Genetic Focus for Paparata Station

Words by Cheyenne Nicholson and Images by Sarah Horrocks – AngusPRO magazine 2022

Paparata Station is all about efficiency, profitability and sustainability. And while the station is well known for its Elite Romney flock, cattle play an important role on the farm and are managed much like the sheep, with science and genetics leading the way.

“Genetics are the key to profitability for both our sheep and cattle,” says owner Trevor Johnson. “We are very particular in our breeding strategy because we are particular about the type of animal we want to breed. While factors like feeding and management are extremely important to unlocking that genetic potential, you have to have that potential there to start with.”

The farm is split into four blocks of seemingly endless, rugged hill country, each with a manager. The station has a high cattle ratio running a 45:55 split between cattle and sheep.

Paparata is the first farm out of the Tāngarākau Gorge going east on the Forgotten World Highway in the King Country. The land is a mix of Mairoa ash terraces, mudstone and sandstone hills, and silt flats. Trevor describes it as “big country but not high country” with altitude running from 150m to 400m.

Station owner Trevor Johnson.

“The nature of the country and the contour means we have big paddocks; our biggest is 138ha. This means we can have issues grazing them correctly to maintain pasture quality. A large cow herd is essential. I’m a strong supporter of beef cows for how they can help maintain pasture quality on hill country.”

This a large part of why Angus fit so well in their system. Having an animal that is moderate weight and able to hold its own through various seasons is essential to the station’s bottom line.

Angus and Hereford bulls are purchased and put over the heifers and cows each year. Historically, they had a three-way cross between the Angus, Hereford and Friesian breeds to maximise hybrid vigour. Over time Friesians were dropped from the system as they found Friesian cross lacked the ability

to store fat and were hard to keep when conditions became dry.

“They have horns and produce so much milk, the big udders were a problem, and the progeny were harder to sell store. They just weren’t suitable for the hill country,” Trevor says.

The original three-way cross system was designed to produce an advantage of 20% better growth because of the hybrid vigour.

“With the two-way cross, we are getting around the 16% increased growth rates which we are pleased with. We’re doing some thinking at the moment about shifting to all Angus and what that would mean for this part of the equation. One block, Te Moata, is now all Angus.”

About 600 heifers and 2,200 cows are calved each year. Yearling heifers who meet the target weight of 300kg plus are mated to yearling bulls. Trevor says because of this policy, care is taken when purchasing yearling bulls to ensure progeny are easy enough to calve, have good growth rates and come out true to the type of animal they want to breed.

“I don’t like buying bulls with birth weight EBVs under the breed average as I believe birth weight is linked to growth rate. We target a birth weight EBV range of +3.5 to +5. For the 600 Day Weight we target 110 plus.”

This range is designed to keep growth in their cattle while avoiding losses at calving. The moderate size birth weight is important for their yearling heifers and for most of their cows that calve out on the hills with the ewes.

“The mating of the yearlings to the Angus bull has been working very well for us. We have achieved scanning levels of around 90% and are only calving or assisting calving less than 5%, and that’s been a consistent figure for quite a while,” Trevor says.

The heifers are calved behind a tape, and weaker or older cows are calved on the easier country where there’s more feed and fewer hills to navigate. The balance of the cows are calved on the hills with the ewes at a stocking rate of one cow to two hectares. They sit at about 85% calving with few calving issues, which Trevor puts down to their breeding strategy and focus on calving ease.

Lightweight or small heifers are sold store each December, coinciding with the increasing feed demand from the twin ewes.

“This time of year [December], we are selling about 600–700 yearling steers and 500 of the smaller yearling heifers. The balance are put out to the bull. We have a good relationship with a finisher in the Waikato who takes most of our heifers, and we are investigating setting up a similar relationship with finishers for the steers,” Trevor says.

Some blocks finish their own steers. About 400 cattle are finished each year as two-year-olds, with the live weight target being 620kg.

