Game changer for sheep



Hugh Robinson and his wife Jo have been farming at Mt Palm on the eastern side of the Amuri Valley in North Canterbury for more than 30 years and during most of that time, Hugh wondered why no one has ever developed a pour-on drench treatment for sheep?


In a meant-to-be moment, around 8 years ago, Hugh was on the sideline watching his daughter play netball and chatting to Donaghys' Managing Director Jeremy Silva. "Jeremy asked me – what is it that farmers need? It was just an off-the-cuff question," Hugh says. "What about a pour-on drench for sheep? We've got it for cattle, why not sheep?"

"As farmers are getting older, they have to get smarter and that includes being less physical in the way they run their farms. Yard work is very physically demanding and a spot-on treatment for sheep has benefits for the farmer and the stock. To me there were so many reasons to support a spot-on drench for internal parasite control for sheep. There's the physical side, which includes yard injuries, plus quicker drenching saves time and labour and gets the sheep back onto pasture more quickly."

"To my surprise Jeremy picked up the idea and ran with it, leaving me hoping I hadn't sold him down the creek. I was blown away by his response because I knew if Donaghys could pull this off it would be a game-changer for sheep farmers, not just in New Zealand, but globally. Around 6 months later, Jeremy confirmed he had started developing a spot-on sheep drench and already had scientists working on it."



A long road 

While Hugh provided the impetus for Scorpius Elite Spot-On he said it was Jeremy's commitment that had resulted in the development of the product.

"It has taken years to get this world first technology patented and to market," Hugh says. "From what I understand, it is a very long process of  registration and controlled testing, to develop a completely new product, which has to meet regulatory standards."


Extensive trial work has been carried out across New Zealand covering a number of environments, wool lengths and worm species, as part of the development. Hugh says Donaghys really took his point about making farming easier on board, while not compromising drench efficacy and farm productivity. "They have nailed the whole point, which is about making drenching quick and easy with less stress on the animals and reducing yarding time. We are pretty fortunate Jeremy had the get up and go to invest in something new and ultimately I will be a beneficiary, and hopefully other farmers too."


Hugh was one of the first to try Scorpius following its official launch and says the end result has been as good, if not better, than expected. "We ran sheep through and timed how long it took with the traditional oral drench and compared that with the time taken for the spot-on treatment, with Scorpius taking a fraction of the time. Settled weaned lambs just wandered through the race and were squirted as they walked by. That's a massive time saving and a lot less physical work. This has the potential to change sheep farming, as less yard time will help attract people to work on farms and taking a chunk of the physicality away will hopefully mean older farmers can hang in there for longer.

"The spot-on treatment is so easy to use and it could also contribute to different applications of pre-lamb drenching and vaccination, which could save time and money. A lot of farmers use a combination vaccine/drench which can cost more, but reduces the number of times stock has to be bought in. This new spot-on treatment is so easy to use it can be combined with other treatments, giving farmers a new range of treatment options and combinations."



Always learning

Hugh is no stranger to innovative techniques that create efficiencies and he is always reviewing his farm's physical and financial performance. Mt Palm comprises 1,950ha and receives an annual rainfall of around 700mm. Drought protection and ultimately drought proofing is always high on the agenda.

"We literally have a drought every year and farm to ensure we are as protected as possible."

When Hugh returned home to Mt Palm in his early 20s, around 90ha of the farm was irrigated using border dyke irrigation, which involved a gravity water diversion system where the diverted water floods over paddocks. Hugh established a spray irrigation system and has tripled the irrigation area with 220ha of flat to rolling downs now irrigated, comprising 70 paddocks that are 3-to-5 hectares in size. Varying soil types, power lines through the flat, surface drains and very good shelter belts meant a centre pivot irrigation would have been a scorched earth approach, so hard hose gun travelling irrigation is used.

