FOCUSING on cropping doesn’t mean there’s no place for sheep within the Nyamutin Farm enterprise at Popanyinning.
Sheep fit into the equation through trading after Gavin McBurney decided to re-examine the value of running a commercial breeding flock.
“Like a lot of other people these days, we’re dominant cropping and we’ve just got 10-15 per cent of the program to pasture so we needed to work out how best to manage that within the system,” Gavin said.
“A few years ago we wanted to buy some new machinery and prioritise cropping which meant we needed to look at how the sheep enterprise fitted in.”
Gavin’s family has been farming in the Popanyinning area for about 30-40 years and always had sheep on their property.
“We’ve got about 2000 arable hectares and between 80-90pc of that goes to crop,” he said.
“The rest is a clover-based pasture which is really good but when we had to decide where to concentrate our efforts we wanted to find a way to keep sheep in the system and we decided trading was probably the answer.
“I didn’t want to go fully out of sheep because having that pasture phase does work, so by opting to trade, we can get in and get out independent of seasonal conditions which brings flexibility to that side of the business.”
The decision came about a few years ago when Gavin went through a profit report from Farmanco which looked at the numbers for profitability and sheep.
“In that report I couldn’t find a correlation between flock size and profitability,” he said.
“So I thought there was no point in running a big flock.
“But trading seemed to fit the bill because you can finish if you need to, or get wool or keep them or whatever you want to do.
“Trading gives me flexibility, it’s more sustainable within the business and lowers stress levels.”
Through trading, Gavin can avoid the key stress points of the year.
“If you think about the key stress points of the sheep industry, autumn and trying to finish lambs in spring, we can avoid both stress points if we need to by trading,” he said.
Having the right amount of sheep on the property also makes sure the sheep aren’t flogging the country.
“You see a lot of places at this time of year in late autumn and early winter that carry a lot of stock with bare paddocks and barely any regrowth, which I want to avoid,” Gavin said.
“I remember years ago getting caught in that late autumn stage with too many sheep and we would have been caught again this year.
“It’s not worth it. No amount of profitability is worth it to have the stress of having too much stock on your place.
“Another consideration we have in this sort of steep, granite country, is you get a lot of sheep tracks and erosion so we’re lessening the impact the stock have by trading and keeping numbers low.”
Gavin runs 1500 head on his property per year but he said the property could handle a lot more.
“We could run a lot more if we wanted to, but I think 1500 is a good number,” he said.
For Gavin, flexibility is a recurring theme when it comes to decision-making.
“When we buy, we look for younger stock, basically anything with flexibility, whether it’s crossbreds or lambs,” he said.
“We’re just looking at opportunity, we’re not fussed about breeds.
“We’ll buy mated ewes if we need to but we usually try to buy dry stock because the key point about keeping the system flexible is movement and it’s harder to manage ewes with lambs.”
Resilience comes into Gavin’s thinking as well.
“That’s why we try to have some sheep as well as equal parts canola, wheat, barley, oats and a little bit less hay, though we keep the capacity to switch where we can,” he said.
“Building that resilience and flexibility into the business is important.
“I like to look at it and ask whether it is possible to make a profit at 80pc?
“I mean, looking at things and asking if, for example, instead of running six sheep per hectare, you could turn a profit at four.
“I’m trying to test this idea because the way I see it, if you push back off the edge of the maximum you can carry, then you’ve still got room to move.
“I think it’s good, people are wanting to push the boundary and do the absolute best they can, but I’m not so excited about the sheep industry that I need to be all in on that strategy.
“So that’s why I’m backing off the edge a bit and seeing how I go with less.”
Gavin buys his stock in spring and carries them through on the property utilising the pasture phase and stubbles from the cropping program.
“We try not to supplementary feed too much, but instead we want to get the pasture, stubble and stocking rate right,” he said.
“Theoretically, if you’ve got a small amount of sheep and a lot of crop you shouldn’t have to spend too much money on supplementary feed and still be able to maintain their condition so they continue to grow well.”
When it comes to buying and selling, Gavin isn’t afraid of destocking the property, with the amount of time the place is sheep-free depending on the season.
“We let ourselves be guided by the market,” he said.
“It’s green now, so we’ll see where the options are and if there’s an opportunity to buy in the next month or so we will, and if there isn’t, we won’t,” he said.
“The whole system is based around Chris Turton at Landmark and I working together.
“It’s just about being able to construct a system going forward that either we can expand or maintain and stay profitable.”
Having the trading option keeps the future flexible.
“It’s just a matter of adjusting the volume and the exposure to markets as each season comes,” he said.
“Sometimes you get caught, but it has generally worked out well since we’ve been doing it.
“So will we continue to do it down the track? I don’t know, but that’s the point of having a flexible system that we can adapt to the season.
“Every farming business is basically the same, give or take a few tweaks, so it’s just about trying to work out a system that suits you.
“We’ve all got constraints and it’s just about working out which constraints you want to work within.”
Even with wool prices where they are, Gavin won’t be tempted back into running a breeding flock.
“We shear when we need to because we want to utilise the shed and the sheep handling infrastructure,” he said.
“Wool prices are compelling but still, if you average out the past 20 years, I’m not convinced.
“It’s mental at the moment but I think trusting in your system is the way to go, rather than chasing markets which are performing really well.
“The whole point is to try and create resilience, to be able to maintain your business and do what works for you.”