FORMER construction manager Johnny Gardner wasn't planning on coming home to be a farmer, but he is now relishing the role of managing his family's grazing property, South Mokanger, in south west Victoria.
Since returning to the Cavendish-based farm in 2015, Johnny Gardner has carried out a complete overhaul of the business, with involvement from his parents Rob and Jill and sisters Claire and Sophie.
The Gardner family currently run a composite flock of 12,000 ewes across their 1720 hectare property, with half the ewes joined to maternal composite rams to supply replacements while the remainder are joined to terminal Poll Dorset sires.
With a focus on performance, they have established some key production-based targets to work towards. This includes stocking rate, reproductive rate, lamb turnoff weight and fleece value.
"Although I am a farmer's son, I didn't really grow up spending a lot of time on the farm but I think it has been really beneficial coming back with experience and skills from a completely different industry, it makes you more open-minded," he said.
"South Mokanger has been in the Gardner family for nearly 110 years and I feel really honoured to be able to carry on the legacy of our family farm."
With assistance from advisor Simon Vogt, Rural Directions, Clare, SA, the first enterprise to go was 200ha of crop, comprising canola, wheat and barley. This is currently being replanted back into pasture.
"My Dad has been doing benchmarking for more than 15 years which gave us a great set of performance indicators to start with," Mr Gardner said.
"We decided there was more opportunity to improve the scale of our livestock enterprise compared with increased variability due to high rainfall in our cropping enterprise."
One of the key areas for improvement was identified as reproduction. South Mokanger's current weaning rate is 120 per cent and the long-term aim is 140pc lambs weaned per ewe joined.
According to Mr Gardner, who is looking forward to seeing this year's scanning results, they have focused their efforts on ewe nutrition and condition score management pre-joining.
Silage and grain is supplementary fed over summer with a target of 14 megajoules of metabolisable energy being fed out per ewe which works out to be about 1.5 kilograms per head per day of wet silage. About 120ha of silage is made on-farm each year and stored in silage pits. Grain is used to make up the shortfall in ME.
Joining starts on January 15 for a mid-July lambing. A tight joining period of four weeks is employed for ease of management. The ewe lambs are joined at eight to nine months of age in mid March and this year South Mokanger mated 1700 ewe lambs averaging 52kg.
"We put a fair bit of effort into ensuring the ewe lambs are ready for joining with plenty of supplementary feed, we spend about $40/head to get them to a joining weight of more than 50kg which we think is worth it."
A better understanding of condition score has also assisted reproduction rates, according to Mr Gardner.
All the ewes are assessed after shearing in December and split into two condition score categories, three plus and under three. The ewes with a condition score under three will receive increased supplementary feed in the lead-up to joining.
The ewe lambs are weighed at marking, weaning and shearing with a target live weight of 25 to 35kg at weaning and growth rates of about 200 grams/head/day.
After pregnancy scanning, the ewes are separated into single and twin-bearing mobs and run in containment through April and May to conserve the pasture paddocks. A pasture assessment is carried out in early May and strategic applications of urea are used to boost pasture growth pre-lambing. The perennial pastures are a mix of phalaris, clover and ryegrass.
"We want to have about 2000kg of dry matter/ha across the farm one month before lambing," he said.
The ewes carrying twins will be given preferential treatment. They lamb in the driest, most sheltered paddocks with the highest feed-on-offer and smaller mob sizes of 50 to 200 ewes are maintained to reduce the risk of mismothering.
Lamb growth rates are also a key factor in the operation's success and Mr Gardner has implemented the goal of turning off his lambs at a carcase weight of 22-24kg with a target growth rate for the terminal lambs of 300g/head/day.
All the lambs are weaned in September, and split into different weight categories of below 25kg, 25-30kg, 30-35kg and 35kg plus. They will be placed into mobs 1500-2000 lambs, in a three to four paddock rotation.
"As we are regularly monitoring their growth rates, I can basically lock in kill space every fortnight up until Christmas, depending on the season.
"At the moment I am turning off about 5000 lambs from the pastures at an average carcase weight of 23kg.
"In the past couple of years we have increased the number we turn off from grass and improved our growth rates from 220g/head/day up to an average of 270g/head/day from birth to sale so we are hitting our targets but I'd love to get more off grass before the pasture changes."
The lambs are sold over the hooks generally to JBS Australia or Hardwicks at Kyneton.
The remainder of the lambs will graze summer crops or are finished in a feedlot on a lupin, barley and hay ration.
The current stocking rate across South Mokanger is 7.5 ewes/ha, but Mr Gardner is aiming for a long-term stocking rate of more than eight ewes/ha, which equates to about 16 dry sheep equivalents/ha.
"Increasing our stocking rates all comes back to soil health, pasture management and accurate feed budgets.
"We have implemented a robust fertiliser program and also used precision ag technology to work out the soil variance across paddocks which will allow for more specific fertiliser applications within paddocks."
Mr Gardner will continue to assess the fleece value from his composite flock which currently produces a 28-32 micron fleece, weighing about 3.5kg, for a return of $15/head.
The introduction of technology including the farm management software program AgriWebb and further training for both Mr Gardner and his staff, including Will Pierce and Stephen Shilcock, has also been vital for the team.
"As a custodian of this farm, I'd like to leave this portion of land we own in a better position than when I got it which is pretty difficult to measure.
"But I would like to increase soil fertility, improve the pasture composition across the farm, and plant more trees for biodiversity. I think all these things flow onto healthier livestock and also make it a great place to live and work."