Leslie B+LNZ Demonstration Farm

March 2013
Beef + Lamb NZ is involved with five project farm types designed to meet the needs of sheep and beef farmers in various localities throughout the country. One type is the Demonstration Farm, which focuses on a narrow category of farming activity rather than taking a whole-farm approach. B+LNZ is trying to help high-performing farmers to "push the boundaries" on production, financial or environmental targets using management or technology that may have a higher risk than a commercial farm would consider, but also have considerable potential benefits.

This is the first year of what will be a three-year term as demonstration farmers for Warren & Andrea Leslie. Warren says he agreed to the project because he wanted the opportunity to push the profit boundaries on their 600ha sheep & beef property near Cave, South Canterbury. He has identified three specific targets to try to achieve:

Increase the percentage of male calves born

Identify the best feed to complement fodder beet

Achieve 200% scanning (all twins, no triplets or singles)

The farm is also involved in the Alliance lamb tail length trial.

The Leslies farm is 600ha of rolling-to-steep land, some of which they own and the rest is leased from the NZ Rural Property Trust. The farm has about 40 ha in trees, shelter belts and rough gullies, and about 480ha is arable. Rainfall is around 760mm, and Warren describes the property as "summer safer".

We are not far from the Hunter Hills and we get quite a bit of drizzle. The farm is about 5km long and 1 km wide and rainfall varies from one end to the other by about 20%. It can be too wet to work at one end and yet you can make baleage at the other, he says.

We tend to fatten all the lambs down one end and graze the capital stock at the other. Most of the crops are at the dryer end although with kale I put some on almost every class of country, so that whether the season is wet or dry I still get a good crop.

The property is currently carrying 3000 ewes, 1000 hoggets, 150 cows (100 are grazing off), 150 calves, 90 yearling Murray Grey heifers. (60 Murray Grey yearling bulls were recently sold to dairy farmers.)

At present there are also 170 yearling dairy heifers being grazed, along with 90 carryover (empty dairy) cows that will have spent 12 months on the farm before being sent back to their owner in calf and with a condition score of 4.5 to 5.0. Warren says that the latter stock follow mobs of ewes and lambs to clean up tag but still maintain a condition score of around 3.0 over the winter. They then improve rapidly when the spring flush comes.

All the Leslies own cattle are Murray Greys. The sheep flock is moving from Highlander composite towards the Headwaters composite a Perendale Texel Finn cross. Warren says that they have a lot more 'get up and go' and are easier care.

This year Warren will have 20 ha in kale, 5ha in swedes and 8ha of fodder beet which he describes as a 'brilliant feed'.

This is the third year I have grown fodder beet and it is the cheapest form of supplementary feed at 8c/kg dry matter. I can grow kale for about the same price but it takes twice the area, so fodder beet produces 23 to 27 tonnes per hectare whereas the kale is only half that, he says.

However, stock supposedly dont do so well on fodder beet alone so the feeds to complement it are important. The ideal feed to balance it is lucerne baleage but that costs anywhere between 25c and 35c per kgDM so overall it could cost 20c per kilogram to feed the heifers and I'm only making 18c per kilogram from them so I need to find something cheaper than lucerne baleage.

Seed Force, our seed suppliers, wanted to do on-farm trials and so we got together with NZ Beef and Lamb and designed a trial with three mobs getting a similar amount of fodder beet but different complementary feeds.

In the winter just past there was very little difference in performance between the mobs, but the weather was unusually wet 430mm in 21 days in August and that meant that it was impossible to supply the complementary feeds for several weeks."

We had 256 calves on 2.5ha of fodder beet, and at one end they were meant to be getting grass baleage and hay as well and at the other end they were were to receive as much lucerne baleage as they could eat, but I couldn't even get within 50 m of the paddock with the tractor, says Warren.

