STICKING it out with Merinos has at times been challenging, but proven worthwhile for Eneabba-based sheep and grain growers Ashley and Cathy Auld, even in a tough year such as this one.
It’s a mixed enterprise on the 3800 hectares of Auld family land north of Eneabba with 70 per cent of the business dedicated to cropping, but the Aulds say sheep fit neatly into the operation.
“They weren’t always a perfect fit, but they work really well now,” Cathy said.
“Since having a consultant look at the program about four years ago things have turned around.”
Ashley said it was all about easy management and fitting a profitable sheep operation in with the cropping program.
“We weren’t happy with the profitability of our sheep program and how it fitted in with the cropping program but now we’re definitely on the right track,” he said.
“We barely run any dry stock on the place and we’ve tailored the times of year we do the major sheep work to suit us and the cropping.”
Of the 3800ha of arable land available to the family, 1100ha is used for winter grazed sheep.
Ashley said one of the winners of the program was an allocated 200ha patch of land dedicated to Scope barley each year which is utilised for early grazing.
“The Scope barley is our out strategy,” Ashley said.
“We did reduce our numbers last year from 4000 mated ewes to about 3100 because we were undertaking a big ripping program but I think those 200ha have really helped us this season.”
Despite the tough conditions for producers across WA causing large numbers of stock to head to the saleyards, the Aulds have managed to hold onto their numbers.
“The benefits from having that Scope barley are huge,” Ashley said.
“We graze it early and apply chemical to it after the sheep are out.
“If the season permits we can lock it up for a cash crop, but we can use it as extra pasture feed as we need to during tough years.
“It’s also a good rest for the clover-based pastures which we like to give a break, so it’s a win-win whether or not the year turns out well.”
Ashley said years such as this didn’t give much confidence to hold onto big numbers of sheep but said sheep were worth holding onto.
“It’s certainly been nice to have a few less this year with how the season has turned out, but we won’t be getting out of sheep any time soon,” he said.
“There’s always going to be a percentage of our property which can’t be cropped efficiently so by running the sheep we’re ensuring the entire property is turning a profit.”
Cathy said the perennial pastures the family had invested in over the years have made a big difference too.
“This year they’ve been particularly good,” she said.
“When we get a bit of summer rain and a bit of warmth they really shoot off.
“They’ve definitely made our poorer paddocks much more profitable and they’ve been invaluable this year.”
The perennials feature strongly in the yearly program which the Aulds are keen to keep simple.
Everything fits around cropping with the rams going in for joining with the 1.5 to 5.5-year-old ewes on February 1 once harvest and the holidays are done and dusted.
Shearing happens in mid-March, with a Selenium needle and a lice treatment at the same time and then the sheep go back onto stubble until the start of seeding in mid-April when they are shifted onto perennials.
Once the perennials start to run out the stock can go onto the quick growing barley when it has reached the four to five leaf stage and by mid to late June they head onto annual pastures which Ashley keeps a close eye on with the help of his father Robert.
During lambing in late June and early July the ewes are left alone as much as possible, although this season has meant feeding has been needed on a paddock-by-paddock basis.
Lamb marking and fly treatments for the ewes take place in mid-August and then they are returned to the annual pastures until mid-September.
It’s back onto the perennials in big mobs before harvest to keep the stock out of the way when things get crazy with harvest and once the canola is off, the sheep go onto the stubbles while harvest continues – ensuring the sheep and the headers work together.
The sheep come back into the yards in December for weaning and classing.
One third of the 115pc drop of lambs is crossbred, with the Aulds utilising Poll Dorset sires over their cast for age ewes for prime lamb production and those lambs are the first on the truck straight off mum as stores.
The rest are purebred Multi Purpose Merinos, which are classed as weaners based on all-round wool and carcase traits.
The Aulds aim to have as little as possible dry stock on the property over the summer so the weaner wethers and cull weaner ewes are sold as soon as possible, taking the program back to full circle.
“It’s a simple program and it fits well,” Ashley said.
“It’s a lot easier to manage. We used to try to do sheep work at a busy period during the cropping program and it was just too stressful.”
Conscious decisions have been made to fit into the cropping program despite taking a small loss.
“When it comes to wool our yield sits about 55pc and we could improve that if we changed our shearing time but the benefit for shearing fitting in with the cropping program is worth it,” Ashley said.
“We’re still pretty happy with our overall wool cheque for our 140 bales each year.
“At the end of the day we’re still getting a double income from the sheep.
“We’ve always had sheep and we’ll continue to have them – now they fit in nicely to our yearly program, they have become invaluable to our entire business.”