FOR the Cosgrove family at Arrowsmith its Merino flock has been a profitable inclusion to the farming operation.
The farm first came into the family when Geoff's father Gary moved to the property in 1977, with Geoff returning to the farm in 2004 after attending The University of Western Australia and graduating with a degree in Agricultural Science.
The operation is a family affair with Geoff and wife Fiona and their three children working the 14,000 hectare property (10,000ha owned and 4000ha leased) in a partnership with Geoff's younger brother Andrew and his parents Gary and Alison (dec.).
In addition to the family labour who work the property, the Cosgroves also employ one full-time worker for their sheep, two full-time workers for cropping and an additional three to four casual workers during seeding and harvest.
For the Cosgroves, cropping is their main game with approximately 10,000ha being seeded annually, but Geoff said the sheep were a nice addition and complemented the crops well.
Wheat is their main crop with 6000ha seeded this year, along with 3000ha of lupins, 1000-1500ha of canola and a small amount of barley.
Geoff said their Merino flock worked in well with their large cropping program and complemented it extremely well.
"The sheep are good as extra weed control and it means we get more value out of our stubbles as a feed source," Geoff said.
At present, the Cosgroves are running a self-replacing flock of 2650 mated Merino ewes and have been increasing their numbers over the past few years.
Their aim is to get to a 3000-head breeding flock.
Merinos were first introduced in 1977 and Geoff said they wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.
"The Merino is the backbone of the sheep industry and there is always demand for a Merino ewe," he said.
"We like the dual-purpose nature of them.
"You can get a wool cut and also produce a quality lamb product.
"They're also generally quite a tough breed."
With their Merino flock, the Cosgroves have mainly concentrated on the wool side, but now they are looking at management techniques to improve the meat side and fertility in the flock.
"Our aim is to produce an early maturing Merino with the ability to cut a large amount of quality wool," Geoff said.
"Our mature ewe flock at the moment averages about 21 micron and the ewes are cutting about seven kilograms a head."
When it comes to their breeding program, the Cosgroves join their ewes from mid-December on their lupins stubbles for a six week period.
All the rams for joining are sourced from the House family's Barloo stud, Gnowangerup, where the Cosgroves have been sourcing their genetics since the mid-1980s.
Lambing on the property begins in mid-May and Geoff said their lambing time was organised to not only coincide with their cropping program, but also for when they want to market their lambs.
"By lambing in May it usually means we can still sell them the following year in May/June as lambs," he said.
Pregnancy scanning is something the Cosgroves have done in the past and will consider doing again in future years, specifically to separate their twin-bearing ewes so that they can manage them better.
While they don't necessarily breed for twins, Geoff said that having an abundance of quality lupin stubbles meant that the ewes put on a lot of condition and the better the condition they were in, the more likely they were to have multiples.
"Feeding in summer is easy for us because we have so much stubble, so it's actually hard to keep the condition off the sheep," Geoff said.
The aim in future years is to manage the ewes in smaller mobs and put them in a paddock of their own to reduce mismothering and increase lamb survival rates.
The Cosgroves aim is to get good growth weights out of wether lambs, so they have flexibility and can either sell them as a lamb or run them as a shipping wether and get another cut of wool.
"The aim is to offload as many lambs as they can into the local market with the remaining going to the shipper market," Geoff said.
"However at the end of the day where we sell them depends on the market conditions as we're pretty price-focused.
"Our aim is to shear our wether lambs in September and then shear them again when they have seven to eight months wool growth on them before they are sold."
Like with their wether lambs, the Cosgroves are flexible when they sell their excess young ewes and it is usually done after classing.
They usually class their ewe hoggets in April when they are 10 months old and Geoff said they generally looked at size and frame, as well as wool quality.
When it comes to wool quality they look for a ewe with white, long staple wool that is heavy cutting.
Geoff said they aimed to get a second wool clip off their ewe hoggets before selling them but that was influenced by seasonal and market conditions.
