New Zealand farmers get a first-hand look at Weld lamb operation
EATON – Ivan Pawson stood outside the pen of lambs at Harper Livestock east of here Friday morning, trying to figure the breeding of the lambs in the pens.
“They are nothing like the ones at home,” he said. But then Pawson is from Palmerston North, which he explained is on the north island of New Zealand. He was among a group of New Zealand dairy and sheep farmers who toured the Hirsch Dairy north of Severance and stopped at Harper Livestock, the largest lamb feeder in Weld County, which added a smaller cattle feedlot to its operation in 2006.
Steve LeValley, a sheep specialist at Colorado State University, and Bill Angell, director and livestock agent with the Weld office of CSU Extension, accompanied the group of about 25 from New Zealand who are touring north-central Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota farming operations. They will end their 14-day tour at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, before returning home.
LeValley said it’s the second tour of Weld operations he’s accompanied in the past couple of weeks, the first being a group of cattle and sheep producers from the United Kingdom.
Pawson, semi-retired, said his farming operation, which includes a few horses, some cattle and sheep, is “more of a lifestyle hobby.” But he said the operation at Harper Livestock, which has a one-time capacity of 65,000 head of lambs and which markets 220,000-230,000 head annually, is nothing like that back home.
“In New Zealand, our sheep roam the paddocks. We breed sheep in the high country, then bring the lambs down to the low country to fatten them up before sending them to market,” Pawson said. “We don’t get lambs this big.”
Mike Harper is the third-generation family member involved in Harper Livestock and president of the Colorado Wool Growers. He said those lambs in the feedlot are all range-bred lambs. Most come to the feedlot in September and October and are fed at the lot 30-80 days, depending on their weight when they arrive. They come in at 90-110 pounds and go to slaughter at 150-160 pounds.
But, he said, there are fewer and fewer sheep farmers involved in the industry, making it more difficult each year “to gather the inventory” needed at the feedlot.
“Our lambs go to the JBS plant in Greeley or to Superior in Denver. We are fortunate in that we have two plants. Most lamb feeders don’t have that kind of opportunity,” Harper told the group. The lambs come from ranches in Wyoming and Idaho. They, like the cattle at the lot, are fed a corn-based ration, unlike the cattle and lambs in New Zealand which are all grass fed.
Cattle at the 3,500-head feedlot, which is at the west end of the lamb feeding operation, start on a feed ration that is 20 percent corn-based. That is increased to between 70 percent and 80 percent over a 120-day feeding program. They are also fed hay, corn silage that Harper grows, and a wet distiller grain that Harper gets from Front Range Energy, an ethanol company near Windsor. The corn, which is flaked as a feed supply, is brought in from eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, he said.
Robert Oliver, who runs an agricultural tour company in Iowa, coordinated the New Zealand visit. The focus of the trip, he said, was educational, as well as to experience the culture of American agriculture.