For three weeks they were all on 100% fodder beet. Despite that they all put on about 320 grams a day, which doesn't sound a lot but many people have since told me that their stock lost weight during the wet period. It made a real mess of the paddock and that will take some years to recover, but the rest of the farm was pretty much unscathed.

What we dont know is how much nutrient leaching occurred and whether from a nitrate losses point of view, it would be better to spread the stock around the farm rather than have a sacrifice paddock.

Warren works closely with one seed and chemical rep, and gives him a free rein as far as the fodder beet is concerned. Spraying for weeds is important because fodder beet doesnt cope with competition. At critical times the rep may recommend three weed chemical sprays and an insecticide to ensure that the crop achieves its growth potential.

It is very expensive to grow anywhere between $1600 and $2000 per hectare but to counter that if you are getting a 25 or 26 tonne/ha crop then the dry matter cost can be down to around 8c/kg. And you don't need to harvest it, you just break feed it.

Triplets can be very successful but require careful management. Twins are more efficient to rear, and Warrens ideal is to end up with 95% twins, 3% triplets and 2% singles. This year he is grazing the triplets off the farm to allow a bit more room for the twinning ewes, set stocking them at higher covers in the hope weaning weights will be higher.

Progress with the ewe hoggets is being closely monitored. They were all EICD tagged before tupping and then scanned when the rams were removed and scanned a further four times over the winter.

We are trying to pick up any losses and trends from those ewes over the whole of their lives. I'm not aware that anyone else has done that. We will identify which ones have reared twins, which have reared singles, which were wet/dry and which were dry/dry, and follow it through to scanning again next year to see if we can pick something up, says Warren.

In the past we have kept twins, triplets, singles, first cycle, second cycle, and basically selected on size. This year we EID tagged the first cycle twin lambs, weighed them at tailing and we'll weigh them again at weaning and see if we pick anything up from that.

The ones that are small at tailing and big at weaning are they going to leave twins? Its playing around with figures, but we have 1000 hoggets and with a little work it may show a trend. Unless youve got the figures you don't know.

Last season the Leslies Murray Grey herd produced 87 heifers and 63 bull calves. Warren says that in his 20 years of active farming they have never had more bull calves than heifers and he wants to know if that can be changed in a natural way rather than through artificial means.

At this stage I'm just observing and recording simple things like the condition score of cows at calving versus mating versus weaning is there a correlation there? Is there a correlation between the age of the bulls that are mated with the cows? Is it the diet? he asks.

Although it is not part of the demonstration farm programme the farm is involved with the tail length trial sponsored by Alliance and Abacus Bio. Trials are being carried out in several locations to examine the effects of docking on lamb growth, carcass weight and meat yields, and the effect different tail lengths have on lamb productivity, economic returns and animal welfare. In the Leslies case, they are examining the effect of varying tail length on lamb productivity, economic returns and lamb welfare.

Says Warren: We EID tagged 815 male lambs and gave them four different tail lengths. We have to dag score them at weaning, and they have all been drenched so hopefully we won't have to crutch them before weaning. At this stage I can't say whether the long tailed lambs get dirtier than the short tailed ones but we will go through to weaning and record how many need dagging or jetting and see if we can pick up any trend.

We weighed them at tailing, and we will weigh them at weaning and also look at their carcass weight and confirmation to see if that shows any trends. There is a theory that rams with long tails build up their muscles more around their bums because they wag their tails all the time. Different people swear by different tail lengths and they say it works for them, but there has never been any official data as far as I know, so good on the Alliance for initiating in this.

Andrea works off the farm but is closely involved with the financial side and in decision making.

In August 2010 a serious car accident involving the death of one of their children caused Warren to refocus and review priorities. Warren says that he has always enjoyed other peoples company and has gained a great deal from monitor farms and other farming field days. However, these days he is more focused on contributing to the community through a school board and coaching childrens hockey.

If somebody asks me to do something I seldom say no, he says. I make it clear to visiting young farmers that the most important things in life are family and friends and not money.