Mt Palm has eight 300m guns servicing the 220ha of irrigation via a mainline pipe and an additional 50ha that can be watered in the shoulder season of autumn, by extending the mainline with portable pipes. Water is sourced from the Waiau irrigation scheme and consented ground water. Trough water supply is from pumped artesian water and gravity-fed from a joint water supply.



Summer safe

The 300ha of strong western-facing hill country has been developed and comprises nine blocks, with water via troughs or summer safe spring supply. The remaining 1,350ha is on the eastern side of the Lowry Range facing towards Cheviot and is comprised of 15 blocks. Hugh says all the hill blocks are summer safe and do not run out of water, even in very dry summer conditions, so long as stocking numbers are set accordingly. The regular summer dry also means any spring surplus is conserved as bulk silage, usually around 1,000 tonne on hand going into summer/winter. Round bales, around 50 tonne of barley, 15ha of kale and the same in rape are also part of the summer safe plan. The supplementary feed, combined with the irrigation, makes Mt Palm close to drought safe. Hugh's aim is to run a simple and productive operation.


Mt Palm runs 4,700 Romney and Romney Texcel crossbred ewes and an additional 1,000 hoggets are also lambed. "We aim for a lambing percentage of around 145 percent. We don't want to scan higher than 170 percent because we want to avoid multiple triplets and instead our goal is midperformance range, mid-size strong open-faced ewes."



Good stock

Mt Palm buy rams from Sam Holland in Culverden, who Hugh describes as a go-getter sheep breeder with tough breeding criteria for Romney Texel maternal rams and Suffolk Texel terminal rams. Straight Romney rams are sourced from Richard Warren in Wairarapa, selected for their remarkable maternal values, which has contributed to the Mt Palm lambing percentage – without having too many triplets.


"We want easy-care, good mothers rearing two good lambs unattended on tussock country." Ewes receive minimal animal health products and until the Scorpius launch, would receive a 5 in 1 drench pre-lamb and electro-dip for fly at weaning pre-Christmas. Through summer, finishing lambs had been traditionally drenched for internal parasites on a monthly basis, with a double or triple combination drench.

Hugh takes advantage of his flat's west-facing aspect, early spring country selling up to 2,000 terminal sire lambs pre- Christmas, which frees up the same land post-Christmas to finish around 5,000 tussock lambs. Terminal sire lambs are sent to the works down to 16kg carcass weight and the remainder up to 19kg carcass weight. Ideally 70 percent of the lambs are off farm by the end of May, with the remainder sold through until July.


Hugh says 5,000 lambs is a comfortable number on hand to finish during the early summer period, utilising the irrigation and dryland rape. Around 2,200 good ewe lambs suitable for breeding are kept as ewe lamb mobs. On the cattle front, around 330 to 350 cows calve each year including 60 R2 first calvers. Hereford Genepool polled bulls from Haldon Station are used, with the aim of being mid-size fleshy cows able to maintain condition on dry hill country, get in-calf annually and wean a medium size calf without dropping too much body condition. Up to 160 yearling bulls are sold in November to dairy operations. Replacement heifers are fed well to grow out as much as possible pre-calving and the remaining heifers are put on the truck as local trade at 18 to 20 months, or kept as replacements. Hugh has witnessed massive changes in his 30 plus years of farming and can see Scorpius Elite Spot-On revolutionising sheep farming.

"Modern sheep are a vigorous, physical breed and anything that limits the yard time that farmers have to spend with them must be good. With Scorpius it is just a matter of walking along a race  giving them a squirt as opposed to being in the yards and race and physically giving them a down the throat drench."


"I know some farmers will be sceptical of a sheep spot-on, but I have a lot of confidence this is going to revolutionise sheep drenching with savings across a lot of levels. Like anything new, it will take a bit of adapting-to, but from what I have seen, it's a win-win situation. It's certainly been great to be a catalyst in a world-first combination spot-on sheep drench and I look forward to watching the results roll out."