"This year we sold our surplus ewe hoggets in April because of the strong demand from the Eastern States, but normally we hold them over and sell them in October after getting another clip off them," Geoff said.
"Given the high prices which were going around we couldn't pass up the opportunity to sell some of our ewe hoggets in April."
They ended up selling 375 head on AuctionsPlus to a top of $246 to New South Wales.
Geoff said the prices they received were exceptional.
"We will probably never sell sheep for as good a price as that," he said.
"They weren't the best sheep we have ever sold but the market was there and they were buying anything and everything."
While the sheep and lamb market is in a good place and the Cosgroves are extremely happy where prices are sitting, they are cautious about the wool market.
"Conditions around the world with COVID-19 have put a strain on the wool market," Geoff said.
"The consumer demand is flowing back through the pipeline and back to the processors in China who aren't currently demanding as much.
"The Australian wool market is heavily reliant on China, with them taking nearly 80pc of our wool, so it is a worry.
"Unfortunately we need China, we need consumers and exports and one in six consumers in the world is Chinese so you can't avoid them."
To make sure the Merinos are as productive as possible the Cosgroves put plenty of effort into maintaining their pastures and also have a good supplementary feeding program, utilising both trail feed and lick feeders.
When the ewes aren't lambing they use the lick feeders, but once they lamb Geoff said they use a spreader to scatter lupins in the paddocks and trail feed because it allowed the ewe to stay with their lambs.
On the pastures side of the equation to ensure there is enough feed all year round the Cosgroves also put plenty of emphasis into pasture regeneration.
They grow some perennial grasses and Serradella pasture, as well as some subterranean clover on the heavier country and a bit of hay as well for spring grazing.
Increasing their pasture production is something the Cosgroves would like to do more of in the future.
"We have a lot of sandy or salty areas that I think we could improve and then use the areas at lambing time to help increase our productivity," Geoff said.
Like most producers across the Wheatbelt the Cosgroves faced major feed issues in 2019 as a result of the dry season.
It meant their pastures really struggled and they lacked paddock feed for their sheep.
Geoff said it was very cold early on and the lack of rainfall in spring meant there was no spring flush.
"With no spring flush our lambs struggled and didn't come on as we would have liked," he said.
"When it came to harvest, it wasn't huge, but the stubbles were good enough and helped us carry the sheep feed-wise through the summer months."
This year has been average for the Cosgroves, with Geoff describing the season as OK, but they have been lucky experiencing small but consistent rain events and are now hoping they continue.
Good rains in late February and March encouraged the growth of some early pastures as feed for the sheep, which helped buy them some time.
"It germinated a lot of weeds in our pasture paddocks," Geoff said.
Sourcing water for the livestock is one thing the Cosgroves don't have to worry about as they have groundwater and a river that runs 12 months of the year which is used as stock water and all the other blocks of land have bores on them that produce good quality water.
Geoff said it was nice to have dams but in years where it didn't rain they needed to have a backup plan and their system was based on tanks and bore water.
"We are very blessed not to have to worry about water," he said.
Performance-wise, despite the cropping side of the business being the larger part and the sheep enterprise being low input, Geoff said their Merino flock did slightly better than the crops.
"Cropping is the biggest part of our business but the return on capital isn't as good as our sheep as the sheep side is pretty low input," Geoff said.
"With the wool market where it was 12 months ago the sheep were probably in front."
Geoff said when cutting $100 of wool off the back of a ewe and she produces a lamb, well she's a pretty productive unit and you don't need too many of those per hectare to outdo the cropping.
Generally, the sheep are run on the poorer country that's not great for cropping which means they can make a return on the country they otherwise would've been making a loss on.
As an extra source of cash in addition to their sheep and cropping enterprise, the Cosgroves also run 130 Angus breeders.
Geoff said that the cattle were also very low input and there was a lot of Tagasaste trees for feed in their paddocks so they looked after themselves.
"We are probably understocked but they're just something we do on the side," he said.
"It suits our operation".