DROUGHT has been the catalyst for Amarula Dorpers to focus on profit over production, as the stud looks to improve quality rather than maintain high numbers.
The Gravesend, NSW-based stud, owned by Justin and Lorroi Kirkby, is one of the leading Dorper and White Dorper studs in the country, focusing on producing rams to meet the needs of commercial producers.
The Kirkbys were previously running 700 stud Dorper ewes alongside a commercial Dorper flock of 1200 ewes, as well as 100 stud White Dorper ewes on the 2200-acre property, but after a prolonged dry period, they've made the decision to cull heavily based on fertility, rather than hand feeding or finding agistment.
They've had to sacrifice the commercial flock with the drought, but it made sense when they crunched the numbers, Mr Kirkby said.
They're currently running about 700 stud Dorper ewes and 300 White Dorper stud ewes.
"We would have been feeding 1200 ewes to get a $150 lamb out of them, but if we focus on the stud ewes, we can potentially get a $1500 ram from each, and we're also continuing the genetics in the stud.
"Some farmers have the ability to completely destock and buy back in when the season improves, but we can never buy in 20 years of breeding. By removing the commercial ewes we can concentrate on the stud and quickly build up our numbers when the season turns. That's the beauty of the Dorper - we can double numbers in two years.
"When we started, almost 20 years ago, the aim was to produce quality but also increase numbers, but we want to be remembered, not for having the most ewes, but the highest quality Dorper rams and ewes, producing high quality progeny with meaty carcases and outstanding eating quality."
Culling on fertility means there's more pressure for each ewe to perform, but it will lead to big improvements in lambing percentages.
"Adversity brings with it opportunities to improve the ewe flock," Mrs Kirkby said,
"We have a policy of no lamb, and you're out, whether they're maidens or adults, and ultimately in a year or two, every ewe will be in lamb.
"We started doing that a few years ago and we were getting between 120 per cent and 140pc lambing, but with those high percentages, some ewes still went under the radar. We're culling even harder on fertility and lamb survivability, to get around 170pc to 180pc.
"Dorpers can lamb every eight months or sooner, which all comes down to management, so in good seasons they'll be joined when the lambs are six weeks old, and we've reduced joinings to five weeks so only the really productive ewes get in lamb."
Their view on production has changed along with their soil and pasture management, with an increased focus on regenerative farming over the past decade.
The Kirkbys sold all cows at the beginning of the drought to help maintain ground cover, and the reduction in sheep numbers is allowing pastures to regenerate. Among their regenerative mentors are Colin Seis, Judi Earl, Bart Davidson, Christine Jones and Ray Archuleta and Gabe Brown from the US.
"Our goal is to make sure we don't get to bare soils so that the country quickly recovers with a small amount of rain," Mrs Kirkby said.
"We now never plant a single crop, with some of our mixes including upwards of 14 plants, and we've seen the improvement in our soil due to that diversity. Even a half-failed crop is doing something good for the soil, because the biology is still there."
The Kirkbys have been pasture cropping for 12 years, using multi-species mixes for four years, and they've stopped using nearly all chemical inputs.
"We use glycine which is a native legume, oats, field peas, vetch, forage barley, rape and wheat," Mr Kirkby said.
"It's very exciting to be able to do farming in such a different way, going back to natural systems. We double crop some paddocks, putting the summer crops in straight over the winter crop, and where we've done that, the soil's more resilient.
"We were being told we needed buy more country to run more sheep, and get to 1000 rams, and at the start of the drought we were looking at more property, but were already busy enough.
"The improvements in soil health and pasture, and culling the ewes heavily, means we can focus on profit rather than production."