thinking and breeding for the future

CLIENTS

Benchmarkingby weighing at East Borambil

Benchmarking his management performance as well as that of the sheep is fundamental to the success of the operation managed by John Sutherland at “East Borambil”, Condobolin, and for the last 15 years, weighing the sheep has been a key element in achieving this.

Mr Sutherland was retained as manager of “East Borambil” after he and his wife, Anthea, sold it to Paraway Pastoral Company in May 2008, and presently he breeds
Merinos to restock the flocks on the company’s other Riverina properties.

The flock consists of 5000 Pooginook-blood Merino ewes that are shorn in mid-September and mated in mid- December to lamb in mid-May to June each year.

Adapting a design he had seen in Western Australia, Mr Sutherland built a classing box that fits into the draft area and incorporates scales allowing the classer to conduct a visual assessment while also noting the weight of the sheep.

“Each sheep is also presented in a similar position, allowing full vision to assess the sheep’s conformation and type,” Mr Sutherland said.

Classing with the box is one operation requiring no walking by the classer and objective data can be used in conjunction with visual classing.

Surplus maiden ewes are classed out in July and sold in the local spring breeders’ sale.

At the initial classing of one-year-old ewes, some 20 to 30 are weighed to give an average benchmark for that group. Classing then proceeds with cut-off weights.

“These weights are mindful of the time available to achieve the minimum target body weight of 50 kg at joining,” Mr Sutherland said.

“We’ve been classing our sheep like this since 1995 and the type of the sheep that weigh well soon became obvious.”

In November, just prior to their first mating, maiden ewes are classed a second time. Additional measured information is provided alongside their current bodyweight to class them into mating groups. The bottom grade maidens are then identified for life to allow for sale at a later time if seasonal conditions deteriorate.

Mr Sutherland said, “The management of weaner ewes from weaning through to their first mating is crucial for their lifetime productive capacity.

“We’re trying to grow them on a steady growth rate maintaining 3-score condition as this seems to give the most economical result. The scales are used to monitor the weaner growth, from weaning right through to joining.

“I believe we have managed to provide twin-born lambs with an even chance as singles in being retained at the first classing by monitoring body weights and matching
feed requirements. Frankly these twin lambs are bred from the most productive sheep in the flock.”

Mr Sutherland said that the scales provide a benchmark - similar to the micron test. “You won’t accept a sheep above a certain micron, below a certain wool cut or body
weight and we won’t accept a sheep with body faults.”

As an example, in the July 2009 classing of the May-June 2008 ewes, the average weight with an October skin was 54 kg. Ewes which did not weigh 48 kg were culled,
regardless of any attribute, including wool quality.

In Mr Sutherland’s experience he has found that the ranking of a maiden doesn’t change. “I’ve tried to keep a balance between wool cut, carcase, fertility and micron
– aiming to keep it all going in the one direction and to keep management as simple as possible.”

High lambing percentages at “East Borambil” have allowed high culling rates of one-year-old ewes to enjoy the restocker prices and hasten the genetic gain in the
flock.

“I cull heavily because if a sheep isn’t delivering as a one-year-old she’s still worth $30 to $50 more right now as a sale sheep than she will be the next year. This also
helps to achieve our aim to balance the wool, fertility and carcase in the flock,” Mr Sutherland said.

“All we can try and do is to make sure our management is right with our sheep to allow them to genetically express what they are capable of doing. And if they can’t perform we sell them.

“East Borambil” has been a consistent high-performer in Australia’s most prestigious maiden ewe competition, Condobolin’s Don Brown Memorial competition, finishing in the top three for the past six years (including a win in 2008) and this year winning the Central West Group Competition.

Judges’ comments on evenness of the line and the balance of wool production with carcase and fertility characteristics show the aims of the breeder are being met.

John Sutherland, “East Borambil”, Condobolin demonstrates the ease of using the classing box and incorporated scales to allow both visual and objective assessment in one operation.

Keep on twinning

An increased lambing percentage is another benchmark that John Sutherland sets for his flock of Merino ewes and for assessment of his own management.

If a ewe lamb is born from a twin-scanned ewe comes she has a notch in the back of her ear enabling Mr Sutherland to easily keep track of his results and also, for example, to monitor the culling rate of twins versus singles.

Sheep at “East Borambil” are mated in mid-December for lambing from mid-May to the end of June. In March they are scanned and ewes with twins are lambed in smaller paddocks on the better country in mobs of 250 or less.

“The aim at weaning is to find the mother of the twin lambs is in reasonable order and the twin lambs are as close as possible in body weight to the singles,” said Mr
Sutherland.

“So we’re actually trying to match the stocking rate and the feed quality to our most productive sheep – the twinbearing ewe - she’s the one that’s earning you the most
money.

“After weaning we just try to keep the weaners growing on an even plane of nutrition as we’re trying to give each sheep an equal chance of achieving their genetic
potential.”

It has also been Mr Sutherland’s experience that by looking after the twin’s mother when she’s rearing those twins, she will get in lamb the next time and over her
lifetime will rear more twins than singles.

“Again, she is potentially the most productive sheep on the farm so she needs to receive the most feed to achieve the result,” he said.

“But when you run it conventionally she’s battling out there in the paddock among all the other competitors - the dry ewes are there eating the best of the feed, followed by the singles and she’s battling up the back.”

He said, “I find the twin bearing ewes are good converters of feed, good mothers, the ones that have the least lambed-and-lost – they’re our most productive sheep
– so why wouldn’t you want to select from those ewes?”

“What you’re actually doing is breeding a sheep that suits your management, your objectives, your country and what you want to get out of your sheep. And that’s really
important.”

Through the last nine years of drought on “East Borambil”, the Sutherlands have been achieving a lambing percentage of over 105%, and up to 124%.

Mr Sutherland said, “We just have some fundamental things we don’t compromise on and one of them is that ewes have got to try to stay in a 3-score condition. If
needed we also strategically feed from 2 weeks before mating starts to ensure a rising plane of nutrition.

“I don’t actually select for twins - all I’m doing is managing to allow them to do their job - allowing the lamb’s genetics to be expressed.”

Mr Sutherland said that he found lambed-and-lost ewes a bigger problem than dry ewes because the former has gone through the expense of gestating the lambs and
then failed to rear. He has therefore started culling these maidens, and after 15 years of giving some of the dries a second chance, is looking to cull these as well.

“They have cost you money because rams are expensive and you’ve actually had to run the ewe to just get the wool cut.

The next step for Mr Sutherland is to look at the economics of mating his ewes at 8 months. While acknowledging the ewe will need more feed and more care, he said, “If I can get her to lamb at 12 months, it’s a great improvement for the gross margin of the flock.”

“I’m happy with the flock micron and fleece weights, and we are aiming to increase pressure on fertility,” he said.

“I think one of the concerns of the Merino industry is a perceived lack of fertility and perceived lack of growth rate, but I know that there are Merinos that are performing. It
comes back to management and having a red-hot go.

The genotype is in the Merino.”

Some 2008-drop maiden ewes on “East Borambil” in 5 month’s wool and (inset) 6 month’s wool growth on a 2009 drop ewe.

By Carol-Ann Malouf, PR, NSW Stud Merino Breeders' Association, from The Sire 2010 Reproduced with permission NSW SMBA.