AFTER many years of farming, sheep remain an asset to the Handscombe family at Quairading.
They have been farming for 96 years - since 1925 - and brothers Don and Bill continue to run the operation.
Originally the family farmed at Cubbine as it was a big estate and former WA premier John Forrest rather than operate the entire plot of land himself, decided to sell off pieces - and Don and Bill's father William George, was one of the people who bought a section of it.
Then in 1948 after the war, the family moved to Quairading for a bigger property and they've been there ever since.
In 1963 they expanded their footprint purchasing a second property at Yoting.
The two properties, the Quairading farm of 2630 hectares (6500ac) and the Yoting farm of 1416ha (3500ac) total 4046ha (10,000 ac).
There are 1200 Merino breeding ewes and 450 young sheep at Yoting with 2500 Merino breeding ewes, lambs and wethers on the home property.
For a long time, they ran a large Poll Dorset stud Deejay and used to have an annual sale in York at the agricultural shed which is no longer there.
When they were running the prime lambs, they had a feedlot which they put 5000 lambs through each year.
They eventually dissolved the stud when the demand for prime lambs declined.
"The biggest drawback with fat lambs was the number of ewes mated was going down annually and they weren't requiring as many rams," Don said.
"We were producing fat lambs for a long time.
"We had to spend a lot of money to run them and it was a lot of work," they said.
Eventually after trialling some different breeds over the years, they shifted to a pure Merino flock but continue to run 80 crossbred Poll Dorsets.
Don said their current number of Merino breeding ewes was only a fraction of what they previously ran, as they had 9000 head at one point.
They are down 1400 head due to a run of consecutively poor seasons.
"Last year was such a hard year that we sold some wethers and we sold them when we had to because we were going to run out of feed and we didn't want to use all of our stubble," he said.
"We received good money for them but we are still down that number so we are looking to breed them back."
Also involved in the enterprise and primarily running the Yoting portion of the operation is Helen Breading who has worked for the Handscombes for the past 12 years.
Joining is around Christmas time for lambing to begin in June.
Over the past seven years they have been sourcing their rams from the Lewisdale stud, Wickepin.
"When Ray Lewis and classer John Sherlock first came here they said they would get the sheep cutting more wool in four to five years and it worked, we increased our wool cut by nearly 2.5kg," Don said.
Shearing of the main flock is in October and at Yoting the main shearing is in April.
Last year the Handscombes cut on average 7-7.5kg per head and Don believes this year will be even better.
When selecting their sheep from the stud, he likes the big-framed rams with good quality wool.
"We like clean white, 20 micron wool," he said.
According to the Handscombes, market values for meat, in particular, have been very good but wool has been challenging at times.
"We have probably been getting the best prices we have ever received," Don said.
"Wool prices struggled with COVID-19 but the market seems to be recovering now."
But the wool market's volatility has made it a difficult trend to track.
"We thought when we got 413c/kg we were doing well but the market went up and we could have made 30pc more money," Don said.
When it comes to selling their sheep, the wethers and culls preferably go to local graziers though they do chase the best prices at the time.
"We sold some of our wether lambs to the Eastern States last year."
Animal welfare is a very important aspect of running sheep for the Handscombes, so all the sheep are vaccinated each year.
"We have always vaccinated the sheep, every sheep every year," Ms Breading said.
"Prices went from five cents up to 50c and now they're around a dollar per vaccination, but you're probably losing more sheep by not doing it so in our eyes it is worth it," Don said.
"You do what you've always done and if it works why change it," Ms Breading said.
In 1972 cattle were also added into the mix and they now run 160 breeders of which 80 are Murray Greys and 80 are Shorthorn Hereford crosses.
They have one draft a year in November when they sell off all of the calves.
In conjunction with the livestock, they also have a cropping program which consists of 1012ha (2500 acres) with one third oats and wheat occupying the remaining land.
Some of the grain from the crops is used as sheep feed.
The operation is two thirds livestock and one third cropping, which Don said was opposite to most other farms, "but it's what works for us".
"We were brought up running a three-year rotation so plough, cultivate, seed, which means two thirds of the farm is out of crop at one time," he said.
The Handscombes like to rotate the paddocks because they believe it is important to give the soil a break to replenish.
In addition to being trail-fed grain, medic clover is primarily grown as pasture for the sheep and hay is also grown onfarm.
Don said they have also put a lot of effort into pasture manipulation and trying to maintain as much clover as they can though it has been difficult over the years.
"That's part and parcel of the industry, but this year has been pretty good," Bill said.
1969 was the first drought year they experienced - while they had plenty of soaks the windmills nearly dried them out, so they had all the tanks around the farm connected to a pipe leading to one water supply.
"We've put in a number of solar pumps, replaced all the windmills so we have good water supply across the farms," he said.
Last year they had 170mm of rainfall for the entire year and the majority of it fell in February, but things are looking up having received 165mm for the year so far (early July).
With the reduced number of sheep on the farm due to poor seasons, the strong start this year has meant there is not enough sheep to keep up with the pasture growth.
"We have more feed in one paddock than we had in 25 paddocks last year," Don said.
The favourable 2021 weather conditions has meant every ewe has had a lamb or twins, with some ewes even having triplets.
When culling, the Handscombes like to keep it simple.
"You cull your sheep and what you have left is what you breed from," Don said.
He said the benefit of having a mixed enterprise operation is that when the wheat prices are down the livestock prices are up and vice versa.
"It all works well together," he said.