For Southland Times
Monday article 22 9 97 from Christine McKenzie
Southland - sheep capital of the world.
There’s an ancient French saying ‘let’s get back to our sheep’. It means, ‘Let’s get back to the subject’.
The subject, in any debate about Southland’s economy has surely got to be the sheep.
The big beautiful Southland ewe and her six million companions make this province the world centre of sheep-farming. There is nowhere else in the world that so many miles of pasture are dotted with so many white woolly jumpers.
By month’s end, counting ewes, lambs and hoggets there will be about 15 million mouths busily turning grass into meat, milk and wool which will, within a year, have translated into (in round numbers) $6oo million lovely dollars.
That’s twice as much as dairy, beef, deer, arable and horticulture combined, and it’s about $6000 for every man, woman and child in Southland.
What makes those dollars so lovely is that most of them stay in Southland, at least the first time round.
What’s even better is that there will be another $600 or so million next year and the year after, because we are not gutting the soil to earn it.
Sheep farming is an extraordinarily clean and sustainable way of utilising land. Sheep feet don’t pug the soil like cattle. Clover, not chemicals, provides the source of nitrogen for grass growth. Permanent pastures protect the soil from erosion by wind and rain, and they don’t need fungicides, insecticides or weedicides.
Mind you, it’s not simple to be the best sheep farmers in the world. Given the starting points of excellent soils and climate, there are still many variables to juggle: there is always the weather which makes every season different; feed budgeting, breeds of sheep, new varieties of pasture plants, different fertilisers and trace elements, new research findings, market signals, each has an effect which must be managed against each farmer’s own piece of land, and there is always the drive to do better.
So there can be no resting on the laurels, we have broken through many barriers in the past and are about to break through some new ones. The clear message from the market is now to aim for 15-17.5 kg Y grade lambs, consistent as peas in a pod. Lambing percentage and lamb growth rate are the twin targets for increasing on-farm profit.There are new tools like pregnancy scanning, crossbreeding with recently-introduced genetics, specialist grasses, all to be evaluated against the circumstances of each farm. There is always new research to consider on particular topics, such as endophyte levels and trace element interaction.
Other clear messages from the market include the need for traceability of meat back to the farm, leading to declarations from farmers about their adherence to principles of animal health, welfare and witholding periods. This trend has been hastened by the increase in chilled meat shipments which if we get it wrong even once is potential ‘dynamite’. In fact safety systems need to be as failsafe as those on jumbo jets, and the farm is where they start. In addition, the customer is looking for meat from animals which have led a natural life without artificial food or drugs or undue confinement. This is where we have the advantage over chicken and pork which are reared in vast quantities under very artificial conditions.
Talking as ‘Southland Inc’ it was sensible and logical to have spread our business risk by diversifying into new products from our large land resource. However it is fair to remind ourselves now and again just how much we owe to the sheep and how much pride we can take in doing our ‘core business’ better than anyone else.
Have a growthy spring!