FAMILY and friends have nick-named Jamie Nykiel, 22, the ‘sheep queen’ after her studies redirected her from the beach towards the bush.
She is in her third-year at Murdoch University studying science and hopes to follow that up with a doctorate, meaning Jamie is potentially one of the sheep industry’s next generation of researchers.
Her passion is science – her particular interests are microbiology, epidemiology and disease research – and its practical application and commercial impact in the producer-to-consumer supply chain.
Like many science undergraduates at universities around Australia now looking to agriculture to provide a career path, Jamie does not come from a rural background.
She grew up on the Gold Coast in Queensland rather than on a WA Wheatbelt or Great Southern sheep farm and is more adept at applying sunscreen than backline lousicide.
Instead of farm succession planning, family discussions about her future generally involve her father trying to convince her to pursue a career in music rather than one with animals.
Jamie has played violin for more than 13 years and teaches the instrument, as well as tutoring mathematics and working part-time in a store selling sneakers, to help fund her studies.
The violin is a notoriously difficult instrument to learn to play well and the fact she teaches it gives an insight into her tenacity.
“You get to a point where (playing the violin) stops sounding like a dying cat and it becomes a really personal challenge to improve your ability, then it’s exciting – I’m super competitive and the violin is the perfect instrument for that, I like challenging myself,” Jamie said.
She moved to WA on her own to pursue a dream of becoming a veterinarian when a position was not available at the University of Queensland (UQ), but quickly realised most students doing a science degree at Murdoch were heading down a similar path.
So as her studies progressed into a second year, Jamie broadened her outlook to livestock rather than domestic pets and to research possibilities rather than retail veterinary practice as logical moves to broaden her career options.
Part of her methodical approach was applying to attend a Sheep Industry Business Innovation (SIBI) sheep camp in May last year.
“I originally did the SIBI sheep camp because I didn’t know anything about sheep,” Jamie said.
“I thought there’s probably a good opportunity to learn about sheep over here (WA).
“Queensland is cattle country and I grew up on the beach – there’s no sheep on the beach.
“The more I learned about the (sheep) industry and livestock in Australia, the less I wanted to be a vet.
“It’s very competitive to get into so you kind of need a back-up plan anyway.
“I happen to be doing well in this industry (sheep) so it would be stupid to turn my back on it,” she said.
Jamie was judged top student at the sheep camp resulting in a chance to be an associate judge in the Merino section at last year’s Perth Royal Show – she enjoyed it so much she asked to be an associate judge again this year and will be back there later this month.
The judging ring introduced her to some of WA’s top Merino breeders and her enthusiasm, enquiring mind and willingness to learn opened farm gates for her.
“We have to do farm placements for my degree anyway,” she said.
“I spent a week on a sheep stud and then it became a weekend thing where I’d just go out and help if a farmer would ring me up or I’d go to sheep shows and hold rams for different studs – I was at Wagin (Woolorama).
“I’ve been out to Ingle (Merino stud) at Brookton for one of my uni placements.
“They (Ashley and Lucille Hobbs who run Ingle) were lovely and they’re into ASBVs (Australian Sheep Breeding Values) and they’re really smart with their genetics.
“That was interesting because a lot of studs don’t use ASBVs and they’re (Ingle) really at the forefront of the innovations and technology, so that was cool.
“We learn about the breeding values at uni and you think ‘of course, ASBVs’ but then you go out to sheep shows and ask the winners if they use ASBVs they all say no.
“I’m doing an assignment on it, comparing farmers and why ASBVs are and aren’t adopted.
“I’ve asked some of the farmers why they don’t use them and their reasons made a lot of sense, so I do see their side of it.
“I can also see areas where ASBVs still need to greatly improve and that kind of comes down to us at Murdoch University.
“You want your best flock and if a stud breeder is seeing more success not using ASBVs than with using them, then we need to establish why.”
This year Jamie attended a sheep meat value chain training program run by UQ which introduced her to the complexities of international marketing, another area of the industry which intrigued her.
She attended the National Merino Challenge in Adelaide in May – Murdoch teammate Madison Carter placed third in the tertiary division award – and in June joined a 14-day Murdoch New Colombo study tour of China.
“That was very interesting, their consumers are completely different to ours,” Jamie said.
“So when we export meat to them we have to export based on what the Chinese consumer wants, not simply just more of what we produce for our own domestic markets based on what our consumers want.”
Jamie used what she learned on the China tour as the basis for an essay on the potential of exporting chilled sheep meat into China, the world’s largest sheep meat importer and how Australia’s potential to overtake New Zealand – China’s biggest sheep meat supplier – was hindered by a lack of accredited abattoirs.
That essay and personal presentations to judges at the LambEx 2018 industry convention in Perth recently saw Jamie named as one of three conference Young Guns selected from a field of nine finalists
“The China stuff was interesting because my LambEx presentation came up at a time when the attention was on live export and this (accrediting more abattoirs and building a chilled lamb export industry into China) is something that we could possibly do instead, if we have to get rid of live export,” Jamie said.
“But live export is so important to WA, I don’t think it can be totally replaced by chilled or boxed lamb and if it eventually could, it would take so long to build up to the same value level.
“New Zealand is doing it very well and we are capable of being first (in lamb export volumes into China), you just have to fight for it (market share).
“(The long-term future of live export) is concerning though, because people only see one small section of an industry that contributes billions to our economy.
“(City) people don’t realise that sheep producers usually are not just in sheep, they also produce grain.
“If you affect one side of their enterprise you affect the whole enterprise, you affect all of agriculture which then affects the Australian economy, which flows on to trade laws and other export products.
“Because I come from a place where we have no idea where our food comes from, I think I can understand what sheep producers are up against.
“For example, for city-bred people who don’t know, the term lamb conjures up images of cute, fluffy little new-borns, not a 40 kilogram animal or a 23kg carcase.”
Somewhere between breeding and raising sheep on farm for the wool clip, or exporting as live animals, or slaughtering and processing for either domestic or export markets – with eating quality and value very much at the forefront – is where Jamie sees her future.
She is not sure exactly where just yet, but she is sure it will probably involve sheep and research.
“I see research as my space, no matter what you do that’s always going to be part of the industry,’’ she said.
“I guess my resume is slowly building, doors keep opening, I’m kind of seeing where it’s leading me.”