Performance matters

Location: Barcaldine, QLD

Enterprise: Wool production and opportunity cattle trading

Producer: David and Genevieve Counsell

Soil type: Grey cracking soils

Pasture type: Mitchell open downs country

David CounsellDavid Counsell is a veterinarian with postgraduate qualifications in economics and finance. He spent more than 10 years as an agribusiness consultant in livestock systems across Australia and now, with his wife Genevieve, runs a sheep enterprise at Barcaldine. He draws on his experience for his role on the advisory committee for the new Pastoral Profit program.

“Pastoral producers typically miss out on access to business advisers and services because of our isolation,” he said.

David said the program would give producers in the pastoral region an enhanced opportunity to access industry information, resources and technical experts through face-to-face and on-line activities.

“There is wide variation in the financial performance of pastoral businesses, and the need to lift profitability is huge,” he said.

Business measurement

The Counsells have made changes in their own business to improve productivity and profitability.

Underpinning their approach is a clear focus on measurement, to avoid ‘driving blind’.

The Counsells run 10,000 Merino sheep on their 15,000ha family property, ‘Dunblane’. While their main focus is wool production, cast-for-age sheep are sold via AuctionsPlus to southern restockers or direct to processors, and they trade cattle when seasonal conditions are favourable.

Highly variable rainfall patterns can make livestock production in the pastoral region a
challenge. Due to a run of dry seasons and pressure from wild dogs and kangaroos, David and Genevieve are honing in on core management strategies.

David draws on local producer benchmarking groups to set key performance indicators (KPIs) for their business. These include:

  • Reducing mortality: Historically, flock mortality has been more than 6% (the industry average is 4%), but their goal is to get it lower than 2%.
  • Lifting lamb marking percentages: Historically, marking has been 55–60%, but they have their sights set on more than 80%.
  • Improve fleece values: The Counsells have moved from 22 microns to 18 microns thanks to an artificial insemination program and aggressive selection in the past eight years. They are now focusing on increasing wool cut while maintaining quality.

To achieve these KPIs, David has implemented strategies that balance production and environmental sustainability. He said economic gains also go hand-in-hand with social benefits, as a profitable model which navigates tough seasons will reduce stress.

Predator control

The Counsells are building 50km of feral-proof fencing. David’s cost-benefit analysis on the fencing showed a 22–30% return on investment.

Initially, it will provide safe lambing paddocks; in time, fences will be added to give all the sheep protection. Average lamb marking rates have risen from 55% to 75% in the past three years, and David is confident they can reach 80%.

Risk management

David matches stocking rates to long and medium-term carrying capacity, so he doesn’t run out of grass but can still take advantage of favourable seasons. He uses spreadsheets based on the Stocktake program for feed budgets and to adjust stocking rates.

In response to the continuing dry, the Counsells have destocked all cattle and half their flock, and are supplementing the remaining sheep with a grain-based ration.

Based on feed budgets, David is tentatively confident they have sufficient grass to last
to Christmas.

“Managing total grazing pressure is a really important aspect of grazing management,” David said.

“Kangaroos are a big problem so we have to factor this into our management strategies.”

Genetic gain

The Counsells have bred their own rams for the past six years and now generate ASBVs to guide selection within their latest crop of young rams.

David targets profitable traits such as fleece value, dry season performance and reproduction to match performance to production goals such as marking rates and drought resilience.

Flexibility and adaptability

The Counsells work on a cost of production (CoP) which ranges from $5.50 -$7.50/kg
greasy wool. The low CoP puts the business in the top 20% of local benchmarking groups, but David believes they can always do better.

“We are really working on labour efficiency (with labour saving devices) and genetics
(increasing wool cut/DSE) to increase margin," he said.

“Each dry season is different; this time we are preserving at all costs all females and selling the wethers due to higher meat prices. When it rains, sheep will be hard to come by.”

His motto is to work differently, not harder, so he is prepared to adjust management as circumstances change. For example, although wool is the main focus, he would be prepared to consider a dual-purpose flock if the sheep meat market remained strong and if mortality can be further curbed.


David and Genevieve are early adopters and have embraced everything from electric fences and solar pumps to telemetry systems and electronic ID tags to save labour and increase efficiency.

A return-on-investment budget is conducted on all investments above $10,000.

“For example, we have moved from flock based data recording to an individual animal system,” David said.

“All females are electronically tagged to identify their genetic merit. Any high performers in terms of fleece weight and reproduction can then be allocated to the ram breeding nucleus; alternatively, the poor performers are sold, depending on season.”

He now has his eye on UAVs (drones) as a potential management tool: “I don’t yet know exactly how we will use drones, but a bird’s eye view of sheep, watering points and pastures has to be valuable to pastoralists.”

Lessons learned

  • Benchmarking and external advice are critical to identify and meet KPIs.
  • Consider total grazing pressure, not just stocking rates.
  • Genetics is a key profit driver and can be continually improved.
  • Make incremental changes that are considered and sustainable.
  • Embrace new technologies such as data collection and monitoring tools

More information

David Counsell E:

This case study first appeared in the July/August edition of Feedback magazine


Barcaldine, QLD
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