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May 1, 2024

In this episode of Head Shepherd…

Andrew Bendall, a New Zealander who made his way to the Falkland Islands, shares what he’s learnt from mentors and his own experiences in breeding. He highlights the value of creating a structured breeding plan - no matter whether it’s for composites or fine-wool, grass seed or forages - focusing on what really matters in farming and the importance of teaming up with good people.

A key figure in Andrew Bendall’s career, his father, arguably set him off down the breeding path, showing him what was possible as a member of two performance breeding groups (New Zealand Romney Development Group and Waigroup Angus) as far back as the 1960s. “The emphasis there was that the two groups set out to create a disciplined breeding plan over a long period of time. That's the foundation of where my beliefs and objectives have always stemmed from.” 

Both groups were fairly disruptive for their time, selling rams and bulls with performance records. Andrew shares, “They really had faith and believed in the performance recording. They would use both bulls and rams who, from a visual perspective, were a lot smaller. But they were structurally sound and they had good maternal performance backgrounds.” The emphasis on maternal genetics and performance remains a key belief for Andrew today, “I think both groups had a real emphasis on maternal genetics and maternal traits, believing that the true engine room of any commercial farm was actually the ewes or the cows.” 

Andrew has experienced plenty of twists and turns in his career path, including 12 years with the Kelso breeding group, breeding and farming on his own account, five years with New Zealand AgriSeeds, a shift back to sheep with Headwaters for eight years and, at the time of recording this episode, running a government-funded fine-wool breeding programme in the Falkland Islands. The common thread being, "The fundamentals of breeding, regardless of what it is, are the same," says Andrew.

Looking back on other mentors, Andrew cites Roger Marshall from Kelso as someone “...who had an ability to look ahead, predict, adapt and bring in new breeds, but still keep some of those key fundamental breeding objectives at the forefront of the breeding programmes.” Visionaries like these have taught Andrew the need to “...carry on, even though you’ve got a lot of people saying that what you’re doing isn’t right or won’t work, and believing that your programme and your commitment will come out.”

“It's the adoption of EID in all sheep. Until we do that, we'll flounder around where we are at the moment. I'm pretty hot on this one. It's the only way I believe that we can get rid of the bottom third of our flocks, which are costing us massive revenue and massive profitability by not knowing who our true performers are within our breeding flocks and our herds.”

Fast-forward to his time at Headwaters, Andrew says that it “...encompassed everything that I believed in and took it to another level. I was creating something that was market-driven, but backed by science.” Reflecting on the key learnings, a whole-system approach emerges, from changing the emphasis from lean meat yield to eating quality, addressing maternal traits and survivability, introducing a specialist forage like chicory, implementing body condition scoring at key times of the year, and measuring eye muscle and fat, all the while disrupting the meat processor’s specifications for grading carcasses. 

Summing up that approach, he says, “It was driven off of four pillars, which aren’t necessarily all to do with sheep. They are animal welfare, ewe productivity, eating quality (which, if you’ve got good eating quality, I believe you’ve got good wool quality as well) and overall health. Putting all of those things together, created this animal which was incredibly efficient. Over time, we dropped the overall ewe size to an about 62-64 kilo ewe going to the ram, at a condition score of three-plus. And that animal is scanning around the 180-200% mark and delivering over 150%. And that turned out to be a pretty efficient animal,” also producing a premium lamb product.

For that premium product though, feeding ewes well throughout pregnancy has proven essential. “This whole quality aspect - of both meat and wool - starts in gestation and there are no free lunches. You’ve got to keep a well-fed animal, especially through that latter part of gestation and right through to weaning, and then finishing these animals on good quality feed. So, it puts some real emphasis on planning your farm programme well.” 

He sees the Falkland Islands gig as “...a left-field opportunity…to look back on what we’ve learned in the past 20-30 years and for these guys to not make those same mistakes. Those mistakes are largely around chasing high-input farming instead of keeping to the basics - that they do work - and not get hung up on trends and fashions.” A combination of geographical isolation and a hostile climate has discouraged farmers from plunging headlong into some of the more intensive approaches popular elsewhere.

“A general farm looks like a cross between Ohakune and Waiouru and the Mackenzie country. It's not even as good as Central Otago tussock. There's a flax grass and a bog grass which has a nutritional value of about 7.5ME in the spring. Some various legumes do grow but…there’s been a lot of degradation to soils and the forages. So now you've got a forage called diddle-dee which has learned to survive in these hostile conditions and it's got virtually no nutritional value. They're in the process of changing to the more regenerative-type grazing patterns of resting land, getting some restoration back into forages, and relying on some of the natural ability of some of the better species here to grow before launching in and putting fodder crops in because it's just so expensive to bring in products.”

Most flocks on the Falklands are fine-wool, with a Corriedale base and a range of other genetics, from Polwarths, Dohnes and SAMMs to finer merinos. “There are three big government-owned farms, which have probably 180,000 breeding ewes and equivalent wethers. Most of the other 50-60 farms range between 4,000 to 12,000 ewes, with wethers as well. It's very extensively run, with big wether flocks being run in most cases.”

Our conversation touches on technology and Andrew emphasises the need for sheep producers to get onboard with EID. “Until we do that, we’ll flounder around where we are at the moment. I’m pretty hot on this one. It’s the only way, I believe, that we can get rid of the bottom third of our flocks, which are costing us massive revenue and massive profitability by not knowing who our true performers are within our breeding flocks.”

Circling round to the guiding principles that have guided him through some big U-turns, Andrew says, “You fall back on your values and your fundamental beliefs…I think it still revolves around people at the end of the day, and you team up with good people and have a good team around you, and question, debate and challenge people - and expect to be challenged yourself.” 

Listen to the full interview with Andrew Bendall on the Head Shepherd podcast here.

Head Shepherd Podcast
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Head Shepherd Podcast

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