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A fistful of whiter than white wool

30 Sep 2011
Alan Johanson stretches down the side of the romney ram his heading dog Ozzie has baled up for him and clutches a fistful of fleece.

"Feel that," he offers. "You can squeeze it as hard as you can but you can't move it. It won't compress any further. It stays one big thick handful."

He's right. A grab of the greasy wool confirms this. It is a solid, unmoving mass.

It is what he calls his "crunch test", a sign of wool density and weight, and the reason why he shears almost twice as much wool from his sheep in a year than most other farmers.

He is justly proud of his wool. It earns a premium payment for its whiteness, fineness and yield.

His latest clip in June, six months after the previous shear, left a protective covering of winter wool on the sheep but still amounted to 3.2kg a head. For that, he received $14.94 a head - "not bad pocket money", he says with a grin.

Compared with past years it is better than "not bad". It is not long since prices were so low they would not cover the $3-a-head cost of shearing.

But all through he has kept selecting his romneys for their wool-growing abilities, even though it was unfashionable to do so. "We even had leading wool merchants telling farmers not to worry about improving their wool - it was a tragedy," he says.

"At times I wondered if I was doing the right thing, putting so much effort into my wool. But I kept a stern face. I was committed and there was no turning back."

And he found that as time went on and the standard of the national wool clip deteriorated, his wool began to stand out and earn a premium.

Now, as wool prices have improved in the past year, his high-quality wool is in demand.

His agent, Scott McLeod, wool manager for Masurel Direct, says Mr Johanson's wool is some of the best his firm sells.

"His colour reading is spot on, he shears at an optimum length and there's very few faults in the fibre - he's certainly got a knack for producing good wool."

Most of Mr Johanson's wool goes to China. The fine lamb and hogget wool is knitted into clothing and the coarser wool from older sheep is destined for carpet mills.

The whitest wools are most sought-after because they need less dye and as whiteness is a heritable trait Mr Johanson takes care in choosing his rams.

Farming in the summer-dry Hawke's Bay hills at Weber, east of Dannevirke, he recognises that 130 per cent lambing is as much as the country can handle. Recent droughts, followed by last September's wild storm that killed 900 of his lambs, have lowered stock numbers by a quarter.

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Running through the flock of 2100 ewes are the bloodlines of 30 years of buying from one breeder - Ian Grant, of the Murinui Stud, Woodlands, Invercargill.

Mr Johanson describes Mr Grant, who died in 2001, as New Zealand's best romney breeder. "He was an unassuming man, but very influential. His lambing percentage was in the 167-190 per cent range and all he needed to do was go around and tag them."

Mr Grant selected for white, high yielding fleeces and produced big, strong-boned sheep. "They were stacked with wool," Mr Johanson says, recalling one ram producing 14.8kg of wool in a year.

Since the dispersal of Mr Grant's stud, he has bought romney rams from Ike Williams' Waidale Stud at Totara Valley, South Canterbury.

Conformation is most important to Mr Johanson in his selection of which lambs to keep for breeding. They must have big chests so they have the lung capacity needed to walk the hills and a spring of rib and depth of hindquarter to grow meat on.

He also looks closely at the heads. They must have a broad muzzle for efficient grass eating and it and their feet must be dark - pink muzzles and feet are a sign of soft feet prone to footrot. The ears must be soft and white, an indication that the skin is not black-speckled and likely to grow black wool fibres.

A thick jacket of wool is essential from shoulder to hip, with no sign of hair or kemp, a short, brittle coarse fibre. Many of his sheep have wool down to their feet but he does not want "boufheads", woolblind sheep.

He expects to average close to 7kg a head of wool from all sheep classes this year, a return to normal after the previous drought-affected years, and well above the national average of 4kg.

He pulls out a file of sales records, showing the diameter of the wool fibre at 28 microns for lambs, 32 for hoggets and under 38 for ewes - all highly desirable results.

