THE drier seasons of the past few years through the Western Australian Wheatbelt have tested the resilience of farmers and made them consider what their farming operations may look like in the future.
For Dumbleyung farmers Jon and Candice Ward and their farm manager Wade Cook, this is certainly the case for their operation, which covers 3500 hectares on the edge of Lake Dumbleyung and at Kukerin.
For Jon, who first started working on and off the family farm in 1997 after leaving school before taking it over in his own right in 2008 from his parents Terry (deceased) and Karen, he has never seen the seasons as dry as the past few years, which has made it extremely hard on their sheep enterprise.
Currently their operation is geared more towards cropping, but the Ward's sheep flock still plays an important role in the system.
The Wards run a self-replacing flock of 2000 Merino ewes in addition to a 2500ha cropping program comprising barley (1000ha), wheat (800ha) and oats (200ha), with the remainder being lupins, beans and canola.
Jon said while the past few seasons had been tough on their sheep, they were glad they were still running them, given the returns they have been achieving.
"It hasn't been easy in terms of both feed and water but the bonus is they are worth something and that is why we want to keep them in the system in some form," Jon said.
"Also our Kukerin block is not really suited for continuous cropping, so we really need them in the system."
Merino ewes have been the backbone of the Ward family's sheep business since day dot, so Jon knows the benefits of the breed and the benefits they bring to the operation.
"The Merino is a good dual-purpose breed as you can get both a quality wool product off them and also still produce a good carcase," he said.
"The Merino breed has changed quite a bit and the Merino lamb is now a really good product.
"The meat side of the Merino has improved heaps in the past 15 years."
When it comes to the style of the current Merino Jon doesn't only speak from the experience of a wool grower but also a shearer, as he shore on and off for eight years when he first returned to the farm.
"I did like shearing as it put some extra cash in the pocket but it is certainly something I would not like to be doing now I am a bit older," Jon said.
"For a young person it was a good money earner and good fun."
Jon said the Merino has changed significantly from when he was a shearer back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"Wool and sheep weren't worth a lot then and as a result farmers were putting as much skin and wool on their sheep as they could so they could make up for the low prices," Jon said.
"Producers were working on wool per head to get the dollars, they weren't worried about the quality of the wool.
"Today's Merino is so different.
"The heavy skinned Merino of 20 years ago has certainly gone and as a result we have a plainer bodied Merino with good dual-purpose traits."
But it hasn't always been a pure Merino ewe breeding flock the Wards have run.
From 2005 they went down the path of running first-cross Prime SAMM ewes for a number of years to produce their prime lambs.
However the first-cross Prime SAMM ewes are now a thing of the past and Jon said they decided to move away from them when wool started coming good.
"We thought if we were going to run a wool type sheep, it was better to be running all Merinos," Jon said.
Today the Wards are running a pure Merino ewe breeding flock of which about 1650 head are mated to Merino rams and 350 (the oldest age group) to Golden Hill White Suffolk sires from January 1 for six weeks, at a rate of two per cent for a June/July lambing.
The Merino rams used in the operation's breeding program are sourced from the Gooding family's East Mundalla stud, Tarin Rock.
Jon said they had been purchasing their Merino sires from East Mundalla for the past 15 years and he had no preference for polled or horned sires.
"We started buying Polls about 10 years ago because we were initially chasing the early maturity traits, as we wanted to get our wether lambs away earlier," Jon said.
"I basically now try to buy the best rams which fit our aims, horn or poll.
"I sort of work on the principle that if you buy good genetics (rams) they are more likely to produce better progeny and in turn better returns.
"At the moment we are working on maintaining a medium/large frame and trying to thicken the wool up a bit.
"We are trying to lift our wool cut and micron slightly as well."
Currently the Ward's mature ewes average 19-20 micron with a cut of about six kilograms.
Unlike most operations today the Wards don't pregnancy scan as they try to keep their sheep operation as simple as possible and keep the handling of their sheep in the yards throughout the year to a minimum.
However this year they conducted foetal ageing on their White Suffolk-cross mob.
Jon said they needed to split the mob up for lambing anyway, due to the dry start, so they decided to have a go at foetal ageing and split them up based on when the ewes were going to lamb.