The focus with all breeding is on utilising hybrid vigour and maximising growth rates to take advantage of the market and create an efficient system. Trevor buys about 25 Angus yearling bulls each year from Stokman Angus and Waitangi Angus.

Both studs are AngusPRO members, a group of New Zealand Angus studs who united and made the shift across the ditch to join the progressive governing body of Angus Australia – using science and EBVs to breed quality beef that will provide a consistent eating experience for consumers. It’s a mission that fits in perfectly with Paparata Station.

Trevor says it’s been their farming policy for a while to use yearling bulls. “It means we can mate them with yearling heifers, and it’s also what best suits our farm. As a hill- country property, we have to be mindful of what type of stock we have.”

Yearling bulls are purchased in September and put out with the yearling heifers and second calvers by January. Usually weighing in around the 500-600kg mark, they leave a light footprint on the land and can be kept on for use the following year.

“I cannot understand why people don’t use yearling bulls. If you look at our two and three-year-old bulls, they haven’t suffered at all by being used since a yearling.”

Trevor’s ideal bull is a fleshy one with good structure that ticks all the right boxes for his target EBV ranges. For many years he’s exclusively purchased bulls from Stockman and Waitangi Angus, who consistently produce high-quality bulls that fit exactly what Trevor wants for his breeding program.

“I’ve seen a lot of bull breeders who cater for the dairy industry by having low birth weights. I believe if you focus too hard on low birth weights, you’ll reduce the size and growth of your cattle.

“Growth rates and carcass quality are traits I like to select for as well. As a general rule, I want most EBVs to be at or above breed average. I’ve got to a point now where I can browse the catalogues and quickly circle the bulls I’m after with a quick scan of their EBVs and photos. I know what I want and what will suit.”

This focus on genetics and breeding extends to other parts of Paparata Station too. The station runs 24,000 Romney ewes, 1,500 being recorded Romney ewes, 500 ram hoggets and 6,000 ewe hoggets. The sheep program began in 1983 when ewes were selected from the Paparata high-performance hill country flock to form a recorded flock.

The station screens potential sires for facial eczema tolerance using DNA technology before being dosed with Sporidesmin. Genomic testing has also been incorporated into the program.

Similar to their yearling heifer mating program, lambing hoggets has been a policy on farm for the past 17 years and has proven successful. Hoggets average about 42kg at the time of mating, with hogget pregnancy scanning about 108%.

“Hoggets that have lambed as hoggets perform better as two-tooths over those that haven’t,” Trevor says. “The onset of oestrus is a good indicator of a hogget’s fertility.”

The key ingredient to the success of Paparata Station lies in the decisions made around genetics. It is selecting the right rams and bulls that are going to produce good growth rates, medium birth weights and good intramuscular fat. These are the figures they’re chasing.

Paparata – a lifelong journey

The genesis of the Paparata farming group is the Tokirima block where Trevor grew up. In the early 1900s it was a 300ha property balloted to his Irish grandfather Herbert Johnson, who came to New Zealand as an 18year old. Trevor’s parents, Terence and Floris, took over the Romney sheep and beef farm and grew it to about 750ha.

In 1968, with his brothers Peter and Neville, Trevor bought the 1600ha Paparata Station next door. He bought out his brothers and purchased more adjoining land in the 1980s while finishing his degree in accounting and finance at Massey University.

“The 7100ha has been put together over my lifetime,” he says. “It’s a marvellous property now that has a lot of history to it. I’m a little bit concerned about the water issues and the pressures coming from outside, like more country going into carbon farming. I started when there were government subsidies to clear land, so it’s all a bit of a 180 for me. But with our focus on technology and farming in a scientific manner, I believe we are in a good position.”

Trevor is passionate about farming and embracing a scientific approach to on-farm decisions. While not as hands-on on farm as he used to be, he’s heavily involved in many aspects of the farm and is excited about the station’s future.