NZ Farmer, March 9, 2017
Finnish student impresses Hawke's Bay ram breeder
-By Kate Taylor / Fairfax
A Hawke's Bay ram breeder has had hundreds of students through his gates, but none quite like Silja Alamikkotervo, he tells Kate Taylor
Not only does the One Stop Ram Shop offer a variety of sheep breeds, but there's usually a variety of nationalities as well. Hundreds of students and woofers have been through its gates but none have impressed host Robin Hilson as much as Finnish teenager Silja Alamikkotervo. "She has been the most outstanding of the lot," he says. "People contribute in different ways but her skill levels are outstanding. She's conscientious, patient and has fantastic stock sense. She was originally only coming for three or four months but fitted in so well we put her on the payroll."
Since arriving in Hawke's Bay last May, Silja (pronounced Celia) has been working as a general shepherd on the 200ha Takapau property. She has joined the Ashley Clinton-Norsewood Young Farmers Club and travels around the country with Hilson visiting ram clients and properties grazing One Stop Ram Shop ewes. She loves New Zealand's dog trials and is training young heading dog, Meg. She has not only learned to shear but did a great job on rams earlier this month before travelling to the Golden Shears to see how the professionals do it. "We shear them standing up at home but I wanted to learn how to do it the correct way. I was trying to learn on You Tube but all the people were right-handed and I am not. "It was a great and very entertaining event. I just love watching shearing . . . it's amazing how fast those top shearers can do it and the quality of shearing and animal handling still remains good as well."
Silja is studying animal science at Helsinki University about 750km south of her family farm in Tervola in Southern Lapland, 80km south of the Arctic Circle (latitude 66deg north). Ninety hectares of flat land is used for grazing and cropping (silage and barley and oats for winter stock food). Silja's mother runs the farm, which isn't unsual in Finland, while family members help with cultivation, sowing and harvesting. Silja could drive a tractor when she was just six or seven years old. "My parents finished university and started farming in 1995 and I was born in 1996 so I have seen the farm grow from just three ewes and a ram to now 150 ewes and 20 sire rams. That's a normal-size farm in Finland. But being small is normal because all those animals have to be housed inside for eight months a year. We're also subsidised through the EU so there are many rules and regulations for farmers in Finland."
Temperatures in Tervola range from an average -15 degrees Celsius in winter with extremes of -30C to a summer average of 15C with extremes of 30C. There are 24 hours of daylight at the height of summer and 24 hours of darkness in deep winter with snow lying for about five months.
The 150 registered finn ewes are mated in three flocks - 70 white, 40 black and 40 brown - with coloured wool scoured and the skins sold locally. Family members use machines to knit items such as scarves, socks and pants, which are sold across Finland in different markets and through their farm's website (www.vanhalanlammastila.fi).
"It's amazing how in NZ you have markets even for the belly wool and dags. Your whole wool industry is so different to us in Finland. In Finland even selling the good wool isn't always easy and no way there would be markets for the belly wool or dags. Because of the difficulties to get wool sold in Finland, farmers often do like we do: get the wool spun into yarn and then sell it by themselves as yarns and knitted products. That way you can get much better profit. It is often the same with the skins as well. You get them professionally scoured and then sell them by yourself to make better profit. When the farms in Finland are only small, it's possible to market all the wool and skins by yourself."
Silja has learnt English at school since she was eight or nine years old (it is compulsory alongside Finnish and Swedish). She is expected to do work experience as part of her university studies. "Normally that is four months of work in Finland but I thought it was a good opportunity to travel. The first option was the UK but then I thought of New Zealand. I knew it had a lot of sheep, which I love to work with, and I had seen the Lord of the Rings movies and knew people who had visited.
"I have really enjoyed learning about New Zealand farming and teaching people more about Finland as well." Silja returns home in May.
Ram breeder sends ewes away
Takapau ram breeder Robin Hilson loves the look on people's faces when he tells them a large portion of his ewe flock has been sent to breed on different properties around the country. There are 11 farms from Southland to Hawke's Bay with his ewes, including Hilson's 200ha One Stop Ram Shop home block, Paratu, on the Takapau Plains.
"The ram business is our main enterprise but in the past few years I've started doing something I wanted to do years ago," Hilson says. "Samples of my breeding ewes around the country prove how they manage in different environments. I've loved the exchange of ideas from all these landowners and it has turned into a wonderful comparison of what they can do and what we can't do… and vice versa. "One of the things I have learnt so far is that the East Coast has a huge range of lurgies that literally put pressure on our animals all the way through - parasites, facial eczema, salmonella - and that exposure is an advantage to our breeding programmes. East Coast stock are do well anywhere," he says.
"Silja has been doing the computer work for the Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL) recording. Putting data into the computer has been time-consuming because of the different timeframes of the different properties." In the South Island, Hilson's ewes can be found in Southland, South Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson. In the North Island, they are on four properties around Takapau, two in Waipawa and at his partner Joy's farm, The Glen, at Pauatahanui, Wellington. Hilson's return for the arrangement is his choice of ram lambs at weaning.
"The main objective of the whole process is to fill the picture we want in terms of ram selling. Fertility, growth rates and survival are still key recording traits, so we measure those against the other breeds and against their immediate siblings once they're back here. All progeny are fully recorded."
He says results from the farm at Tapawera, near Nelson, have been revealing. Ewes sent in 2013 were stabilised quarter finn, quarter texel, half Perendale. Last season triplets were separated after scanning. "At weaning, about day 110, two ewes weaned a total of 93 and 94kg of lambs. Ewes weighed 61 and 62kgs each. Wonderful effort. A third ewe weighing 71.5kg weaned 116kgs of lamb. We have never approached this level of production in Hawke's Bay. All nine lambs were killable," he says. "The ewes themselves were not even huge sheep but it's what they've done that's huge. They've reared nine killable lambs with no special treatment. I'm not saying they could all do this, but it reveals their potential as a genetic package. This is the type of information we want for the whole industry to move forward. To get this information we need farmers who want to cooperate, as they do for One Stop Ram Shop."
Hilson changed his own breeding ideals back in the 1987. He had a perendale stud when scientists approached him about the finn and texel sheep imported from Europe. "MAF's growing flocks had nowhere to live." He put together a joint venture between 43 farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture and NZ Sheepac Ltd and built a quarantine station on his farm. He says he found the finns were hardy, lived longer and were prolific breeders with facial eczema tolerance. Texels were tough and sported big, meaty back ends. The texel and finn were crossed with New Zealand breeds and performance-recorded. "Crossbreds out-performed New Zealand purebreds in quarantine."
Hilson launched One Stop Ram Shop - a crossbreeding regime on his farm that now offers a variety of rams including finn, texel, dorper purebreds, stabilised finn-texel crossbreds with fixed proportions of finn, texel and New Zealand genetics. Texel-suffolk is a stabilised genotype. Rams are farmed NZ wide. Hilson is on the road for months at a time visiting the farmers around the country who buy his rams and he's also taken that travel further afield to South America and Iran. He was part of a meeting arranged by the Middle East Business Council with the Iranian Foreign Minister last year after several visits to Iran since 2012.
KATE TAYLOR/FAIRFAX NZ