The three keys to successful sheep production
24 June 2016
Despite having 30 years’ worth of experience, South Australian producer Graham Clothier believes it doesn’t pay to be complacent when you’re trying to breed the ultimate wool and meat sheep.
Graham, his wife, Karen, and son, Sam, run a crossbreeding operation on ‘Greenvale’, Woolumbool, turning off 3,100 lambs a year, mainly for Woolworths supermarkets.
Graham recently attended an MLA-funded Bred Well Fed Well (BWFW) workshop on his brother Phil’s farm to pick up some tips on ram and ewe selection, preparation and nutrition and using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs).
The workshop confirmed he was on the right track.
“As you get older you tend to know your sheep very well and find a recipe for what works, but these workshops offer the overall package that you need to fine-tune the whole system,” Graham said.
“They’re particularly good for young producers starting out.”
The practical, one-day BWFW workshops are funded by MLA to help producers combine genetic decision-making with managing ewe nutrition to boost reproduction rates and flock productivity.
Success, according to the Clothiers, comes from a combination of breeding, feeding and the time of joining.
Graham’s program for the 1,800 White Suffolk-Merino cross and 400 Merino ewes on the 650ha ‘Greenvale’ has been tested lately by two failed springs, when the usual annual rainfall of 500mm has slipped to 370mm.
The property in the Limestone Coast region of south-east South Australia is predominantly sand through to sandy loam and terra rossa, which is excellent sub clover country, and is supplemented by another 170ha of heavier soil closer to Narracoorte, where the Clothiers produce hay.
Graham buys his rams from the family’s Woolumbool stud at Lucindale, now run by his brother Phil, and also brings in genetics from Andrew and Mandi Bouffler’s Poll Merinos from Trigger Vale stud at Lockhart, west of Wagga Wagga, NSW.
Graham aims to breed a medium wool, robust crossbred lamb and uses ASBVs to select for fat and muscle, to produce an animal with a meat to wool income ratio of 80:20. He joins Merino ewes to White Suffolk sires for first cross replacements and Merino-White Suffolk across White Suffolk for the second cross lambs.
The use of genetic evaluation through LAMBPLAN and MERINOSELECT, combined with workshops like BWFW, yields results. Last year, 68% of the ewes had multiple births, but Graham says it’s not a matter of just selecting for fertility.
Graham had his feeding regime confirmed through BWFW, which focuses on the impact of ewe nutrition on reproductive performance and flock profitability, and equips participants with skills such as condition scoring and how to do a simple energy budget for their flock.
At ‘Greenvale’, ewes are joined in early January for a five-week lambing in June, and fed three megajoules (MJ) of energy daily for a month, with feeding increasing as the season progresses. Hay or silage is fed twice a week, then grain is added into the mix until shortly before lambing when the ewes are on 8-10MJ/day.
At ‘Greenvale’, feeding regimes change after ewes are pregnancy tested and drafted into single, twins and empties. But for those in lamb, timing of feeding is critical.
“Even if it means you start feeding the ewes early, you can’t let them lose that bloom they got in spring. You want them in as good a condition as possible, and no less than 2.8 condition score at lambing, otherwise they’re underdone,” Graham said.
“I feed my sheep well – my bank manager would probably say too well!”
Rams too, come in for their fair share of attention, and are all from brucellosis-accredited flocks. After a physical check and at a condition score of four or better, they’re joined at one ram/100 ewes plus one for five weeks, a formula that the Clothiers have applied for 30 years with maximum results.
Time of joining
Lambing starts in the first week of June, which can be risky weather-wise as cold fronts take their toll on newborns, especially multiples. A precaution taken by the Clothiers is to sow narrow strips of wheat grass through the lambing paddocks, so the sheep can shelter in the tall, rank grass.
The aim is for 150% lambing from ewes mated, a goal that was easily achieved last year in the relatively mild winter.
All prime lambs are turned off finished. Depending on the season, most are offloaded at 50kg live or 22kg dressed weight, with the bulk sent to Woolworths and the heavier lambs sold to JBS Australia at Bordertown.
The Clothiers grow 250ha of dryland lucerne, but in a dry year will finish the lambs on barley and locally-made feed pellets in pens, and are not averse to buying-in surplus lambs to feed in a good year.
A 2004 Nuffield scholar, Graham Clothier studied branded lamb production, quality assurance programs and lamb lot feeding in Europe, US, New Zealand and Canada, and he’s a big fan of backing up the visual appraisal of old with as much new measurement as possible.
“You do get to gauge the performance of your flock better just by working with them, but visual appraisal is a poor way of guessing what’s happening to the sheep nutritionally and genetically, rather than knowing what’s happening through measurement,” he said.
To find out about hosting a workshop contact BWFW co-ordinator Serina Hancock E: S.Hancock@murdoch.edu.au or T: 0403 570 823.
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