The yields, which measure dirt and vegetable contamination, are close to 80 per cent and the colour is around 1.6 - the closer to zero the whiter the wool. A couple of recent batches were in minus figures - "Look, whiter than white," Mr Johanson says proudly.

Now 65, he and wife Diane started with 200ha in 1972, next door to his parents' farm. The two farms were put together in 1983 and now they have 531ha, of which 88ha is in pines and natives.

A crucial point in their farming career came on a trip to the 1984 World Sheep and Beef Cattle Congress in Pretoria, South Africa. There, Mr Johanson saw farms that were not killing lambs till they grew to 16-18kg carcassweight.

"It was a real eye-opener," he says. "In New Zealand, we were cramming sheep onto our farms and getting rid of their lambs at 12-13kg. When we struck a drought we were trapped with thousands of these rabbits."

He returned home determined to concentrate on producing heavier lambs.

However, although he had some good, rolling country, the dry Hawke's Bay summers meant it was not suited to finishing. He found a 54ha block of flat terraced land near Dannevirke that would do the job.

Lambs of around 17-18kg are now the norm and in the past year have got even heavier. He has a deal with a farmer near Palmerston North to take 500 romney lambs at 32-38kg liveweight and add 5-6kg to them before selling them and sharing the profits. The carcassweight of most of them is more than 20kg.

The lambs leave his farm in autumn, making more feed available for his capital stock going into winter, and the deal means cash flow over winter and spring when previously there was none.

He expects the demand for heavier lambs to keep rising to 22-25kg, although by then they won't be lambs but hoggets. "That's good," he says. "They'll have more flavour - there's no taste in a lamb, anyway."

He also expects wool to stay in demand. While other farmers are being encouraged by the rising prices to take more care over their wool, it won't mean any change to him.

"I've always bought top sheep - paying $2500 for a ram is not a problem - and I've spent a lifetime building up good genetics. The premium I get shows that it has been worth it."

Click here to read this article from The Dominion Post  

 

Couple rolling in Romneys

25 Jul 2011
 Adrian Lawson has shied away from the composite sheep route, preferring to stick with Romneys.

Mr Lawson, who was New Zealand commercial Romney farmer of the year in 2004, has no regrets about sticking with a traditional, purebred sheep, which has been "doing the job".

He and his wife Anne farm Glendorach, a 161ha property at Waituna, east of Invercargill, running 1730 Romney ewes, 400 hoggets and usually about 30 cattle.

Despite being affected by last September's storm in the South, which claimed the lives of a million lambs, the couple still achieved a net farm surplus of more than $1200 a ha.

Their average price for lambs this year was $125 for an average weight of 19.67kg. On top of that, about 60% of those lambs were shorn, adding a further $11 to the price.

Their average weight for the past three years has been 19.56kg. The average kill date was about February 10, although it has been earlier, and it was about the end of February this year due to the snow.

About half the ewes were mated to a Romney ram, with about a quarter to a Border Leicester and quarter to a terminal sire.

The Border-Romney lambs were bred specifically for the Lorneville ewe lamb fairs, averaging $131 for the past three years. At times, they had achieved up to a $40 premium over good works lambs.

Mr Lawson had a shearing run in the district for about 14 years before taking over the property, from his parents, in 1994. His father farmed Romneys and he continued with them.

Mr and Mrs Lawson, who were finalists in the 2008 Lincoln University Foundation Farmer of the Year competition, wanted to breed a ewe that was easy care at lambing, producing lambs with high growth rates and cut a heavy, quality fleece.

Any breeding programme had to be sustainable and while some composite breeding had worked, a "fair proportion" had not. He liked the longevity of his Romney ewes, with some having done six or seven lambings.

When buying rams, he looked for sheep which were deep bodied, with a wide loin and a good hindquarter - the "money end" of the sheep.

He wanted to breed as many lambs as possible that he could sell for a premium and most years there was a premium that could be attained through heavy contracts.

