's decision to run large ewes.
One of the idiosyncrasies of the Gorman's sheep operation is the large number of ewe lambs – 900 of them – being carried through to mating.
This is a temporary strategy as they strive to fast-track genetic progress, but Richard really enjoys the challenge of getting production out of his young stock.
After weaning, the ewe lambs are the priority stock class on Dumgree as the couple aims to get them to a heavy-as-possible mating weight, which is increasing incrementally every year. This year the hoggets went to the ram weighing an average of 54kg and scanned 146% with 13% dry. They tailed 107%.
Last season 62% of the hogget lambs were sold finished at weaning at an average carcase weight of 18.2%. At an average pre-weaning growth rate of 300gms/day, this reflects the quality and quantity of feed these young sheep are on during and after lambing.
Around 300 ewe lambs from the hoggets are retained as replacements to help speed genetic gain.
Richard and Victoria set-stock – and lamb – a proportion of their mixed-age ewes and all of their hoggets on lucerne and Italian ryegrass, but stress the importance of lightly stocking the lucerne at just six to eight hoggets per hectare.
"I want to see the lucerne growing out from under them, it's not good for the stand if it's grazed too hard," says Richard.
The lucerne is set-stocked five to 10 days before lambing and once the lambs are tailed, they start rotating the mobs around the 160ha of the forage.
To ensure the sheep are getting enough fibre in their protein-rich diet, Richard leaves small areas of the lucerne paddocks in pasture and this works well in providing a balanced diet.
After weaning, Richard doesn't take the foot off the accelerator as far as the hoggets are concerned, and this year the two-tooths went to the ram weighing an average 74kg.
"After they've lambed we need to keep looking after them and make sure they are going back to the ram at a good even Body Condition Score," says Richard.
Again, lucerne and summer brassicas are the key to growing-out hoggets and their progeny.
Forage covers critical at lambing
Richard, who was part of Beef + Lamb New Zealand's North Canterbury Sheep for Profit Partnership programme, says one of the most important management strategies he learnt through the programme was the importance of having good forage covers to lamb on.
"Set-stocking on good covers will give us good lamb survival and then high lamb growth rates through to drafting."
Richard defines good covers as 1600kg DM/ha – or a minimum of 150mm for lucerne – and it is critical that mixed-age ewes are set-stocked lightly – at just 3-4 mixed-age ewes/ha – so covers won't be mined during that lambing period.
If plant growth rates are slow in that early spring period, the Gormans will use nitrogen to boost covers and in a particularly growthy year, they will set-stock the ewes earlier, up to 10 days before lambing.
Richard and Victoria will begin skim-drafting their lambs in November to a minimum of 38kg liveweight and all lambs are weaned by 15 December. At this stage the drafting weight is reduced to 34kg liveweight.
All the lambs are sold to ANZCO Foods and Richard says they have enjoyed and appreciated the relationship they have had with the company since he began farming in his own right in 2008. A proportion of their lambs are sold into Waitrose contracts but these tend to be those drafted after Christmas.
The decision about whether to retain and finish their lamb crop or sell them store is seasonally dependant – but they will not compromise the performance of their capital breeding stock by struggling to finish all of their lambs in a dry season.
The Gormans make every effort to keep the ewes at an even Body Condition Score of 3-3.5 throughout the year.
In early January they go through and take all the lower Condition Score ewes and will give them priority feed. This ensures all the ewes are going to the ram at a minimum BCS of 3 on 10 March.
Richard says he's cautious about hoggets on lucerne- particularly in overcast conditions- but does mate the mixed-age ewes on lucerne and brassica crops and has no problem.
He says a lot of thought goes into preparing the ewes for mating.
"It's one of the key times of the year and we've got to get it right, we need to be scanning 190% plus."
The ewes are body condition scored again at scanning and heading into lambing Richard feeds the ewes as well as possible. The couple grows winter brassica and Italian ryegrass crops for wintering ewes. These allow the lucerne to be spelled during winter and most importantly, allow covers to be built for that critical lambing period.
The Gormans lease 250ha of vineyards in winter and this provides them with an opportunity to finish trading lambs over winter and graze ewes – again taking pressure off the rest of the farm.
Cattle play a minor role in the Gorman's business, although they are used for managing pasture quality, particularly on their hill country. They run 87 Angus and Simmental cows and while the calves are typically sold at weaning, this is a flexible policy and when there are feed surpluses they will look to carrying them through for finishing.
In winter they may also finish 20-50 trading cattle on pasture – cattle do not graze the lucerne.
Large areas of lucerne have been established in the past seven years, but it has been the key to the success of the Gorman's business.
While they have 160ha in the forage, they are aiming to have 200ha within the next two years.
Richard is fastidious about its grazing and weed management and believes by looking after it, they will get between six and 12 years out of each stand.
Having established an efficient lucerne system, Richard and Victoria are now turning their attention to developing their hill country. By focusing on sub-division, fertiliser and water they will be better able to manage and utilise the subterranean clover that exists in their pastures.
Once this in place, they may look at lifting ewe numbers or have the confidence to consistently finish all of their lambs within their operation.