When perendale stud ram breeder Philip Brandon left the isolated Waikato west coast tiger country he grew up in, he didn’t just take his well-bred sheep.
He also brought out of the deep end of Waitomo’s rugged Hauturu Rd 10,000 farm-milled fence battens – and he’s used every one of them at his stud’s new home.
It’s been six years and a lot of new fencing since Philip and his wife Audrey swapped life on the Brandon family’s far-flung 1020 hectare sheep and beef station for a much smaller property on Waitomo Valley Rd just 10km from Otorohanga.
The big lifestyle change to 130ha was made more challenging by infertile pastures, a string of droughts, and a house badly in need of renovation, but today all the occupants of Awaroa Perendales appear to be thriving.
Philip with his brother Murray was the third generation Brandon farming on Hauturu Rd, their Whanganui-bred grandfather having carved the genesis of the steep hill country farm out of the bush from 1907.
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Romney was this family’s sheep of choice until they bought an adjoining block carrying perendales in 1975.
“The new block was 10 kilometres away and there was no woolshed on it so we had to bring them home to shear. They were very mobile sheep so we just got them on the Rd and ran them home,” Philip recalls.
The Brandons, who traded under A (Aleck) T Brandon and Sons, also discovered perendales were great foragers and being bred for hill country, “could look after themselves”. So the family’s conversion to perendales began.
Philip in particular was bitten by the perendale bug, starting his own breeding venture in 1990.
“I started with about 50 ewes and buying rams from John Spellman (a Mahoenui perendale breeder) and thought I could start doing my own. We always took our two-tooth ewes to the sale at Piopio and John reckoned I should register as a stud.”
He took the advice in 1997, focusing on breeding “a good type of sheep which ran well on the hills”.
The quest to breed rams for facial eczema tolerance began in 2003 when with Jeff Proffit, late father of King Country perendale breeder and FE Gold genetics group chairman Russell Proffit, Philip and Audrey bought a half-share in an eczema-tolerant ram from Bay of Plenty farmer Hamish Stout.
After nearly 14 years of annual testing with sporidesmin, the stud’s level of dosing has reached 0.42mg/kg, the second highest in New Zealand for perendale rams, says Philip. (Eligibility for the FE Gold group is 0.60mg/kg.) The stud also uses “5K” DNA testing, available since last year for the perendale breed, which enables forecasting for a generation ahead on traits including FE using the 5000 markers in a single gene.
The couple’s decision to move lock, stock and stud to Waitomo Valley Rd came when the family decided there wasn’t enough farming at Hauturu Rd to support all its members. Murray and Helen Brandon bought them out and with 500 stud ewes, a mob of ram and ewe hoggets and a couple of truckloads of trade heifers for fattening, they struck out for new pastures.
Today their flat to steep contour farm is carrying 400 mixed age stud ewes and 100 ewes put to a south suffolk terminal sire. The stud sells about 100 rams a year through the mid-November North Island ram sale at Taihape and on-farm transactions. The average price for private sales is around $600.
While eczema-tolerance is the stud’s main genetics focus, breeding for meat carcass quality, confirmation, fertility and clean wool has not been neglected.
“You want them standing up straight on four legs, with a good outlook, good shoulder, a nice flat back and alert. We do eye muscle scanning for meat quality and good eye muscle follows through to the rump (quality),” says Philip.
While having “good sheep” is a basic essential when starting a stud flock, England-born Audrey reckons the Brandon name lent a reputational headstart.
“They always had a good name through selling ewes at Piopio and Te Kuiti. The name A T Brandon and Sons was always right up there among the local agents – the Brandon name as regards sheep was top.
“It was always a battle between us and the Spellmans as to who was going to take out the sale so when we left and set up Awaroa Perendales that Brandon name just came with us.”
While their new farm was rundown with few permanent fences – it had been a dairy grazing unit – and what fencing there was in need of urgent renewal given its new athletic woolly tenants, the property had a lot of appeal.
“We had our own sawmill at the home farm where we cut our own battens. I bought 10,000 with them and I’ve used them all,” says Philip.
“We’ve invested a lot of money (upgrading) but we like the layout of it. It has nice flats – about half the property is flats – and hills for the sheep. And it’s on a tarseal Rd. That was a must for Audrey.”
