A FAIR few kilometres lie between Pingelly and Mukinbudin, but if you know where the Merino bloodlines that are right for you are, then the trip is worth it.
The Lee family, east of Pingelly, makes a yearly trip to the Ventris family's Calcaling Poll Merino ram sale at Mukinbudin to buy in fresh genetics for their flock which constitutes 30 per cent of their mixed farming enterprise.
The family business has gone from strength to strength over the years as Victor and Cheryle Lee, together with their sons Michael and Robert and their wives Kerry and Alyssa, have worked on integrating their grain and woolgrowing operations into a smooth running machine.
Victor grew up at a 500 acre farm at Aldersyde and worked towards owning his own property which he achieved after going into partnership with his brother and later buying him out.
Nowadays, the Lee family manages about 2800 hectares of crop and 1200ha of pasture on owned and leased land between Pingelly and Bullaring, with about 2400 mated Poll Merino ewes in their system.
The flock has taken a bit of work over the years to get to an even line with the family acquiring sheep through property lease agreements and bargain sales early on.
"This farm came with sheep when the property was leased and put up for market," Victor said.
"So when we bought the farm we ended up with the sheep that were here which were all sorts.
"Then, 11 years ago we got a place at Bullaring which is where Michael lives and we started off by stocking the place with sheep we bought at a clearing sale in Beverley in 2008."
Victor said by that point the family had already discovered the Calcaling Poll Merino rams and were drawn to the ewes at that particular sale because they were a pure Calcaling bloodline.
"We were lucky to buy the whole flock of 900 which was purebred Calcaling," he said.
"And we only paid $27/head because there was barely anyone at the sale.
"They were a complete bargain and the next year we sold the old ewes for $40/head."
These days the return from their sheep and wool sales are vastly different and the Lee family believes its long-term trust in Calcaling blood has contributed heavily to steady improvement over the years, but it took a bit of searching to find the right stud.
"I spent two years going to all the ram days, trying to work out what stud to go with," Michael said.
"We wanted bigger framed sheep that were going to be easy to care for.
"So when a mate went out to Calcaling to buy sheep, I thought I'd have a look and I liked what I saw, so the next year we went back and bought 10 rams."
That was in 2005 and the Lee family hasn't looked back since.
"The stud certainly isn't nearby but we get the results," Victor said.
"We've won two Elders Supreme Clip of the Sale awards since we've been on Calcaling and we usually get a mention in the top price pages of Farm Weekly, so we're pretty happy with what they've done for us."
Since they do the breeding and not the shearing, Victor said their ideal Merino had bodyweight and a quality fleece.
"We don't have to shear them ourselves so we want them to be as big as they can go really," he said and Robert agreed.
"Bodyweight and fleece weight is what we get paid on so that's where our focus is with our breeding program," Robert said.
"Generally we look at the size and then move onto the feel and yield of the wool."
When they're going through the lambs looking for retainer ewes, the family usually culls about 40-50pc of the ewe lamb population each year to keep the quality of the flock's wool and conformation moving forward.
The breeding flock is kept fairly young too, with the cast for age mark around 4.5-5.5yo when the older ewes get moved on, in many cases, to continue breeding for other producers.
But this year when it came to selling their lambs which are dropped in mid-June, they had some unexpected demand for their wethers.
"We used to keep our wethers for a bit longer so we could get a bit of wool off them," Victor said.
"But we got a surprise this year when the stock agent came out in January and said he'd take 500 right then and there for the export market.
"It's the earliest we've ever sold wether lambs because we usually struggle to get them into condition which means we don't sell them until March or April.
"We were very glad to get them all gone by March, especially this year because it made a big difference to the feed situation here.
"We got a good price for them and that's before you consider they cost you $3-4/head to feed them, even on pasture."
Shearing time is around Easter and the family has no dramas with grass seeds or other vegetable matter in their clip.
"Our vegetable matter is really low and we manipulate our clover pastures, taking all the grass out so we don't have to worry about that very much," Robert said.
"The only problem we sometimes have is clover burrs on the bellies."
The annual March shearing produces about 125 bales of wool which ranges within the 18-20 micron bracket, averaging about 6-7kg per head depending on the year.
"We're pretty happy with our clip each year," Robert said.
It means, though the idea sounds great, the family doesn't plan to go down the multi-shearing path.
"It'd be a great thing to do if we had the workforce to deal with the extra work when there are harvest and seeding clashes," Victor said.
"We have enough to keep us busy as it is and we like where our staple length is at.
"It gets to 110mm nicely and for us the break in the wool is on the tip which means we still have 100mm of quality wool so that's pretty good."
Pastures, according to the Lee family, need attention if you're going to grow quality, long stapled wool.
"We're doing a lot of pasture manipulation now and we spray nutrients back into the pastures too," Robert said.
"You've got to feed your pastures as well as your sheep.
"We harvest our own clover as well, so depending on the year we can get about 40-50 tonnes of clover seed which is a nice cheque to see come in."
The clover pasture complements the cropping program as well, with the sheep getting a feed while the crop rotation gets a nitrogen fix.
"The sheep complement the cropping program because of that nitrogen injection produced by the clover and the crop stubbles like the lupins complement the sheep so we believe you have to have a little bit of everything to make it work," Victor said.
Having Merinos in the equation is easily justified if you have the infrastructure and a cropping rotation suited to the extra work, which the Lee family said wasn't too much of an effort.
"Bringing the sheep in for marking, needling, drenching, crutching and shearing amalgamates to only about a month worth of work really," Robert said.
"So for that much effort across 2500 ewes and their lambs, the return they generate each year (around $500,000) is pretty good and it stacks up well against the cropping returns too."
When asked about their objectives for the coming years, Victor said they were proud of where they've brought their Merino flock to.
"The sheep are really contributing to our business right now, especially given wool and sheep prices," he said.
"We're really happy with how they're going and at this stage there aren't really any big plans to change the way we do things."
Michael said the family had looked at pushing the Merino numbers a bit further, but that is an option they re-evaluate regularly.
"We have to play it by ear a little bit because we're leasing a fair bit of land," he said.
"So we don't want to get caught out with heaps of sheep if a lease ends.
"We had been looking at going up in numbers but the year was so tight at the start of the season so we didn't push it and we'll continue to play that by ear.
"But the Merinos have done well for us so they'll continue to be an important part of our business going forward."