FOR years the humble Merino has been known mainly for its superior wool.
But in recent years more and more producers are using its long-held and valuable traits as a meat producer and is now challenging British Breeds and other exotic sheep breed crosses in this traditional meat producing area.
One group who are taking up the challenge are Cameron and Lachlan White, Nepowie stud, Nomans Lake, who are now in to their third year of lot feeding Merino lambs, and strongly believe the Merino can stack up well with its crossbred counterparts.
For years they ran wether flocks, but inconsist live export prices changed their pattern of thinking and so for the last five years they have been reducing their wether numbers and increasing their breeding numbers on the property.
Lachlan said reduced returns from the live shipping companies to the grower and WAMMCO's alternative offer of higher returns for the Merino product were the main reasons for the switch from selling mature sheep to lambs.
They now run a complete ewe enterprise with more than 9500 commercial ewes mated each year and sell all their wethers and cull ewes as lambs after running them through their on-property feedlot.
In total this year they will deliver more than 2700 July-drop Merino ewe and wether lambs in four consignments two weeks apart to WAMCCO through the Prime Merino Lamb Alliance starting in the middle of May.
The first consignment this year averaged 22.89kg dressed and at today's prices of $2.40 it equates to good money.
The consignment had an average liveweight of 53kg, with the heaviest animal weighing 65kg.
This year's operation began back in January when 7000 July-drop lambs went onto the feedlot at around six months of age for three months before being shorn in March.
"When they were shorn in March all the lambs were micron tested with the OFDA2000 to assist with the culling process, allowing us to select our culls earlier," Cameron said.
"At this year's shearing the lambs from the feedlot cut 3kg of 19 micron wool.
"Placing all the lambs in the feedlot in January allows us to carry more ewes and helps to reduce the levels of wind erosion in our paddocks.
"It also gives us a more flexible seeding program at this time of year."
Even in a season where conditions were some of the worst experienced in decades, the Whites were pleasantly surprised by the results this year.
They thought it would have been a lot harder to get the same results as previous years.
The Whites believe by having the lambs in the feedlot during this years summer period, they would have fed them not much less than if they were running in the paddock, making the most efficient use of the feed on hand.
After the March shearing the cull ewes and wethers go back onto the feedlot until they are sold, and selected breeding ewes go back into the paddock to join the commercial flock.
Lambing in July is also of added benefit to the Whites as the ewes are dropping their lambs when there is both a good quality and quantity of feed around placing the ewe under minimal stress.
The feed saved by lambing in July/August is better utilised for fattening in March.
In the three years since they have been running their lambs in this manner the Whites believe they have nearly got the design of the feedlot and the feed down pat.
The individual feedlot paddocks are constructed using straw bales, which is baled at harvest each year.
Cameron and Lachlan decided to design the feedlots with the straw bales for a number of reasons, because it gives the sheep more protection, they don't believe in burning good straw and it is fast and cheap to construct.
When the lambs go into the feedlot in the beginning they are run in mobs of 500 and after a few weeks the middle straw bales are removed and they become the floor of the feedlot.
You imagine it would be a muddy smelly mess but it's the complete opposite, all the animals are clean and very healthy and there is definitely no mud in sight.
Cameron said over the past three years they have lost very few animals in the feedlot and they have not experienced any problems with disease.
"The straw floor also helps to reduce the dust created from the feedlot," he said.
Their sheep enterprise is not the only thing benefiting from the straw feedlots.
After they have finished with the straw in the feedlots it is gathered and made into compost, which is spread onto the paddocks.
"By re-spreading the straw over the paddocks we are hoping to increase our soil fertility, which will improve both our pastures and crops," Lachlan said.
The lambs get fed a well-balanced mixture each day, which consists of straw, silage, seconds grain and minerals.
The Whites have worked out on average it costs around 10cents/day to feed each individual lamb including fuel and labour costs.
The formulae of the feed ration is easily achieved with the help of Dr John Milton.
"Having got the silage hay, straw, lupins and grain seconds it is just the case of John designing a ration with the feed we have available to meet the animals nutritional requirements," Lachlan said.
"Physically getting the feed to the Feedlot was a problem initially until we purchased a Supreme 900 Feed Cutter mixer, that has turned the whole feeding operation into a one man job."
However, two weeks prior to delivery for their Prime Merino Lamb Alliance contracts the lambs go onto a Prime Merino Lamb Alliance ration, to ensure they meet with the alliance standards.
The day prior to delivery all the lambs are weighed and fat scored on the ribs, by Graeme Alexander, Elders Narrogin manager, to take out any under weight and score one animals, so they are not penalised on their contract.
"We fat score them on the ribs because that is where they are assessed when they are killed and we are working with last year's dressing percentage of 43pc to ensure we will get them in at the right weights," Graeme said.