Another urgent job was pasture improvement. The farm’s fertiliser history was spare and between droughts Philip got stuck in to regrassing and contouring.
The flats get 400kg of 30 per cent sulphur superphosphate a year and the hills about 350kg of straight superphosphate. The flats are also treated with lime when required.
“The PH level for a start was only about 5.4 now it’s up to 6. The hill P levels were only 5 and 6 and now they’re up to 15,” says Philip who has been regrassing 3ha a year with rye and clover.
There’s little sign of the Cyclone Debbie floodwaters which drowned their flats earlier this month. The storm dumped 100mls of rain on the farm in one night, and a deluge followed the next day from hills runoff into the local river. Annual rainfall is usually 1600-1700ml. The Brandon home farm used to get at least 2500ml.
Wet has been the name of the game this past year, says Philip.
The terminal sires go out on February 20 so lambing can begin on July 10 in order to capture the best pre-Christmas prices from the works. But the first three weeks last July were so wet that not only did the farm lose lambs, but spring growth ran three weeks behind which meant lambs didn’t get off the farm until after Christmas.
The Brandons don’t let lambs go to Affco until they’re at least 40kg.
Stud rams go out into mobs of 50 to 60 ewes on March 20 with lambing starting mid-August. The aim is for mixed-age ewes to have a condition score of 3.1 at mating time, and two-tooths to be 3.2. This year the mixed-age ewes averaged 66kg and two-tooths averaged 59kg.
Rams wear a harness to mark mated ewes. Philip records the marking dates so he knows when ewes will lamb and drafts them into appropriate mobs so they lamb together.
He tags stud lambs between birth and two days old. (All young stud animals have electronic tags.) The reason he uses a blackfaced ram on his commercial flock is so he knows by the colour of the lamb whether it needs to be recorded or is destined for the works.
Ewes culled from the stud flock once went to the works, but are now considered for the commercial flock.
As Audrey says, it seemed wrong to waste a good ewe because it didn’t make the exacting stud standard grade.
She’s also a firm believer that the quality of a stud flock owes as much to the quality of its ewes as its top rams.
“Philip breeds for rams but I maintain the vessel carrying the young one has to be equally as good as the ram.”
While the couple cull the stud ewe flock hard every year before the rams go out, they don’t reject ewes just because they’re getting on. Some of the ewes transplanted from Hauturu Rd were five and six years old.
“Even this year we’ve got some eight year old ewes. If they’re still having lambs with good weaning weights they stay,” says Philip. Like all sheep farmers he rates fertility, preferring consistent producers of twins “but I don’t mind the odd single in a lifetime”.
As evidenced by pregnancy scans, flock fertility took a knock in the early days after the stud shifted home. This was attributed to a drop in feed quality, the change of environment and impact of successive droughts. But today the scanning rate is back up to over 150 per cent and lamb survival rate is around 130 per cent.
Stud ram lambs have been averaging 300gm growth a day between birth and weaning.
About 120 ewe lambs are kept as replacements, with 180 ewe hoggets and about the same number of ram hoggets wintered.
Rams not culled by August 1 are shorn and then inspected for quality again. Of those that get through 30 to 40 get a 5K DNA test and then 10 to 15 potential sires are selected for FE testing.
At $250 plus GST per test per ram every year, committing to the recognised FE-tolerance recording programme isn’t for the fainthearted. Valuable rams can also die under the challenge.
“You’ve got to expect a few reactors but if you don’t challenge them, you’re not making progress,” says Philip.
Neither is the recently-available supporting DNA test foolproof at about 30 per cent accuracy but every tool is helpful in the genetic fight against eczema, he says.
The stud doesn’t formally test for worm resistance in the flock but has a minimal drenching regime.
Older ewes don’t get drenched at all, and two-tooths might get drenched in February depending on in-house testing of Barber’s Pole worm levels. Lambs are drenched at weaning and once every six weeks following depending on worm count.
The shift to Waitomo Valley has not been without challenges, most of them shouldered by the couple themselves because they don’t employ any labour.
But they’re delighted with the results and never once considered changing farming type as well as the roof over their heads.
“Sheep farming is in my blood. It’s my passion,” says Philip.
“The ultimate would be to breed the perfect sheep. Why not? We can give it a try.”