Finding a purpose in sheep production

Finding a purpose in sheep production

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Ella-Jane Bird, with her dog Sally, gets great job satisfaction from her role as an animal production specialist and the amazing clients she gets to work with.

Ella-Jane Bird, with her dog Sally, gets great job satisfaction from her role as an animal production specialist and the amazing clients she gets to work with.

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Lighting up as she talks about animal production and welfare, Ella-Jane Bird works closely with livestock and her twin passion - people - in her role as animal production specialist at Elders Cranbrook.

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WHEN it comes to livestock, Ella-Jane Bird may be one of the most invested people in the industry.

Lighting up as she talks about animal production and welfare, she works closely with livestock and her twin passion - people - in her role as animal production specialist at Elders Cranbrook.

Holding the position for the past four years, Ms Bird's love for the industry has had an opportunity to flourish, despite her taking a while to find her true path.

Never thinking she would end up in agriculture, a decision to become a vet half way through year 12 saw Ms Bird studying animal science at Murdoch University.

But studying in Perth proved difficult, as she discovered city living was isolating and lonely compared to her upbringing in Albany.

So after six months she moved back to Albany to complete her studies online.

While back home she switched to study vet nursing through Mira Mar Veterinary Hospital.

"I absolutely loved it, it was fantastic," Ms Bird said.

"Working with animals had always been my calling, but it just took a little while to realise it.

"I worked there for three and half-ish years and within that realised not only how much I loved livestock and dealing with livestock, but also the clients we got to work with."

Ms Bird was inspired by the farmers that visited the clinic, as their dedication to their livestock's welfare was always evident.

"I had a real shift in my perspective, I was a little bit apprehensive about dealing with farmers because I had only grown up with my pop's way of farming," Ms Bird said.

"For him welfare was always first and foremost and I was unsure if that would always be the case.

"You hear so much negativity in the news and I guess animal cruelty was a concern, but then dealing with the people that I did from the vet clinic, I just thought these people, this lifestyle, the animals, everything is just fantastic."

Dealing with such like-minded people, Ms Bird wanted to focus on livestock but at that stage the vets in Albany were moving away from larger animals.

Unsure of what to do, an offer came in to work for Daniel Barbour, at the Cranbrook Elders branch.

"I had genuinely never considered Elders," Ms Bird said.

"My mum was working in real estate within Elders but I had only ever seen the merchandise side of things and that wasn't what I wanted to do.

"When Dan offered me a job in animal health, I knew I would have to shift up that way eventually, as my partner was based in Tambellup, so I just took that opportunity and it's been the best thing I've ever done."

Ms Bird's day-to-day aim is to try to encourage best practice in an industry that is rapidly evolving.

"With the current price of livestock being so good, people are more inclined to go to the vet, but for a long time it wasn't financially viable," she said,

"It wasn't worth seeking out that extra knowledge, so I try to be that go between, while also liaising with agriculture department vets and the Mt Barker vets."

An average day is varied, often including diagnostics, worm egg counts, writing nutritional plans and dealing with client's stock problems.

Ms Bird is highly invested in her clients and their businesses, but she admits it was intimidating when she started the role as she was concerned that she had no right to give advice to multi-generational farmers.

"These are people that have been successfully farming for multiple generations, who was I to come in after my four or five years in the industry and say this is what you should be doing?" she said.

"Helping people and their livestock is a responsibility that I do not take lightly, I'm really invested in their business and their animals, I hope that comes across."

The weight she feels - and the 'all in' approach she takes - is paying off, as she looks after multiple regions from Borden, Albany, Mt Barker, Kojonup and Katanning, as well as offering to help anyone across the State who phones in with a query.

A self-proclaimed people person, Ms Bird believes this is partially why she is so committed to the farmers she works with.

"I think you need to be for agriculture, farming can be isolating," she said.

"So if you can show up and be invested, interested in what they are doing, they appreciate it.

"They have built their businesses over years, how many industries are there that have that kind of multigenerational investment in what they are doing?"

She credits her work ethic to her boss, Mr Barbour, who will go above and beyond for his clients, as well as the Elders senior livestock production adviser in the Eastern States, Rob Inglis, a role model to Ms Bird with his wealth of knowledge and approach to production.

"Rob Inglis is fantastic and my boss Dan Barbour is highly regarded in the industry," she said.

"I love Dan's philosophy on life, how he does what he does - I've always been invested in people and animals, but it's been further driven by his outlook on things.

"He'll drive out to a farm on a Saturday to deliver a part that costs $2 to a client because they need it, he is just all for the people and that breeds the environment that we have."

Increasing production is one of her favourite parts of the job and Ms Bird finds it extremely rewarding.

If there was one tip she would love all farmers to know, she says it all comes back to "vitamin F - food".

"Nutrition is king, you can set up a more productive animal with the right nutrition from weaning," she said.

"The genetics, everything else falls away in my eyes if you're not feeding them correctly and giving them what they need to perform to their full potential.

"If they are out in some worn out cape weedy paddock and you're wondering why they are not performing, they're probably not getting the nutrition they need, before anything else you have to have the basics right and then you can build off that."

During Ms Bird's career she has observed the behaviour of livestock, how it improves with the correct nutrition and how sheep instinctively know what they need or are missing in their diet.

From prioritising certain mineral lick blocks to selective grazing, she has seen first hand animals hunt out what they require.

"I love being able to go in and figuring out what it is that those animals need, providing the client with a solution and seeing the animals do better for it,'' she said.

"Improving the quality of animals' lives is a massive drive for me and it's a massive driver for all of my clients.

"If you deal with their wellbeing first, then everything else always seems to fall into line."

While Ms Bird loves what she is doing, she is hungry to keep learning.

She is enrolled in the University of New England to study Applied Nutrition and Advanced Parasitology and a trip to shadow Mr Inglis over east is on the cards.

Though both professional development opportunities have so far been postponed multiple times due to COVID-19.

In the meantime she is focusing on learning what she can from the clients she loves.

"I have so much to learn, there is so much information out there and you can learn something from everyone that you meet, especially in the ag industry," she said.

"Farmers have a wealth of knowledge and I want to learn more about the industry that I am in, how I can do better by my clients and the sheep."

Recently appointed as a junior member in the Livestock Production and Advisor Network, she is the only WA member and is passionate about more opportunities becoming available in the west.

"We are not valuing the sheep industry enough in the west across the board and that's just a real shame because there is so much potential," Ms Bird said

"I would love to see more job opportunities for people dedicated in livestock and animal health.

"We have agronomists, but not production specialists and most of our farmers are 50:50 so why isn't that same importance put in the livestock?"

With so many people coming home to regional towns, Ms Bird believes it is the perfect time to invest in jobs such as her's.

She says that in Cranbrook and surrounding towns such as Tambellup and Gnowangerup, so many children were returning home in their 20s and 30s.

All in the same life stage, the footy clubs and netball teams were booming.

"It's the people who make the towns - I couldn't recommend moving to a small town highly enough." she said.

"When I lived in Perth I was the loneliest I've ever been and you come back here and everyone knows you, everyone is interested, everyone is so invested in each other.

"The lifestyle, the people, that sense of community is what I love about living out here the most."

Volunteering on the St John Ambulance team and the Gillammi committee and hockey club committees, she is embracing all that it offers and further growing the excellent relationships she has with her clients in the process.

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