WHEN Australia's wool market started to decline in the 1960s, many growers chose to leave their business under the weight of depressed prices.
The era coincided with the "get big or get out" trend, which also influenced a major shift from running sheep and grain to cropping only.
But instead of jumping ship, a group of Darkan farmers decided to accept the challenge of keeping sheep through the typical commodity boom-and-bust cycle.
Sourcing good genetics at a reasonable price was part of this and led to the founding of the Darkan Ram Breeding Co-operative (RBC) in 1971, by Boolading farmers Vic and Sheila Curnow, of The Angle farm, guided by their consultant Bob Hall, of JRL Hall & Co (now Icon Agriculture).
Mr Hall advised members of the Darkan Farm Management Advisory Service (now Compass Agricultural Alliance), of which the Curnows were foundation members.
The co-operative at The Angle used breeding values to provide performance-based Merinos to initially 12 farm members in WA's high rainfall zone.
Five decades later, brothers and fourth-generation farm managers James and Hamish Campbell continue to employ the latest breeding techniques to maximise genetic gain in about 20 members' flocks.
They do this by using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs), which provide an estimate of how an animal's progeny would perform by analysing both its physical traits and the genetic merit of its relatives.
Darkan RBC's breeding committee, with direction from geneticists and Sheep Genetics Australia (SGA), developed the RBC50 index to maximise early growth, hogget clean fleece weight, c-site fat depth (for resilience), bare breach and fertility.
Before this, they used the standard Merino dual purpose+ index to maximise growth and fleece weight.
As well as breeding values, the Campbells visually cull sheep with any physical faults displayed from the marking cradle through to distribution.
So when making the visual cull, what traits do the pair look out for?
"Special attention is paid to conformation, wrinkle, horns, dags, flystrike resistance, wool on face and points and fleece rot resistance," they said.
Their view is that plain bodied, fertile, early maturing, high wool cutting Merinos with bare breeches were the "ideal sheep" for mixed farming enterprises in their area.
Reflecting on the co-operative's 50-year history, consultant Mr Hall recalled a rapid expansion within WA's farm consulting profession in the years prior to its formation.
He said at the same time, the CSIRO had a research station at Kojonup where it was proved that farmers could increase their stocking rate "very substantially" from one-and-a-half dry sheep equivalent (DSE) to the acre to four.
CSIRO researcher Helen Newton-Turner was also employed to encourage the application of genetics in the sheep industry.
Mr Hall said Dr Newton-Turner had become "somewhat frustrated at the slow adoption of genetic selection within the established stud industry".
Dr Newton-Turner joined Robert Dunn, from the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, in organising a conference at Katanning in 1967.
"There were about 600 woolgrowers in attendance - it was absolutely crowded," Mr Hall said.
"Dr Newton-Turner suggested applying genetics to ram breeding for wool and Mr Dunn wanted to increase lambing percentages - he could see lambing as important for the future and was sponsoring that.
"The outcome of the two-day conference was farmers were encouraged to 'do it themselves' in terms of breeding their own rams and applying genetics.
"So away they went and applied this concept but it failed miserably - it was an absolute disaster.
"The scientists had told them what to do, but not how to do it."
Despite being labelled a failure, the conference gave farmers the idea of finding someone to essentially "do the job for them".
"So away we went and the question then came - where to find rams to use and good ones at that?"
At the same time, Kwolyin stud breeder Jim Shepherd was producing rams under genetic selection and distributing them to some of his clients.
Mr Shepherd received a percentage of the clients' top performing ewe hoggets in exchange for his elite rams.
By accessing top performing ewe hoggets from clients, the gene pool from which to breed superior rams grew.
The program appealed to the Darkan farmers and they liaised with Mr Shepherd in the hope of also participating.
This was the genesis of the ram bulking depot now known as RBC.
Farmers in the West Arthur-Williams shires selected Vic and Sheila Curnow, west of Darkan, to perform the task.
According to Mr Hall, the decision was influenced by a number of factors.
"The Curnows had very good benchmarking figures for their sheep and were top performers in terms of profitability," he said.
"It was also a suitable property with quite a few small paddocks and was in a higher rainfall area.
"One thing that was required was the selection of sheep in the area they would be kept, so for example sheep bred in the Wheatbelt, where it was drier, didn't necessarily perform well in wetter conditions."
