IS there something you can do to improve your system?
That question was raised by Wagin sheep and cropping producer Clayton South at LambEx 2018 recently when he presented his story to a crowd of about 700 attendees in the Riverside Theatre at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Mr South cut through some of the previous comments that had been made about where producers should put their focus, by saying that producers should run the “right ewe for you”.
“What I mean by that is every sheep system is different,” Mr South said.
“We have all got different farms, different climates, different flock structures, different markets.
“So I think it is important as a producer just to do what you enjoy doing and focus on doing that well.”
Mr South said it was an “extremely exciting and positive time to be running sheep”.
He said with “record lamb prices across the country, and record wool prices”, it was “a fantastic time to be in sheep”.
“The future is coming quick,” he said.
“There’s rapid technology advances in all walks of life.
“The proximity sensors, DEXA scanning at abattoirs can give us some really valuable feedback going forward.
“For us it is just about staying ahead of the game – and the lambs we are going to buy now are going to influence our flock for the next five to 10 years.”
Mr South said the industry has to start thinking about what genetics it wants to introduce.
For him it was about trying to position his business to capitalise on the good times, but also be more resilient in a downturn – whether it was a season downturn or market driven.
Mr South said he was “fairly fresh” when he returned to the farm in 2008.
“I really had to focus on getting the basics right and doing that well,” he said.
Mr South said the past 10 years had been a tough personal journey, but the assistance of two full-time staff as cropping and livestock managers, made things easier.
Situated 30 kilometres north east of Wagin with 5000 hectares, the Souths operate a mix of 70/30 cropping and sheep programs, with a 40-year average rainfall of 340 millimetres a year.
“We run a self-replacing Dohne Merino flock,” Mr South said, with “6500 breeding ewes”.
“5000 go back to Dohnes for replacements and a small terminal flock of 1500 are mated to white suffolks.
“We don’t run any wethers.
“We have about 2700 ewe lambs/hoggets (1100 mated).”
Mr South said sheep had played an important role in the business.
“While they are only 30 per cent,we do expect a lot from them and they are just a good stable income,” he said
“They are run on, in any given year, what we would deem the least arable 30pc of the property.
“So we have got a bit of permanent pasture that we have refenced for twin lambing paddocks but a lot of the cropping paddocks that get left out for rotations for weeds or whatever, the sheep do a good job in.
“The sheep system has got to fit in around the cropping so we lamb at the end of June/July away from seeding and then all of the lambs are sold straight off mum at the end of September/October, obviously before harvest just to destock so we don’t have as many sheep to manage while we are flat out harvesting in November/December.
“We shifted our two week shearing from January to the school holidays.”
Managing the farm has seen its twists and turns and to make things smoother Mr South has “tried to bring some cropping philosophies over into the sheep enterprise”.
He said it was extremely important to measure the performance of the flock because “if we don’t measure it, how are we expected to manage it?”.
“We had a tough few years and it just reinforced to me that we had to be both as productive and as profitable as we can,” Mr South said.
“We dry seeded this year, we had a bit of a late start but fortunately the season has been fine since the break.
“It is very easy to measure in the cropping side of things – it’s almost black and white – but it can be very complex with the sheep.
“The individual sheep data per head measures are important and that’s to identify ewes in your flock that are anchoring your average.
“If we can lift that individual performance that’s going to drive our per hectare production.”
Mr South said his breeding objective was decided upon 10 years ago after attending a Sheep’s Back program.
“We came up with one of those fancy smart goals and we wanted to breed a ewe that could wean her body weight in lamb at 15 weeks and be cutting 5kg of wool by 2020,” Mr South said.
He said the focus was on twin bearing ewes to wean the body weight and culling the under performers to remove them from the flock.
“The ram is only half the picture, so if we want to go and source those high-fat fibre muscle genetics that’s great, that’s going to drag our average along, but we had to make sure our ewe flock was pulling its weight as well, at the same time to get us to that breeding objective,” he said
Mr South said they went about “ruthlessly culling” the under-performing ewes in order to improve the flock – starting at maiden scanning and then at marking time.
He said dry ewes were taken straight off the property so that they didn’t have the opportunity to be repeat offenders.
Mr South said identifying twin bearing ewes was crucial to the flock reaching the objective.
“Pregnancy scanning is essential – for us that is the best 80 cents I’d spend without doing anything else,” he said.
“Foetal ageing – that’s been a game changer – we’ve been doing that for the past five to six years.
“The scanning in that foetal ageing is a critical tool to match the individual ewe’s nutrition to her preg status and her lambing date.”
He said moving to electronic identification tags or EIDs had helped to remove a lot of handling and enabled them to identify the twin bearing ewes more easily.
“We wanted to identify those repeat twinners,” he said.
“It was a logical decision to (move away from using micron discs) to EID tags.
“Especially on those repeat twinners who have, some ewes, three or four discs on.”
He said using a sheep handler and auto drafter made life easier as well.
“We do all our weaning, drenching, everything – basically every sheep comes through this a few times a year,” he said.
“It has helped us develop a system where we are just collecting data automatically while we are drenching or needling or at weaning.”
Mr South said the system enabled full traceability and providesd birth type, marking weight and weaning weight, which also gives growth rates.
“Every treatment we give that animal is locked to that tag so we can record everything we do,” he said.
Mr South said they discussed increasing their stocking rate but found that “we were trying to push stocking rates without doing anything”.
“We found we really had to start investing money into pastures and replanting pastures and really focusing on that, in order to do that.
“I’ve come unstuck a few years by stocking too many so I don’t think I’d change my system, but we are doing some pasture work now on our permanent pastures – that’s just a part of the program so every three years they’ll get something done to them.”
Mr South said the results of an on-farm trial of 529 blue tag maiden twins by Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development researchers proved that good producing ewes that had triplets or twins made a profit for the farm while those that didn’t lamb ended up costing the business.
“They are our maiden twins, so we have been extremely nice to them all – but which ewes returned the favour?” Mr South said.
“Those that raised three (lambs) – produced more than 90kg of lamb and 3.6kg of wool – which was a profit on that ewe of $227.
“No surprises the bottom one failed to raise one (lamb) – she’s cost me $16.40 to run around on my place for the year.
“The average was $85 per head – which was quite pleasing.
“We split up the 200 in there that raised two (lambs) – which averaged $122 per head.
“The 290 that only raised one (lamb) were $50 behind.
“The 39 that failed to raise one costs us $3.00-$3.20.
“It just confirmed to us through our breeding objective that those ewes that raise two lambs are really doing the heavy lifting on your farm.
“The top single lamb raising ewe only just scraped into the top 150 in that trial.
“We also found that there was no correlation between kilograms of lamb weaned and greasy fleece weight.”