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Merino sheep drive the profits in Riverina mixed farming enterprise

Phillip Jones
Phillip Jones uses a hay and grain ration to finish Merino wether lambs on his Urana property.
Wether lambs
Wether lambs are finished on a hay and grain ration, with access to a forage brassica crop.

23rd August 2012

A Riverina farmer Phillip Jones knows just how valuable Merino sheep can be to a mixed farming enterprise.

When it comes to gross margins, Mr Jones has estimated the income from his Merino flock is equivalent to a 2.2 tonnes a hectare wheat crop at a price of $200 a tonne.

“With average wheat yields for the last 10 years around here at 2t/ha, the sheep do stack up,’’ Mr Jones said.

Phillip and his wife Emma will join 1600 Merino ewes this year and crop 1012ha on their Urana properties, Skelbrook, Woodbine, Waratah and Walla Coola.

Set in a 425mm rainfall zone, the 2500ha of sandy red loam country supports a 60-40 per cent cropping to sheep enterprise mix.

The couple are rebuilding their Pooginook blood flock to 1900 ewes after destocking down to a core 1200 ewes in the drought.

They paid the top price of $216 for 172 2008-drop Pooginook blood ewes, scanned-in-lamb to White Suffolk rams and October shorn, at the Urana sheep sale in February.

They also took home the second pen of 148 ewes, same age, for $208.

The crossbred progeny have been weaned onto a forage brassica crop and are due to be shorn in spring, while the ewes will be joined to Pooginook rams.

Producing an 80 bale clip last year, Mr Jones considers his key profit drivers as wool, wethers and surplus sheep sales.

He likes the “money sheep’’ – rams averaging 20 micron, plainer bodied and with plenty of carcass. Polled genetics are also on the agenda.

 “Many people around here destocked in the drought and swung over to cropping, but I consider Merino sheep to be good insurance in the dry years,’’ Mr Jones said.

“We never wanted to get out of Merinos as they were a good fit in a mixed farming enterprise.’’

When the family’s ram source switched to a dual purpose breed, they began searching for a new bloodline about six years ago.

The plainer bodied Pooginook sheep fitted the bill.

Pooginook sales manager Pat Brown classes the adult and maiden ewes at Skelbrook, culling out 15-20 per cent on feet, udder and wool.
“I want a plainer neck on the ewes – mature ewe bodyweight is shaped by our environment,’’ Mr Jones said. “The key is having ewes at the right bodyweight at joining.

“We now have a good even line of weaners – they are classing themselves over the wool table.’’

One of the most valuable pieces of machinery on the farm has proven to be a feed mixer wagon. A ration of hay, lupins, barley and minerals is fed ad lib in troughs to lambs post-weaning.

The feed cart is also used to trail out grain to ewes and lambs, depending on the season.

“Having scales on the feeder means I can give the sheep an accurate ration – it is not like putting a bale of hay out on the ground and having three-quarters of it trampled,’’ Mr Jones said. “The mixer saves on waste.’’

Mr Jones said the mixer removed the challenges of keeping lambs fresh throughout the year.

This year we were able to sell the Merino wethers at 11 months of age weighing over 50kg (liveweight) four to five weeks off-shears at Wagga Wagga to average $103,’’ he said.

 “They cut about 3kg of wool worth $20 each.

“We can sell in November when people are concerned with harvesting so numbers are down, and demand is greater.’’

The cull ewes are joined to White Suffolk rams in November while the breeders are joined to Merino rams in December.

Ewes are pregnancy scanned into wet and dries, with the maiden dries retained and rejoined.

Lamb marking was 101 per cent this year in the Merinos.

Mr Jones pays up to $3000 for quality rams, and uses a combination of visual appraisal and ASBVs (breeding values) to select them.

“Micron is important and bodyweight – I do rely on Pat Brown’s advice and knowledge for my final choices,’’ he said.

Mr Jones said surplus sales of cast-for-age Merino ewes worth $100 each had been handy income over the past few years.

“The Merino sheep suit us down to a T,’’ he said.

“Cropping went backwards here during the drought, and since then yield wise it has been good but the grain was downgraded due to wet weather.

“Looking at a 10 year average, there is no doubt the sheep have been the most profitable enterprise for us.’’

-Kim Woods


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