The Curnows ran a farm in a central location and were members of the Darkan Farm Management Advisory Service, which had been studying improvements to sheep yards and shearing sheds.
The couple also designed and built the first set of bugle sheep yards, as well as building a new raised board shearing shed, the second to be built, the first being Bob Lubcke's, another member of the consultancy group.
"A visitor came over from NSW, took away ideas for requirements for a shearing shed and put them together as a design for a five-stand, front fill, raised board, semi-circular shearing shed," Mr Hall said.
"The yards, the first of that design, and shed are still in use 50 years on."
In 1971, local farmers who wanted to participate sent the co-operative their top visually selected ewes and the Curnows were given the task of producing rams to distribute to those clients.
Two years later, the first lot of rams were put out although the result was 100 per cent fleece rot.
Mr Hall said this was due to the raw material the co-operative started with and so IT influenced a "huge selection pressure" against the problem.
Over the years this pressure has worked to the tune that last year - after 700 millimetres of rain with 200mm in July - not one of the thousand odd rams at the Darkan RBC had fleece rot.
Certainly, initially the huge emphasis on fleece rot delayed other improvements, but it got rid of it and that was a fairly major requirement to result in an easy care sheep.
When the system was introduced, the Darkan RBC would send a percentage of its top measured ewe hoggets to Mr Shepherd in exchange for several elite sires.
However, the problem they faced was the RBC wanted more rams than Mr Shepherd could provide.
To solve this problem the idea of a three-tier system was born and implemented.
For this, the top ewes were sent from the contributor to the RBC and ewes from the RBC were sent to Mr Shepherd's central nucleus.
Rams were sent down from the central nucleus to the RBC, which used them to produce rams, which would be sent down to contributors of the co-operative.
"The three-tier situation was quick to become universal and well-approved by the geneticists - they thought it was the way to do it," Mr Hall said.
It became the co-operative's source of rams for many years and resulted in the formation of the Australian Merino Society (AMS).
The Darkan RBC quickly grew to a stage where it "could not accept everybody" and as a result the Darkan area became home to two other ram breeding co-operatives to accommodate local farmers wishing to participate in the system.
"The three co-operatives were each big enough that they didn't really need a central nucleus to provide rams," Mr Hall said.
"They were able to breed elite rams themselves."
At peak membership more than 100 ram breeding co-operatives were in the AMS Australia-wide.
The AMS grew to become a large incorporated body and Mr Shepherd was kept busy trying to produce appropriate sheep.
At the RBC, upon receiving the total requirement for rams from members, the system divided ranked rams into tops, seconds, spares and discards.
It is still used today with members receiving an allocation of one-top- ranked ram per two second-ranked rams in a random draft at distribution.
Nowadays, rams are sold with ASBVs and it is theorised through this system, members' flocks are one generation behind the Darkan RBC flock in moving toward the group breeding objectives.
But after a time, there was a belief from some that Mr Shepherd's focus had shifted somewhat away from wool and he had become more interested in sheep meat.
He had developed more what these days would be called composite breeds.
It led to some breeders forming a substitute breakaway central nucleus.
This was the genesis of Merinotech, at Kojonup, which is still functioning very prominently today.
When the split occurred in 1989, Darkan RBC members did not join with Merinotech, believing that they were big enough to go it alone.
They were able to implement their own breeding requirements with the desire to use new breeding techniques, including the earliest incarnation of ASBVs in Merinos - pedigree BLUP selected estimated breeding values (EBVs).
As could be expected the co-operative experienced changes over the years.
In 1989 the biggest change came in the use of progeny testing.
Improvement was "very slow" until the top 10 or 12 rams produced each year were put to a progeny test based on their figures.
They were selected as the top 10 or so from 1000-head of young rams and were progeny tested by mating each with 50 to 80-head of "randomly selected ewes".
"Testing showed how the progeny performed and results were very interesting," Mr Hall said.
"On average, these rams would have progeny better than the original.
"However, if you have 10 rams, three would have progeny below average, three would be on average, three would be above average but one would be way above average - it would be quite outstanding."
Mr Hall said once discovered, the "elite sire" could be used to good effect.
Results from progeny testing allowed the co-operative to gain improvement much faster.
