PRODUCING sheep for a specialised market is a challenge in itself, but when that market is the uncertain live export trade, the challenges become more prominent.
Awassi sheep came to be bred in WA because there was a unique opportunity for WA farmers to target a niche Middle East market.
Greg and Robyn Richards, Quairading, were part of the group of farmers keen to produce Awassi lambs ideal for Middle East clients and consumers, spending the past 12 years doing it successfully.
But in recent times, particularly when live export came under a cloud in 2011, they decided to move away from using Awassi rams over their 4000 Merino ewes.
The live export ban in 2011 meant the Richards family were left with more than 1000 lambs in limbo and no market in which to sell them.
It was a stressful time for all involved and Mr Richards said it was difficult to hold them for a long period and watch them pass the 37kg liveweight limit.
Before that fork in the road developed, producing Awassi lambs was relatively smooth sailing, with forward contracts from exporters and rams provided by program operators and exporter Emanuel's.
"The Awassis were good, hardy animals and one of the attractions was that we did not have to buy and carry a team of rams," Mr Richards said.
"Emanuel's supplied us with 100 rams each year from a farm in Dandaragan and we would put them over our Merino ewes.
"We had them forward contracted, which meant every single lamb left the property for a set price.
"Those contracts were invaluable assurance in the tough years.
"But relying on boats in uncertain years was the weak link in the chain."
Even though the Richards enjoyed it, it became too hard so they made a management decision two years ago to reduce the uncertainty by using Poll Dorset rams.
This will be the first season with only a handful of Awassi lambs wandering their 4300 hectare property, with the majority of the Merino mothers giving birth to lambs with Poll Dorset genetics from local Quairading studs.
It has been an expensive exercise to build an entire sire battery in just two years, but Mr Richards believed the Poll Dorset was the dominant meat breed in WA that had a strong local market.
The 40 Poll Dorset rams, in addition to 12 Suffolk rams, were joined at 1.5 per cent on November 15 last year and were left in with the Merino ewes for 3.5 months.
The early joining was to ensure lambing started on April 15, with the lambs reaching the ideal weights ready for the beginning of the spring flush, when prices were at a premium.
Mr Richards said they were aiming to sell crossbred lambs as stores to feedlots, while the heavyweights will be bound for the Muchea Livestock Centre or Katanning saleyards.
The lambs will be weaned straight off their mothers and into the September saleyards, differing from the Awassis which were weaned earlier, housed for a week and then put onto pellets before boarding their international boat cruise.
"We try not to do the same thing every year now," he said.
'It's good not to have total reliance on the boats, but it also means we have to keep an eye on what the local market is doing.
"We've always been into the meat side of things and the Poll Dorsets seem to grow out just as quickly as the Awassis."
Their operation has never been focused on wool, as the Richards' buy all their Merino ewes at local sales to make the whole operation easier.
As the most freely available breed in WA, the Merino ewes were easy to purchase and had great mothering ability for a crossbreeding program.
Shearing occurred in February when the fleece was cleaner but wool remained a minority market for the family.
Targeting the meat markets for a large part of his farming career meant Mr Richards still recognised the importance and influence the live export market had on sheep prices.
"I feel like live export is back on track because we finally have a government that stood up and backed it," he said.
"There has to be a live export market for the benefit of the entire sheep industry.
"We made the management decision to move away from being totally reliant on live export.
"But that doesn't take anything away from the fact that it's a significant element of the WA sheep industry."