NZ systems win Scottish farmer award

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Marcus Maxwell - Viewfield Romney
Scottish farmer Marcus Maxwell is using New Zealand genetics and farming systems with great results. Breaking away from tradition has also seen him win a prestigious farming award.

Scottish farmer Marcus Maxwell began farming 18 years ago and after experiencing New Zealand farming systems he wanted to implement them himself and do away with tradition.

But it took him nine years to summon the courage to implement a grass-based system and work with farm stock that didn't need molly coddling – no more housing of stock.

The move to southern hemisphere systems was made harder by farming in a traditional area of Scotland.

In doing so, Marcus says he and wife Kate have often been the "odd one out" with the added feeling of people waiting to see if "you go tits up".

"But Kate and I love what we do and get great pleasure in it."

Marcus says the change wouldn't have been possible without Kate's support. She's a Kiwi and daughter of Stewart McDougal, a member of the Marshall Romney Development Group.

During his visit to NZ in the mid-1980s Marcus developed contacts with breeders Michael Warren of Turanganui, Bill and Simon Carthew of Carthew Coopworths, Chris Bendall from north Wairarapa, and Marshall Romney Development Group breeders Stewart McDougal of Wanganui, David Wilkie of Taupo and Matthew Hammond of Awakino.

Later on the Marshall group wanted to export embryos to the UK, but these embryos began life on British turf. Eventually Marcus was also able to buy some and he began with 40 ewes and a handful of rams.

To speed up genetic gain, Marcus travelled to Kent, south of London and bought 400 English Romneys and crossed them with his Marshall Romney rams. Of the progeny produced he only kept 80 ewe lambs.

"I was very hard on selection.

"They had to have good mouths, udders, feet, mothering ability, good constitution and be dag free."

Progress has also been achieved by artificially inseminating 300 ewes every second year with imported Marshall Romney semen.

Ten years later Marcus says they now have a good flock.

Four years ago he visited New Zealand again, and took the opportunity to visit more breeders and buy semen.

The move to implement NZ genetics is paying off with enviable flock performance being recorded.

The ewe flock is scanning 169% and lambs sold is 157%. Marcus says there is just 1% triplets and 1% dry recorded at scanning.

"For every 100 ewes scanned with singles we dock 98 lambs and for every 100 ewes scanned with twins we dock 185 lambs," says Marcus.

Lambing occurs in a concentrated window with 85% of the flock producing lambs in the first 14 days and just 1% of ewes lambing from day 21-28.

The ram runs with the ewe flock for 28 days from mid-November at a ratio of one ram to 100 ewes and only 0.05% of the ewe flock is assisted during lambing.

The average lamb carcaseweight (CW) for the lamb-finishing season is 19.1kg CW.

Marcus says 97% of single lambs are killed off the ewe at 19.2kg CW and all twins are finished by the end of October (26 weeks) averaging 19.1kg.

Weaning occurs at the end of July and ewe and ram lambs are selected for potential replacements and the extras are sold.

When they used Suffolk genetics Marcus noticed at least half the lamb crop was daggy. That's dropped dramatically to just 1% now and the drenching frequency has been extended out to 17 weeks in some cases.

Making it into the replacement flock is tough. Marcus says a ewe or ram lamb has to be a twin and weigh more than 40kg at 100 days old – 4kg above the target weight they had two years ago.

The Maxwells also hope to one-day switch to using all Romney genetics. Currently 1850 Romney ewes are tupped with a Romney sire. He has 150 Scotch mules that are mated to a Suffolk, again using New Zealand genetics sourced from John Cowper.

Marcus says their aim is to finish all the lambs, but for the past two years store prices have been high in July and August so some lambs have been sold on the store market for £35 (NZ$90.28). All extra ewe lambs are sold at the same time for £85 (NZ$219.24) and 65 rams were sold for £500 (NZ$1,289.66).

Margins made on stock (in pounds) include £68/ewe ($175.39), £249/cow ($642.25) and £106/ha ($273.41).

In January the ewes are treated for liver fluke and scanned and spilt into ewes carrying singles, twins, triplets and empty ewes. The empty ewes are sold.

Prior to lambing ewes are treated with a vaccination in March and the ewes are also drenched then. Lambing begins in mid-April and docking is done when lambs are two-weeks old and a Kiwi shearer, Andrew Noble-Campbell is employed to shear the ewes in June. Lambs are drenched for nematodirus and a five-in-one is administered at shearing in mid-July.

In the past three years lambs have not been drenched and the animals that have kept on growing have been kept. His ideal scenario is to breed a sheep that can thrive without drenching.

Some property development is also being implemented. This includes direct drilling 20ha (50acres) of grazing land and 20ha of silage country along with another 40.5ha in clover. Soil tests for trace elements and fertility are conducted before applying what is needed. They cut 180 tonne of silage at the end of July to feed cows.

Looking ahead to the future, the couple would like to expand the farm size further.

In the past eight years Marcus and Kate have bought two neighbouring properties, doubling the land area and tripling stock numbers and this proved more challenging than most property transactions.

"The first farm was bought the week BSE broke out so that was a massive challenge.

"In those days we reared a lot of calves to sell as bullers. They dropped from nearly 1000 pounds ($2,579.31) to us struggling to give them away at 250 pounds ($644.83)."

But the second farm purchase was no easier, the Maxwells' taking possession just before foot and mouth.