Rising to the challenge

Marcus is the manager of ‘Paper Collar Gully’, a 3000 hectare Merino sheep farm in Amelup, Western Australia.
Marcus is the manager of ‘Paper Collar Gully’, a 3000 hectare Merino sheep farm in Amelup, Western Australia.

Marcus Sounness

  • Property: Paper Collar Gully
  • Location: Amelup, WA
  • Rainfall: 400mm
  • Property size: 3000ha
  • Livestock: 3000 breeding ewes
  • Soil type: Sandy gravel over clay and sandy loam
  • Pasture type: Sub clover and lucerne based

    WELL, MLA laid down the gauntlet for us: “Use our resources to improve your livestock operation, communicate that with the rest of Australia and oh by the way, compete with five other motivated, innovative young farmers.”

    So here goes, the first quarter, the Key Decision Points (KDPs) revolve around Lambing and Lamb Marking, and in this blog we discuss the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) measured and whether we met them or not.

    Lambing and Lamb Marking

    Leading up to lambing significant early autumn rainfall meant that supplementary feeding was stopped early and the ewes were able to gain condition on green feed. The ewes were scanned for twins and tagged to prevent mix-ups down the track.

    They remained in larger mobs of around 1000 ewes until just before lambing where they were broken up into smaller mobs of around 250 ewes. This was to minimise confusion, mismothering and subsequent lamb losses.

    Better feed paddocks were allocated to twin bearing ewes and the single maiden ewes had serious trouble getting on top of an early sown barley crop under sown with clover.

    By lambing time, the five week period commencing in the last week of June, both annual and perennial pasture lambing paddocks were pretty well set up with great density and feed on offer (FOO) ranging from 1,500-2000kg DM/ha.

    The downside was that pasture growth had stalled due to a very dry June (8mm rainfall) and three good frosts. Ewes in late pregnancy/early lactation made short work of the struggling pasture and some paddocks got close to the critical 1000kg DM/ha.

  • We began supplementary feeding grain again but the ewes were not really eating it. They were maintaining condition, so we promptly stopped as they must have been getting enough nutrition and energy, and significant rainfall in July meant that pasture growth had started to ramp up.

    Going into this Challenge one of the KPIs that we really wanted to meet was an average lambing percentage increase from 84 per cent to an average of 90pc. Marking percentages over 90pc have only been achieved five times in the last 21 years.

    Despite our best efforts this year in managing FOO, shelter and mob size, a severe winter storm one night in week three of lambing resulted in heavy lamb losses. Driving rain and winds in excess of 100km/hr all night resulted in panic and stampeding amongst the lambing ewes. We estimate that around 300 lambs could have been lost in that one night.

    As a result this year we only managed 76pc at lamb marking and to put this in perspective we have only dropped below 80pc four times in our 21 years of lambing records.

    Our maiden ewes were kept separate for lambing, so that we could manage their condition score prior to lambing, but could have been mixed back in with older single ewes to minimise mismothering at lambing. This mob was the hardest hit in the storm and the confusion was evident the next morning when we went around trying to mother up stray lambs.

    This will be something that is addressed for all future lambing periods, as the maidens can learn from the older ewes and it may help to increase lambing percentages.

    Cull ewe lambs were identified with a pink tag at marking time. We looked for breach wrinkle, stain and black wool. This helps to get some genetic gain particularly for non-mulesed sheep.

    We purchased a new marking cradle called a Vet Marker this season. This new machine does away with the need to spray the lambs’ bums and lift the lambs out of the cradle to release them as it does that itself.

    Another benefit is that the lambs always land on their feet which reduces the risk of getting the tail-docking wound infected. It has been a big hit with the grey nomads that help us out at marking time as it makes the job easier.

    We have been busy setting up weaner paddocks with new fencing to facilitate better grazing management, to help utilise the excellent pastures that we have this year. It is amazing what happens when you have rain in spring.

    The ewe hoggets are well on their way to reaching a target weight of 50kg by the end of September. They put on excellent weight grazing on winter cereal crops which took the pressure off the precious winter grazed pastures during lambing. Wormboss was suggesting that this group was at particular risk of developing worm problems so we tested this mob. The worm egg count results were encouraging as most of them were 0 and only some were 50 with an average faecal egg count of 15 eggs per gram, so there was no need to drench.

    Driving whole farm profit - Playing the season

    With a good early break and subsequent high pasture growth rates comes opportunity. We analysed the feed available ahead of the lambing ewes and worked out that we could carry the sheep on a smaller area provided the ewe hoggets spent the critical feed demand period through lambing grazing winter crops.

    The decision was made to crop a couple of extra paddocks opportunistically. Effectively this increased our winter grazed DSE rating from 8.2 to 9.3, our profit per hectare for the livestock operation and potential for whole farm profit through the cropping enterprise given a favourable spring.

    As winter rolls into a wet spring we are left wondering whether we need more sheep. We certainly couldn’t have carried anymore sheep on the pasture allocated during the lambing period as the cold dry conditions saw the pasture production stagnate, but the wet warming conditions in this spring mean that we will have excellent pasture growth well past the usual growing season.

    We will need to monitor carefully for flies but the weaners are likely to grow out of their skins given the FOO they have lined up. If we can keep them growing through the summer dry feed period then we have a shot at meeting the ambitious turn-off targets for the merino prime lambs that we have set.

    It has been a busy quarter and we have been working hard, rising to meet the Challenge set, so please give us some encouragement by leaving your comments.

    Cheers, Marcus and Shannon

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    MLA ChallengeMeet the participants in Meat and Livestock Australia's Challenge, where producers identify how much their business is returning, what's driving profit and how to put a plan in place to capture the business' potential over a 12-month program.

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