FROM superfine Merino wool production to organic crossbred lambs, Rob and Anne Battley, Gelfro Farm, Williams, aren’t afraid to try something different.
Rob said he was a fine wool Merino man from way back, but it isn’t wool bringing in the bacon these days at Gelfro Farm – it’s all about the organic produce.
“We realised our property is situated in such a way that lends itself to organic farming,” Anne said.
“We’re almost entirely surrounded by the Dryandra forest which meant we were already one step towards meeting the requirements for organic certification.
“And grain-wise, it was a great move into organics for us because it means we’re getting a good premium for our organic oats.”
Even though the couple has been on the organic path for more than 10 years, it was only about a year ago they decided to move away from the purebred Merino part of their operation towards a focus on lamb.
“There was no premium for organic wool but we saw an opportunity in organic crossbred lamb,” Rob said.
“Of course, as soon as I decided to go into crossbreeding, the wool prices went through the roof – but I’m not going back now.”
The flock of Merinos in the Battley operation once stood at 2000 head but now sits at around 500 head in total which Rob says is an easily manageable size for the family.
A selection of the original flock of Merino ewes remains on the property to be joined to Border Leicester rams.
“The Border Leicesters are like the milking cow of sheep and that first cross gives us that hybrid vigour,” Rob said.
“And if you join the progeny of that cross with a Poll Dorset, you’ve got something that’s going to grow muscle with a mother like a milking cow so that is the direction we chose to go in.
“There’s certainly fantastic maternal and fertility traits in that first cross and we’ve found the meat breed injection into the cross produces excellent lambs which taste great.”
The original genetics on the property include Tilba Tilba and Misty Hills bloodlines which Rob said were tried and tested performers on the wool side of the family operation over the years.
Since going totally crossbred, Rob has been impressed with the Border Leicesters he sourced from Wickepin, a couple of Prolific rams from Kojonup and Poll Dorsets from Wagin.
“The concept of hybrid vigour really works,” Rob said.
“We’re getting beautiful lambs with small birthweights but fast growth rates.”
And the wool has performed surprisingly well.
“I nearly fell off the chair when our wool buyer rang to tell us we’d got 875c/kg,” Rob said.
“We’re sitting at about 18.7 micron for our crossbred wool and we had just assumed it was rubbish, especially in comparison to our superfine purebred Merino wool, but we’ve seen a return for it and that’s been a lovely surprise.”
When Farm Weekly visited the property in mid-May, this season’s lambs were just about to hit the ground.
“I’m confident we’ll be looking at well above 100 per cent lambing this year so we should have about 400 lambs which is double what we had last year,” Rob said.
The bottom end of the drop are sold to the airfreight market and the leftover culls at the end of the season are sent to Katanning, but the principal draft of the lambs are prepared for the organic lamb product which is sold through the Organic and Biodynamic Meats Co-operative of WA.
There is no supplementary feeding for the lambs – Rob believes in grass feeding through and through.
“We cut pasture hay this year and they clean up every last straw,” Rob said.
“But when we have a good season, we can sell them straight off their mothers and hopefully this will be one of those years because the results we’ve seen from lambs sold that way previously were excellent.”
When looking at the numbers you can see what he means.
“We get a premium of about 15-20pc above top conventional lamb prices at Katanning,” Rob said.
“And we have no deductions either.
“Things like yard fees, marketing fees, agent fees don’t come out of that number so those sorts of things do make it worthwhile.
“There have even been murmurings about a market for organic lamb opening up into China – that hasn’t happened yet but I think we’re on the right path at the moment.”
Taking the organic route has also lead to positive things in land and soil management for the Battleys.
“When I retire, I want to leave my land in better condition than when I got it and I think we’re well on the way to achieving that goal,” Rob said.
“I’ve used all sorts of weird organic products to improve the soil here like worm juice, microbes and fish emulsion.
“We have also planted hundreds of trees over the years, and with the help of our grandchildren, we have pulled out thousands of weeds by hand.
“Obviously, it would be a very different thing if we were on 60,000 acres of land but because of the relatively small size of our property, we can put in the time and effort to do things by hand.
“We do have issues with things like foxes, eagles and kangaroos but we’re dealing with them and people often ask how we deal with weeds and pests in our crops but we’ve never really had any big problems.”
At the end of the day Anne said the feedback on the organic lamb had been tremendous.
“People who have bought our lamb say it is just the best lamb they’ve ever tasted – it falls to pieces,” she said.
“And I think now is a really good time for organic producers like us.
“People are really interested in their health and what they’re eating – they really care and organic is getting more and more popular.
“So we take that to indicate the market should increase, which is why we’ve increased the number of lambs we’ll have this year and why we continue to look forward.”
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