SCADDAN woolgrower Dave Vandenberghe set himself a belated new year’s resolution last week to produce 300 bales this year.
At the Western Wool Centre (WWC) last Thursday, back from an Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) Industry Consultative Committee (ICC) meeting in Sydney the day before, Mr Vandenberghe said the family wool enterprise had produced 264 bales last year.
The ICC delegate representing the Esperance region livestock and pasture grower group ASHEEP (Association of Sheep Husbandry, Excellence, Evaluation and Production) was at the WWC with wife Katherine and daughter Zoe to watch 206 bales from their December main shearing sold.
Enthusiastic after hearing AWI’s strategic plan for promoting and marketing Australian Merino wool over the next three years and very pleased with his own even clip, Mr Vandenberghe said his aim was to produce 300 bales.
“We might not quite get there, we’ll need a really good year and we’ll need to average 7 kilograms with the lambs (a 7kg wool cut per sheep) to do it, but the aim is 300 bales this year,” Mr Vandenberghe said.
While an extra 36 bales – a 13.6 per cent increase – might be a bridge too far for most woolgrowers, it is not a rash objective for the Vandenberghes.
They recovered from the tragic November 2015 Scaddan-Esperance bushfires which claimed four lives, including Mr Vandenberghe’s mate Kym ‘Freddy’ Curnow who had been helping him move sheep before he left to try and warn others and was trapped in the fire.
Almost half of the Vandenberghes’ Riverland property was burned and 720 of their Wattle Dale Merino and Poll Merino stud ewes killed.
Bouncing back, they bought the 1850 hectare Red Gully property four kilometres away and built their commercial flock up to about 7500 sheep, about 1500 more than before the fires.
“We’ve been slowly increasing our ewe base and two weeks ago we purchased another property,” Mr Vandenberghe said.
That 243ha property at Gibson came with 700 sheep on it and while their wool is “an unknown quantity”, according to Mr Vandenberghe, it will help towards the 300 bales goal.
His existing flock is an excellent base to build on, even in a difficult year.
“Apart from one little line that we bought in which was 20 microns, the average (at the December shearing) was about 17.8 microns and I added up the kilos for the ewes and ewe hoggets and they averaged 7.47kg, which is probably down half a kilo on last year, but we had a pretty tough winter,” he said.
“We never get fantastic yields because we shear them in December.
“Summer rains got us through the autumn but it didn’t get wet until August – it was pretty lean there for a while.
“But out of 206 bales we’ve put in this sale I think we got five of tender (wool) and the rest is all fairly sound,” he said.
The Vandenberghes have invested in technology and genetics for their Wattle Dale stud stock, including DNA ewe testing, using the MateSel computer program to select the best ram for each ewe and electronic tags and drafting machines to ease the workload.
This has paid off in the quality of their commercial flock and demand for rams.
“Our ewe hoggets get better and better each year,” Mr Vandenberghe said and confirmed Wattle Dale had its best ram sales ever last year despite some buyers staying away because of uncertainty over live sheep exports.
“I had a couple of clients who didn’t buy rams last year because they had to hang on to wethers which normally would have gone to live export,” he said.
“They just said we’re going to mate a few less ewes.
“It’s a slow impact (the decline in national sheep numbers which Mr Vandenberghe said was discussed at the ICC meeting), it doesn’t happen all at once.
“What Australia really needs is more breeding ewes.
“Running more wethers might help the wool clip but it’s not going to help the breeding flock.”
While December’s shearing highlighted the superiority of his breeding programs over bought-in sheep, it also highlighted the disadvantage of not owning adjoining properties.
“We were harvesting (the Vandenberghes crop about 3000ha) and we were shearing at the same time and we’ve got to truck a lot of them – or walk them – back to the home farm along the road,” Mr Vandenberghe said.
“There was a few early mornings and a few interesting trips.
“I was only halfway out of the paddock on one trip and the front ones were already turning in at the home farm.
“Our neighbours did get a little sick of us walking sheep up and down the road.
“If you visit us in December you’ll be given a ute and a dog and told to go get a mob of sheep,” he said.
The Vandenberghes have sold their wool through Westcoast Wools & Livestock for 16 years and rarely sell their clip at one sale – they sold about 60 bales at the peak of the market last year – but decided to go with advice to sell the lot this time and were happy with the result.
A top line of seven bales of 17.8 micron fleece wool with test results of 60pc yield, 76 millimetre staple length and 40N/kt staple strength sold to New England Wool for 1476 cents per kilogram greasy (2460c/kg clean).
The other fleece lots all sold for an average of 1386c/kg greasy to a range of buyers.
The Vandenberghes are featured in an article in the latest AWI trade magazine and, as reported in Farm Weekly, last year donated a fleece to the joint AWI and Cricket Australia ‘Flock to Baggy Green’ project to make fabric for the next batch of Test caps.
They hope their next achievement to rate a mention is as a winner in the fleece competition at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in April, one of the premier wool competitions.
“A woman from the show has already been in touch,” Mr Vandenberghe said.
“I’ll give it a go, I can post it (fleece) over and back again.”
“I can grab a couple of 15.5 (micron ewe hogget fleece) with a little bit of weight and see how we go.
“They don’t have a lot of categories – we have more categories for our little show (at Esperance),” he said.