Genetics reap the Rewards

Words by Cheyenne Nicholson & Images by Greg Bowker – AngusPRO magazine 2022

In recent years, Ohana Farms has gone from strength to strength, and manager Rob Craw says it’s all down to their genetics.

Situated on the rugged Coromandel coast, Ohana Farms is a sheep and beef breeding operation complemented by a breeding and finishing block in the King Country. On a clear, blue day, you can see glimpses of Auckland city from the farm’s cliffs.

Owned by an overseas investor, Rob has been manager on this picturesque farm for 11 years. The Coromandel property breeds quality stock that are sent on to their finishing block. The main breeding herd and replacement heifers are kept on the Coromandel farm to be bred and calved as two-year-olds. Rob says they are selected on strict criteria to ensure they retain quality in their herd.

“Heifer mating is a core part of our business. Early in my farming career I learned that if you can’t get a heifer in calf and get her back in calf after that first calving, she doesn’t tend to make an efficient cow. It’s been six years since I’ve had to assist a calving heifer. This is down to the traits we select for, our emphasis on growing them properly and getting them to the 300kg target weight for mating.”

When Rob first arrived at Ohana, the property was home to a South Devon herd struggling on the rugged terrain and the low metabolisable energy (ME) content kiyuku grass dominating the hills and wreaking havoc on production for the sheep and cattle sides of the business.

“They were too big for the ugly coastal country,” Rob says. “In my first year here, I suggested to the owners I thought they should go with Angus. It was a bold move but the right one. They could navigate the hills better, meaning they could do their job as lawnmowers easier. Angus are renowned for their resilience in tough conditions, so I knew they’d be a good fit.”

That first year, Rob set a heavy stocking rate to get the grass under control, which was helped by a drought. The following year they pulled numbers back when they had a better mix of grasses. The sheep started to perform better, as did the cattle.

“It’s taken a good six years to get to the balance point we are at now with the sheep and cattle, but they complement each other well.”

Rob aims to breed medium-sized animals that can maintain condition, get around the hills, and hold their own when times get tough.

“Because of the class of country we have, I don’t carry old cows. We sell our older cows in-calf to a private buyer. We’re really looking for resilience in our cows as they are the lawnmowers to keep grass quality high for the sheep. Knowing the cattle can perform well here means that those that go to the finishing block will really thrive and unlock the full genetic potential they have, which is evident on our kill sheets.

“Anything that’s not come through the season in good condition and reared a good calf that we don’t want to keep in the main breeding herd will go to the finishing block to calve. She’ll then be mated with a Charolais bull. It gives us the chance to cull without losing any value.”

Rob and Amelia Craw

The cows are managed extensively, with heifers calved behind a wire before joining the cows and calving amongst the ewes and lambs. They are set stocked throughout the farm year-round with the exception of mating.

“We do this for a few reasons – pasture management and to reduce mob pressure,” Rob says. “While we’ve only lost a handful of animals down the bluff, it’s always a risk. The reduced mob pressure I think, has also had an impact on conception rates. We typically have 6–7% empty rate now. With the Devon herd, this was sitting at 12–15%. It’s an incredible figure for this type of country and a real testament to the quality of animal we have.”

The herd’s reproductive gains are just the tip of the iceberg for the success of the cattle business. While breeding medium-sized animals across the board, their growth rates are phenomenal, achieving carcass weights up to 320kg in their steers, most of which go on to Silver Fern Farms.

“As more of the good genetics we’re selecting are coming through, our growth rates continue to improve. We’re targeting a portion to kill out at 18 months rather than two-year-olds. We have winter contracts again this year, so having the ability to push the value of those animals forward by six months gives us options.”

They are also able to put the Angus steers on the hills when in a feed pinch, safe in the knowledge their breeding will ensure they hold their own. The Charolais-cross cattle are highly marketable and able to be sold off quickly if needed.

“Anything with Angus in it will sell, no matter what the season is doing,” Rob says.

The two things that underpin everything are good bull selection and breeding decisions. Rob’s catalogues often look like colouring-in books by the time he gets to the sale, but it’s a critical part of his business. With a particular focus on positive calving figures, moderate birth weights and good temperament, Rob has also started targeting carcass traits, with positive results in recent years.

“I’m looking for reasonable growth rates, above-average to high carcass figures for IMF and EMA. Once I’ve gone through their EBVs and figured out what I want, I have a look at them and further select based on conformation.

“I’ve learned a lot about genetics and am always astounded by the accuracy of them. The amount of effort that goes into recording the data is huge. When we select a bull to use, the proof really is in the pudding.”

Rob exclusively buys bulls from Storth Oaks Angus and has done for several years. They consistently breed the type of animal he is looking for, which works well for his business.

“The good thing about studs, and especially since switching to AngusPRO, is the pool of genetics is a huge advantage to us. If you want to quantify our genetics’ pay off, you only have to look at our conception rates. We have fewer cows go out the system and better yields at killing, which gets us a better premium – the benefits are all right there for the taking.”

While Rob believes he doesn’t have much in lesser- quality stock, in past years he’s faced a dilemma about what to do with his second-tier heifers, but he’s been able to find a solution that’s a win for everyone.

“For the last three years, I’ve been mating heifers and selling them back to repeat buyers who know our genetics. Ethically this has been good for me as I was struggling with putting the second-cut heifers on a truck just because we don’t need the numbers. They may not be top-cut heifers, but they’re still excellent animals.”

This way, Rob’s able to sell the heifers back into a beef herd for a premium and is now at the point where he’s able to buy back the progeny of some of those animals.

“The buyers are happy with the genetics they’re getting; everything we sell is easy calving and has good growth rates. It means the only stock we have to cull are the empty heifers and steers. Ideally, I want to be finishing and not selling store unless we have to.”

Rob’s passion for breeding and having farm owners who trust in his abilities has meant Ohana Farms has gone from strength to strength in the last decade, and Rob is confident about its future if they keep on this same path.

“I look back at what we’ve achieved through switching to Angus and having that focus on buying quality bulls. It’s incredible for the type of country we have and something I’m really proud of.”