AN Esperance sheep industry group is on track to increase its lambing percentages to 200pc.
The Association for Sheep Husbandry Excellence Extension and Production (ASHEEP) has taken on the project in association with Merivale farmers David and Dora Egan.
According to committee member Bob Reed, while the farm's net lambing results in 2005 were a regression on 2004 figures due to identified factors, the site produced the highest known district lambing outcomes for the past two years under a high stocking rate.
Figures gathered at the site over three years have also shown sheep farming can be competitive with any other land use in the Esperance area, with gross margins equating to those of a 3.5t/ha wheat crop.
Mr Reed said ASHEEP's determination to improve lambing rates came about after he and a local group including Mr Egan travelled to New Zealand and witnessed lambing rates from 180-200pc in harsher conditions than experienced in Esperance.
Mr Reed said the Egan's work resulted in the farm's lambing percentages rising from 116pc to 140pc in 2004, in a reasonably mild season. Also in that year up to 180pc was achieved with twins.
"We are still a fair way short of getting 200pc overall but we are progressing," Mr Reed said.
"By state standards, and particularly by regional standards, those rates are high and heading towards very high levels," he said.
A regression was evidenced in 2005 figures because of harsh weather over lambing and difficulty in achieving original objectives with the planned fox baiting and fencing program.
"In 2004 we didn't expose those sheep to the extreme weather and the need for shelter that we did in 2005," Mr Reed said.
"We recognise why we had that regression in 2005, and it's because of that regression that this is such an educational process," Mr Reed said.
The group has monitored progress of commercial scale trials at David and Dora Egan's Merivale property, Gunnamatta Farm, east of Esperance.
A series of trials assessing the impact of nutrition, shelter and predation on lambing percentages have been run at the property for the past three years and will continue to be evaluated.
Mr Reed said 2005's weather conditions provided good indicators on the value of establishing effective shelter in lambing paddocks. However, due to very good feed conditions, the effects of different nutritional conditions were hard to establish.
"We were unable to get a marked difference in terms of fencing, and also in terms of applied nutrition on top of paddock food. But we did see a big difference between the good and the not-so-good shelter," Mr Reed said.
The trials showed artificial shelter such as angled hay rolls were not as effective as a large patch of bullrushes in providing protection from predation and bad weather.
"We found that you need good shelter, that is low to the ground," Mr Reed said.
As part of the trials, the group investigated the use of electric fences designed to exclude foxes.
Circumstances over 2005 meant the full fox program, including baiting, was not fully effective and the fence design will be revamped for the 2006 lambing season.
"We felt that foxes were active both inside and outside the fence. But we also had an awful June, so bad weather alone possibly took out more lambs than foxes did," Mr Reed said.
In an analysis of the project's findings over 2005, Mr Reed said while it may be uneconomical to provide sufficient fox-proof fencing for all lambing ewes, it may be practical to provide it for maiden ewes only.
The information gathered in 2005 complements the 2004 results, indicating extra attention needed to be given to fertility and survival rates within multiple births, including inadequate nutrition, shelter and fox predation.
Mr Reed said Mr Egan systematically scanned his ewes for pregnancy, enabling the group to evaluate the multiple bearing ewes.
"The work being done by the Egans is multi-faceted and has included selecting for increased fertility within a flock and selecting for increasing survival rates within multiple births," Mr Reed said.
"In Esperance we were aware through scanning results that we could get high potentials for lambing but in a lot of cases were not delivering them at weaning time.
"We then set out to learn more about selection processes to increase fertility which concentrated on the progeny of multiple births.
"David used both the female progeny of multiple births as replacement ewes and rams from multiple births or high fertility genetics."
Mr Reed said studies so far had shown the importance of adequate nutrition and fox control, particularly for twin bearing ewes.
"In year one (2003) David got 116pc of overall lambing off the whole property. But the multiples did 135pc. And while 135pc sounded good, when you look into it, it means that for every 100 multiple ewes that lambed you have lost at least 65 lambs.
"So we knew that we had to increase nutrition and David improved some of those issues in 2004 and got up to 178pc in some of the multiple flocks. He got 171pc over all the mature multiple bearing ewes."
The group welcomes new members and holds field days to disseminate results of their trials.