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Beyond the Bale : March 2016
Sheep are slowly becoming more popular amongst some cropping regions. It is for an obviously good reason: sheep balance the risks associated with cropping. Find an agricultural map of Australia from at least 20 years ago you will see a zone between the ‘high rainfall’ zone near the coast and the ‘pastoral’ zone in the interior called the ‘wheat/sheep zone’, but over the past two decades, sheep have slipped away from these large tracts of land. Generational change, the upkeep of infrastructure, the financial commitment to expensive machinery and the labour associated with sheep are often quoted as reasons why some people moved away from livestock. However there is a quiet revolution taking place in some cropping regions. A survey of the WA Eastern Wheatbelt in 2013 showed that 80 per cent of the top performing businesses run sheep as a necessity. ‘How to Farm Profitably in the Eastern Wheatbelt’ was conducted by Greg Kirk for Planfarm and funded by the Grains Research & Development Corporation. 15 farms were involved in the survey with annual average rainfall of between 300mm and 350mm, and businesses running on 2,234ha to 12,200ha. The study examined the financial returns and business practices of farms from 2006-2012. The ‘top’ group of farmers within the survey produced operating surpluses that were 60 per cent above the average, which equated to an additional surplus of $243,000 per annum. While this group generally stated that livestock were only a small portion of their income, 80 per cent of these most profitable famers stated how livestock, and predominantly sheep, were an important of their farm operation. The reasons were because they: • provided cashflow in poor years • provided additional income/work during the off-season • enabled opportunistic trading • reduced risk • were complementary to a cropping operation • assisted in weed control • reduced the impact of frosts and pulse crops • were an important part of the rotation • forced the producer to make more conservative decisions. The enthusiasm for sheep amongst the top financial performers in the Eastern Wheatbelt of WA is being echoed in other states. Ian McClelland, founder of the Birchip Cropping Group in Victoria believes a slow move back to sheep is being driven by soil type to a degree. “Those with deep sandy soils are largely sticking with cropping but in heavier country people in this region at least are looking at or have introduced sheep again. Last year for example a large number of lambs were fattened in the Mallee which brought good income to the region. With the poor season right across western Victoria, many failed or poor crops were grazed to give some return for these farmers.” The McClelland family run a Merino wool and prime lamb business alongside their grain operation and it works very well according to Ian. “Over the past decade we have certainly made more out of livestock than cropping. The use of containment areas to save paddocks and feedlots for lambs has really revolutionised the game around here.” The Birchip Cropping Group for some time has run a Livestock Group which continues to be well supported with experts such as SA nutritionist San Jolly brought in to consult on how to make the most of livestock enterprises in traditional cropping areas. “Although many younger farmers are very keen on cropping only, there is a growing sense of the role of sheep in cleaning up stubbles, summer weed control, reducing resistance to herbicides and interestingly, stopping mouse plagues as sheep are expert at cleaning up grain on the ground.” Ian says even 500 ewes in a cropping operation can deliver $50,000 profit without much effort. SHEEP A KEY INGREDIENT IN PARTS OF THE SHEEP/WHEAT ZONE A livestock revolution in marginal cropping country is under way, with a resurgence of sheep as a risk management strategy due the high input costs of cropping and the risks of variable seasonal conditions. 28 ON FARM Given the recent past experience of variable seasonal conditions, plus the high input costs of cropping, producers in the wheat-sheep zone and low rainfall areas are seeing the benefit of having a wool enterprise to manage their risk.
In the Shops - March 2016