Riding on the sheep's back

23 Feb, 2005 10:00 PM
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FOR more than 60 years, the Wallace family has farmed the medium loam soils south of York where woolgrowing and fat lamb production have been the mainstay of the family business.

Brothers David and Bill and their wives Sophie and Karen run about 770 Merino ewes mated to Merino rams and 1650 Merino ewes that are mated to terminal sires, as well as a mixed cropping program in the Gwambygine area.

Unlike many farmers, the Wallace brothers have increased sheep numbers with a particular focus on breeding more Merino ewes on Milbrook, their 1457ha property of which 809ha is leased land.

"Buying Merino ewes in was proving to be a costly exercise so we have concentrated on building up our ewe numbers," Dave said.

"Today, one-third of our operation is focused soley on wool growing and our aim is to increase Merino numbers in the future.

The Wallace's commercial flock is based on Yarrum Valley bloodlines and the breeding aim is to produce free-combing, white, bright wools.

David and Bill are seasoned shearers and have to a large degree ascertained the qualities they are looking for in their own flock through years of travelling the state shearing other people's sheep.

"We look for a bit of skin on our sheep when classing to enable better bulk as far as the yield is concerned and ultimately the aim is to produce high yielding, free combing wool," Dave said.

"Most of our wool averages between 20-21.5 micron with a yield of around 4-5kg per head across the board, and our aim is to keep the micron at that level."

Lambing percentages on Milbrook have been about 80pc in the past couple of years, however an increased emphasis on supplementary feeding by the brothers before mating saw a better lambing last year.

"We feed out lupins to our ewes two weeks prior to the rams being put out to initiate ovulation and run ewes on lupin stubble where we can," he said.

"One mob of ewes that were run on lupin stubble last year achieved a 90pc lambing which we were pleased with, but we are still chasing that extra 5-10pc across the board."

Ewes are joined to rams in the beginning of December at a rate of 2.5pc to coincide with available winter feed in May.

Merino ewes are joined with Texcel and South Suffolk rams for the fat lamb operation.

According to Dave, the past two winters in the Gwambygine area have been drier and more supplementary feeding was required as a result.

Lambs are shorn in September and October to avoid grass seed problems and achieve extra growth.

"We believe that by holding off shearing lambs until they are four to five months old gives the lambs a better head start instead of shearing them in February and they achieve more growth as a result," he said.

Last year 100 wool bales left Milbrook and sold through the auction system at Fremantle.

The Wallace brothers supply lambs on a regular basis to the Q Lamb operation at Hillside Meats from September through to April and last year turned off around 1300 crossbred and Merino wether lambs.

"Our lambs averaged between 20-21kg last year and our prices were consistent, with nothing under $3/kg," Dave said.

"At the moment we are getting $3.20/kg and any of our heavier lambs that don't make the weight grids for Q Lamb are sent to WAMCO."

For the first time, last year Bill and Dave sent all their wether lambs to Hillside Meats because of the depressed shipping market for wethers.

"Last year shipper wethers were only attracting $50 on the boat, but through Q Lamb we averaged $70, there would have been a margin of $10 to feed and finish them but we still gained a $10 advantage on what we would have received had we sold them as shippers," he said.

"If the export market improves this year we will send our wether lambs as shippers purely because they don't have to be in score condition 2-3 and don't require extra feeding for that market."

Drenching takes place in January before sheep are turned out on fresh stubbles and backlining is carried out following shearing.

"We held off on putting our sheep out on stubbles this year to keep the dirt down and get more yield out of our wool which has worked well for us this year," Dave said.

In the next couple of years the Wallace brothers are hoping to increase their woolgrowing operation to 1000 mated ewes in line with the crossbred enterprise, a decision that will hinge largely upon the fortunes of the wool market.

"If we could get another 100-150c/kg clean for our clip we would buy in 300-400 ewes and cut back our cropping program, but the way it is at the moment we also need to maintain the balance between cropping and our fat lamb enterprise to remain viable."

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