"It worked really well, I think it could be a good management tool," Jon said.
"Due to the dry start to the season it means we now can wean the lambs at the right time and sell them as early as possible."
In general the Wards aim to sell their prime lambs in August/September as suckers straight off their mothers to WAMMCO at 22 to 24 kilograms carcase weight.
Their Merino lambs however are weaned at shearing time in October.
At weaning their wether lambs go on to the best pastures available and last year that was vetch and then once harvest is complete they go on the best lupin/legume stubbles.
Jon said ideally they try and get rid of their wether lambs, finished in late December/January after harvest, to WAMMCO at about 24kg carcase weight.
"However last season we couldn't get a booking with them and so we sold them to a feedlot at Kojonup, which in the end was better money anyway," Jon said.
"We ended up getting 350c/kg liveweight for them and they averaged about $150 a head."
However the Wards have not always sold their wethers as lambs.
Just two years ago they were trying to run them through to about 18 months old but the recent dry seasons have put a stop to that option.
Jon said their aim used to be to keep them until they were a bit older and sell them after a second shearing, but it has just become harder and harder to do it.
"It would come to June every year and we would have to get rid of some sheep and it would be them (older wethers) because of the late break," Jon said.
"When we were selling them in June we had to shear them and feedlot them to get them up for sale, so we looked at the figures.
"We may have been getting a little more money for them in June than what we get in January, but we don't have the feed and shearing costs.
"So now we just find it much easier to sell them in January, most go to WAMMCO and some go to V&V Walsh."
In terms of the ewe portion of their lamb drop the Wards cull off the tail and sell them as lambs, while the rest are kept through to hogget age when they are classed with the help of East Mundalla co-principal Daniel Gooding.
Jon said usually they end up retaining about 400-500 hoggets when they classed them in the spring before shearing.
Last year they sold their hoggets which were surplus to requirements at the Katanning October Special Ewe sale through Nutrien Livestock (then Landmark) and got $180 which Jon said was good money, but that won't be happening this year as they have already sold them due to the dry season.
Jon said due to the season and with the demand from the Eastern States for ewes they decided they would class them and sell the ones they didn't require earlier.
"So we went through them during seeding and sold them to a New South Wales buyer for $240 a head," he said.
"At that price I probably should have sold more.
"Even if we wanted to hold them and sell them in the spring, we couldn't because of the season.
"The bonus for us is we have got rid of them at the worst time of the year and haven't had to keep feeding them."
In terms of the wool side Jon said it was very disappointing to see what coronavirus did to the wool price.
"We knew that wool wouldn't stay at $14/15/kg greasy for ever but the extent of the price drop is surprising," he said.
"Usually we sell our wool in January through Nutrien Wool (formerly Landmark) but this year we decided to hold it a bit longer as I thought the current market at $12-$13/kg greasy wasn't enough, however in the end when we sold it at the start of COVID-19 we averaged $10/kg greasy across the fleece lines.
"In hindsight I think we would have been pretty happy if the price stayed around that $12-$13/kg greasy mark."
Supplementary feeding is a big part of the Ward's sheep operation to ensure their sheep are both ready for lambing and sale.
Their feeding program revolves around trail feeding Milne Feeds pellets to their sheep until seeding time.
Sheep then go onto lick feeders about two weeks before they start lambing in June.
So what does the future hold for the enterprise?
Jon said the drier seasons and later starts to the season were really making it hard to run sheep in terms of feed availability and being able to turn lambs off early.
"What we are finding is that we are taking out all the grass we possibly can in our cropping phase which means when it is in the pasture phase there is nothing there," he said.
"This means we are having to sow pastures, like vetch and barley and feed more.
"The other thing with these drier seasons and later starts is we have had to push our lambing back more and more.
"We used to lamb in April/May 15 years ago, then we put it back to June and now we are still lambing in July which makes it really hard to turn a lamb off early as the feed dries off a lot earlier out this way.
"June is not bad for lambing but for the past three years the seasons haven't been kind and it has been the worst time of the year to lamb and if this trend continues I think our time of lambing in June is numbered.
"At the end of the day we really want to keep sheep in our farming system but it is definitely getting harder with the seasons."