There was a lack of straight-bred stock and there was starting to be demand for it. With confidence coming back into the sheep industry, demand for good breeding stock was going to grow.

Wool was part of the equation and, with increasing prices, it added more to the bottom line.

He had been reluctant to move away from a good woolled sheep, saying it cost as much to shear 3kg as it did to shear 6kg.

He focused on growing a big lamb as quickly as possible. To get big lambs, it was crucial to have them growing at 250g-300g a day to grow them quickly and quit them quickly.

Everything was looking "pretty positive" for the next year, in fact things had never looked so good, he said. 
 
Click here to read this article from the Otago Daily Times 
 

Refocusing on efficient lamb-bearing

25 Jul 2011

The workhorse in the sheep industry is still a productive ewe, Lincoln University-based agricultural scientist and lecturer Dr Jon Hickford says.
It was the ewe that underpinned the productivity and Dr Hickford believed that the emphasis had come off the performance overall of the ewe.

Couple rolling in Romneys
"I think we've lost sight of the importance of an efficient lamb-bearing system," he said.

He has been involved with Romney New Zealand's Merial saleable meat yield trial, which has been running since 2006.

The project was primarily to show the performance figures of the Romney ewes in the trial and try to improve the meat yield of the lamb carcass and it had achieved both, he said.

At the beginning of the trial, stud breeders throughout New Zealand were encouraged to put forward their best meat-yielding ram and 15 rams were then each put to 60 ewes.

Two seasons ago, a lambing weaned percentage of 165% was achieved, with the first draft killing out at 18.7kg at 13 weeks with a meat yield of 53%, and 66% went off their mothers. There were two more drafts and all the lambs still killed at 53%.

This last season, only seven of the higher end of the rams performing for meat yield were used.

There was a weaning percentage of 185%, with only 6% of lambs lost at birth and 4% between birth and weaning. Sixty-six percent of lambs again went off their mothers at 18.5kg, yielding 53.5%.

Hugh Taylor, from Romney New Zealand, said ewes producing lambs with more than 52% yield had been identified and top-performing rams put over them. Some of the elite ram lambs, from the high-performing ewes, would then be put back over those ewes.

Dr Hickford said robust, easy-care sheep had been a hallmark of the New Zealand Romney and the crossbred ewe was as valuable today as 100 years ago.

The Romney ewe was showing up to be a robust lamb producer and he detected that realisation was occurring across the country's sheep industry.

In the last three years of the trial, the number of lambs hitting the ground had gone from 162% to 195%, which was "remarkable" and not what people expected of Romneys.

In 2008, 12.7% of lambs died before weaning, a figure that was quite low. But in 2010, only 5.1% were lost and, during that time, there were two snow events.

Dr Hickford was impressed with the ewes' mothering ability - "they look after their lambs" - saying they were remarkably efficient.

The average lamb birth-rate was nearly 6kg. Twin bearing ewes could carry nearly 12kg of lambs, sustain those pregnancies and then lamb, with very few lambs dying.

At those weights, the lambs were "on the front foot" in terms of pre-weaning growth, which again showed the ewe efficiency, he said.

Romneys were fast growers, which were crucial for dry hill country systems. If lambs did not survive or grow at a reasonable pace through to weaning, then it was not productive.

In hard, hill country lambing, where farmers could not control the weather or feed supplies, good robust ewe systems were needed. The Romney could do that and have a high yielding lamb, he said.

The meat yield figures were "money for jam" for meatworks - getting 3% to 4% more lean meat on the carcass - and he believed Romneys were "right up there", if not better.

Romneys could also produce good wool and it had been decided to incorporate a wool project into the South Island meat yield trial ewes, with a five-year trial starting.

The target was to pull it back to 36-38 micron and improve the curvature.

A company, Romney Rugs, a 50:50 joint venture between Romney New Zealand and Wool Equities, has been formed and is selling rugs into the US.

 Click here to read this article from the Otago Daily Times 

 
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