There were two methods to testing, one being the Yardstick Sire Evaluation site at Katanning - where rams were progeny tested against other rams.
The Darkan group chose not to enter into sire evaluation.
Instead it decided to artificially inseminate ewes using semen from top measured rams.
This not only provided outside blood but also enabled comparison with the other rams in Australia-wide evaluation schemes and to potentially source superior genetics.
"They were bringing in new blood, as well as checking where they were at in terms of performance," Mr Hall said.
"This method proved equally effective and is still being used today."
Another change over the years was that contributors stopped sending in ewes to the RBC.
Mr Hall said for the contributor it proved to be quite an expensive and time consuming exercise and therefore this was welcomed.
He said it had the added benefit of better biosecurity with the ever-present threat of footrot and, in later years, of OJD.
At the same time contributed ewes were not required as the ram breeding co-operative was big enough to have enough sheep to select from.
For some time the RBC has been using Sheep Genetics Australia (SGA), which is the overriding database for all genetics in Australia's Merino industry.
SGA was a result of sponsorship by the Sheep Co-operative Research Centre.
Mr Hall said another benefit of Sheep CRC was Dave Pethick's meat science at Murdoch University, which had tended to revolutionise meat processing and the function of abattoirs.
So what does Mr Hall see for the future of genetics?
Well, he said the industry was already moving rapidly towards "full pedigree" very much aided by the introduction of electronic tags.
And there is also MateSel, which can match a ram and ewe to mate to get the best breeding outcome (while managing inbreeding).
"Over the years people have asked, 'What is the improvement?''' he said.
"Well the typical sheep flock tends to be all ewes these days.
"The wethers - which used to be the big wool cutters - are gone mostly since the demise of the Reserve Price Scheme.
"Despite the ewes being one to two microns less, they are cutting more wool, they don't have fleece rot, are very much easy care also and importantly have over 100pc lambing.
"Whereas in the 1960s lambing used to be 60pc if people were lucky and - would you believe - a lot of clients even had under 50pc in the west half of the West Arthur Shire."
INCREASED sheep performance has been one of the Darkan Ram Breeding Co-operative's greatest milestones in the past five decades.
And it is something that is only set to continue through sheep breeding values, ever-evolving technology and the passion of Darkan RBC farm managers James and Hamish Campbell.
Today, the Campbells run about 7500 head of breeding ewes, 2600 head of which are the ram breeding flock based at The Angle.
They use the RBC50 index, which was custom built by Sheep Genetics Australia (SGA), to rank and distribute rams and replacement ewe hoggets.
"When our sheep are measured they are fed into the SG database and we get their breeding values back," James Campbell said.
"SGA has a program called MateSel designed to mate sheep to maximise an index and limit inbreeding.
"You feed MateSel an index with the traits you want to maximise - ours is high fleece weight, weaning weight and fertility."
MateSel matches a ram and ewe to mate, so breeders can get the best outcome while managing inbreeding.
It provides mating outcomes by using lists of possible sires and dams, information about breeding programs and constraints on short-term and long-term inbreeding.
The program runs scenarios to get the best possible choice of individuals to select and the best arrangement of mate selection, as well as the next best mating option.
"For example, say we wanted to mate 700 ewes and use 10 rams over that 700," he said.
"The program would do a random calculation of thousands of mating combinations, sort of like trial and error, and then eventually report each ram with the 70 ewes that would provide the best result in terms of maximising that index.
"It is very advanced."
Last year marked the third drop of lambs at The Angle using MateSel, which has only been commercially available for the past few years.
"Breeding values change in the sire group as accuracy increases, so many of the sires we breed from are younger and their values aren't as accurate until they have a lot of progeny," Mr Campbell said.
"MateSel provides a predicted result, which I think is reasonably accurate as we have been able to compare the predicted result with the actual result some years later.
"For the most part - if there were any changes in the results it was for the better - as the percentage accuracy increases."
Previously - and since the 1980s - the co-operative has been using a single top sire to mate a lead group of ewes.
The introduction of the SGA programs allows any user to identify not only the father of rams, but track back through generations including mothers, grandparents, great-grandparents.
"You can go through the genetics, check inbreeding and link up with a stud that is going to provide you with the best result for your flock," Mr Campbell said.
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