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Time to make some changes

It was a season of adversity that drove the partners in Taihape’s Spring Farms business to make significant changes to their farm operation.

The drought of 2007 and 2008 drove Mark and Richard Chrystall and Rob Collier to re-think their whole farm business and make changes that have made their farm system more efficient, resilient and profitable.

Mark Chrystall explains that they used to run a high stocking rate on their hill country and relied on nitrogen to boost drymatter production.

Springs tend to be slow in Taihape and Januarys are becoming increasingly dry, so they were weaning late and struggling to get body condition back on the ewes going into mating.

That drought simply highlighted the flaws in this system and Mark says that season lamb yields were poor, they had to kill their hoggets and graze their cows off-farm for over 10 months.

As Mark says, they needed to make some changes.

The partners made the decision to use all of their class one country for lamb finishing. They stopped using nitrogen on their hill country, dropped stock numbers from 2500su to 2200su and most significantly, made the decision to shift the bulk of the weaning to early December and finish 95% of their lambs on crops.

In what was a leap of faith, they approached ANZCO Foods and told the company they wanted to kill a unit load of lambs every week from December through to April.

Mark says while this commitment of supply was music to ANZCO’s ears it also meant Spring Farms had to have robust systems in place to meet this commitment.

Forage crops are critical to their business and they work closely with an agronomist to ensure they have a good mix of forages to drive lamb growth rates.

Mark says having a mix of crops is important.

“There is no silver bullet, we need to have a mixture-they all play their part.”

This mix includes red clover, chicory, plantain, lucerne and summer brassicas.

While these crops represent a significant investment, they are generating average lamb growth rates of 250g/day.

Lambs are finished to 18.5kgCW to meet the specification of Waitrose and Longdown contracts and Mark says finishing lambs to heavier weights works well for them as they need to see a return on their investment in feed crops.

But for Spring Farms the emphasis is on numbers of lambs out the gate every month rather than carcass weight.

Mark explains that they cannot afford to have any hold ups, they need to have the lambs leaving the farm every week for the system to work so they will compromise slightly on carcass weight if they need to.

Their 10,000 breeding ewes are crossbred with a Romney base. They have been breeding towards a composite animal made up of Romney, Texel, East Friesian.

Longdown rams are used over the five-year ewes and hoggets and the progeny sold through ANZCO Food’s Longdown programme.

The average lambing percentage across all the ewes sits at 145%.

Spring Farms is a large-scale business and while it has the corporate farming structures in place to support the business, it is still very much a family farming operation. Mark describes it as a hybrid model, taking the best from corporate and family run businesses.

Spring Farms was formalised in 2008 and now incorporates six separate farms covering 2200ha effective and running 22000su. Stock includes 350 Angus breeding cows and 450-500 trading cattle.