LICENCE plates from throughout the State were seen in the Jilakin Downs paddock for the annual information day held at the Wilson family's property, Kulin, last week.
More than 30 people, half of whom were new faces, attended the field day with six guest speakers providing the keen audience with relevant and useful information.
Among the topics discussed were the latest developments of the Dorper breed, a sheep market overview, biosecurity, baiting predators at lambing season, recent activities within the Facey Group and the live export industry.
Jilakin Downs Dorper and White Dorper stud principals and hosts Keith and Sara Wilson welcomed the crowd and introduced first speaker WAMMCO supply development manager Rob Davidson.
Mr Davidson said an international decline in sheep flocks, with China being the only exception, has pushed prices to a point where the consumer is starting to turn away from lamb products.
"We are starting to see some shying away from lamb," Mr Davidson said. "The customers still want the product but are now moving down the scale to a carcase grade product they can still afford."
He outlined the demand for Australian sheep products in each market and while the Middle East remained the top market, others such as Europe and the United States had significantly declined in consumption after being badly affected by the Global Financial Crisis.
While these markets were essential, Mr Davidson said now was the time to put more emphasis on the domestic market with WAMMCO already working closely with local supermarkets.
In order to increase the national flock size, Mr Davidson believes innovations such as the lick feeder play an important role.
Sheep can lick about 120 times a minute and generally have enough saliva for five minutes of licking, which means they may visit the lick feeder five to seven times a day.
"Lick feeders are not an excuse for bad management," Mr Davidson said. "You need to train your stock, keep grain in the feeders and make sure it is secured to the ground.
"They could revolutionise how you currently manage your stock nutrition."
Advantages included saving on labour, time and grain costs, with better lambing management and feed utilisation.
Keith Wilson discussed the advantages and challenges facing the Dorper breed and how the Wilson family came to be involved in them.
As with many farmers in the area, the Wilson's started with a Merino base and decided to change to Dorpers due to their increased lambing numbers, productivity, labour, inputs, PETA, year-round supply of lambs and market expectations.
They trialled Finns, Texels, Poll Dorsets and Damaras before settling on the Dorper which had a broad gene pool, good fertility, rapid weight gain and were in high market demand in the meat sector.
"The fact that they are also non-selective grazers is huge, especially out here," Mr Wilson said.
"Yes they are fertile but I think it's the survivability of the breed that really comes through because the lambs are so robust."
The biggest guideline the Wilsons used when selecting their breeding stock is commercial relevance.
The Dorper's polyoestrus nature means they will conceive any time of the year, so the Wilsons prefer to run their ewes pregnant for the majority of the time as they found the ewes are happier and more settled when they are pregnant.
Mr Wilson said the most important thing for a farmer to do when changing breeds, particularly from Merino to Dorper, was to make an effort to change their mindset toward the different management strategies required.
Management of predators such as foxes and eagles, however, remained the same regardless of breed and Agriculture and Food Department biosecurity officer, Brian Kimber, Lake Grace, ran through alternatives to control the threat.
The main method discussed was baiting and Mr Kimber outlined the channels farmers needed to navigate before being cleared to use 1080.
Farmers will not be given access to 1080 until they have completed a form of training, which included making contact with their local biosecurity office, reading a handbook and answering 20 questions.
Once they pass, the farmer is then given a letter of accreditation lasting three years and after a risk assessment carried out by the biosecurity officer, a voucher for the baits is issued.
"You can circumnavigate a lot of problems by complying with all of your obligatory requirements," Mr Kimber said.
"But remember, not every control strategy depends on baiting - trapping and exclusion should be other options."
Sara Wilson expanded on Keith's earlier presentation and went into the background of Jilakin Downs and how far they have come since deciding to change to Dorpers.
She reiterated that commercial relevance was their top priority and temperament was one of the most important traits they select their breeding stock for.
"They've got to be commercially relevant and work in the commercial environment, it's front and centre to what we do," Ms Wilson said.
As a result the Wilsons try to limit artificial reproduction, as their sheep should be able to work in commercial environments which means they need to conceive naturally, have a natural pregnancy and unassisted birth.
There is a common misconception that registration of animals with the Australian Dorper Society provides some measure of quality but Ms Wilson said there were a number of shortcomings with the current system.
"There is currently no quality requirement and breeders can register culls but a type five Dorper with good EBVs cannot be registered if there is any uncertainty regarding parentage," she said.
To ensure on-going quality improvement the Wilsons use LambPlan and the services of an independent stud inspector and have the stud animals registered in Australia and South Africa.
"No one single system is perfect, especially if we are retaining our ewes for on-going performance breeding where longevity and functionality are essential considerations" Ms Wilson said.
The Wilsons employ a year-round lambing program to embed hardiness and keep the ewes from getting fat and as a result lose fertility.
"If the ewes are going to be lambing every eight months, they are going to be lambing into pretty harsh conditions but they can handle it, if we subject them to that pressure," Ms Wilson said.
"Not all of them come through, but the good ones make it and ensure the flock remains hardy."
The Facey Group executive officer Felicity Astbury, Wickepin, gave a short presentation on the latest developments the group was working on, including carrying out studies on the shift from Merinos to other breeds in the area.
They realised more information was required on managing other breeds of sheep that were suited to Wickepin and the surrounding shires, in order to efficiently assist farmers making the change.
So they carried out a strategic planning workshop, worked out the challenges and what farmers expect from their sheep operations.
The Facey Group's research is an on-going process and Ms Astbury welcomed further inquiries for those farmers considering the change.
Livestock Shipping Services sheep buyer Chris Medcalf was the final speaker at the information day, giving the audience a snapshot of what the exporting companies were looking for when purchasing sheep.
He discussed different breeds of sheep and where their main international markets sit.
"Dorpers are accepted by almost all markets and it continues to expand," Mr Medcalf said.
"If you put a Dorper into a feedlot it will always be the first one out because their feed conversion is unbelievable."
Mr Medcalf said a continuous challenge exporters faced was constantly having to show transparency to combat animal welfare issues.
Finding suitable sheep to purchase which were de-horned or polled, clean sheep that had been crutched before delivery and pregnancy-tested animals, was also a hurdle.
But Mr Medcalf advised producers to sell their sheep when others weren't in the market.
"The Dorper's ability to continually lamb is so beneficial to this approach," he said. "If you get the genetics and the feed ratio right, they will always yield better."