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Beyond the Bale : Feb - Mar 08
average micron to between 19 and 20, increased fleece weights to about seven or eight kilograms per ewe (depending on season), a lifting of yield to 72 per cent, and fertility rates of 130 per cent and above. It has taken the operation from being one of 'high-input farming' to a low- cost operation returning a profit, even in 2006-07 when the worst drought in a century struck. The enterprise now operates on a five-year average return of $28 per DSE (dry sheep equivalent) a year. Nigel's goal is to increase that figure to $35/DSE/year within the next four years. The main profit driver of the $35/DSE/year will be to de-stock using grazing charts as a season deteriorates, rather than trying to hand feed through every dry period. "In the past three years, hand feeding stock has crippled many livestock businesses," Nigel says. One focus of the business is selling 3800 Merino wether lambs each year at nine to 10 months at an average price of $70 over the hooks, which have already produced $24 worth of wool with an $8 skin. In years where stocking rates exceed carrying capacity, the wether lambs are de-stocked into an on-farm feedlot, which leaves enough grass to grow Merino ewe lambs to 40kg, so they can be joined at six to seven months of age. With that has come changes to pasture management and the introduction of cell grazing. For certain periods of the year, a mob of 7000 sheep are run together and Nigel says that as a result of having to eat a balanced diet comprising a little of every plant in the cell, including weed species, the health of the sheep has measurably improved. "I call it the yellow-rice syndrome," he says. "If you're the first one at a smorgasbord and no one else is around you will pick and choose what you like and won't go near the yellow rice salad (known as weeds in the paddock). It's always the one left. "However, if there are 200 people queued up behind you and there is only so much to choose from, you'll take a spoonful of everything and so does everyone else. Sheep are the same in a cell-grazing situation: there is no discrimination between weeds and pastures." All plants in the paddock are valued. Nigel adheres to the holistic principles of 'plant succession'. "Tap-rooted weeds are a low successional plant species, colonising soil that nothing else will grow in because their taproots can begin to break up the soil. Their leaf matter later creates a seed bed for higher successional plants, such as annual grasses. The next year, the barley grass will continue to improve the seed bed by putting fibrous roots into the soil, loosening it even more." Nigel is now beginning to see perennial grasses such as Warrego, paspalum, cotton panic, microlenna, lucerne and phalaris proliferating in areas that were wall-to-wall saffron thistle and Patterson's curse four years ago. The key to this process is grazing and managing the ground cover. "We don't have a weed problem any more. We consider weeds a valuable ingredient in the pasture. The only weed we get rid of is Bathurst burr, which you can chip out." Relying on fecal-egg counts to assess the worm burden, drenching of the mob is now done only prior to lambing. The combination of the plainer-bodied sheep with no pin wrinkles and breeding for super-white wools that can handle summer rainfall has considerably lessened the use of blowfly-control chemicals. Nigel considers that sheep classing and genetics will be the key to coping with the 2010 mulesing deadline. "Our sheep are being bred to be almost free of skin wrinkling in the breech, and most are already naturally resistant to flystrike," he says. He is now shearing the flock sheep every eight months and averaging seven to eight kilograms of 19 to 20 micron wool per head annually. The tender line, which represented five per cent of the clip, tested 38 newtons, while all the main lines ranged from 56 to 68N, which are good results after weaning 125 per cent of lambs in a drought year. This year, Nigel entered two teams of 'GullenGamble' blood Merino wethers in the Dubbo National Merino Show and Sale Wether Competition. All teams of wethers were shorn at the Dubbo TAFE centre, then placed in a feedlot for eight weeks at Canowindra. Nigel's two teams of wethers had the highest average daily weight gain of 335 grams per day, and had the highest average body weight of 87kg at 11 months of age. "Because of the grazing system, holistic management and the constant plane of nutrition the sheep are on, we don't have the problem with dirty backsides we had under a traditional grazing system. There are no dags and the sheep have developed a lot of resistance to internal and external parasites." Moving to organic accreditation is a natural progression for the Kerins. But this is no embracing of the 'warm and fuzzy stuff '. It is about meeting a new challenge and helping drive down production costs further, while moving towards a more regenerative farming system. "'Organic' is a buzz word. 'Sustainable' is a buzz word. I think consumers should understand that there are woolgrowers who are regenerating their environment. By working with nature, we've bred healthy, highly productive animals with profitable wool. "Our chemical use is minimal. We haven't used fertiliser in nine years, yet we've never lost ground cover from our paddocks. My goal is to keep our farm dams empty and rely on bore water because that way I know the moisture is being captured by the soil and I'm not overgrazing my country. The biggest limiting factor for our operation is moisture and I'm not going to let the rain that does fall end up running into a dam and taking my most valuable asset -- the topsoil -- with it." After completing a workshop, organised by Lanoc Wool at Dubbo, for growers thinking of gaining organic accreditation, the Kerins plan to have two-thirds of their property undergo accreditation. The idea is to run at 60 per cent carrying capacity, or a "conservative" eight DSE/ha, as a way of managing the environmental resource and maintaining a good flock without having to supplementary feed the sheep run on a higher stocking rate, which would increase production costs. When extra paddock feed is available, it will be utilised by backgrounding organic dairy heifers on a weight-gain basis and cows on an agistment basis. "Organic dairy production attracts a real premium, but these fellows find it hard to expand because they can't access organic farms to background their non- milking herd on," Nigel says. "This way, I will have an income stream each month without having to wear the capital cost of the livestock, while still utilising the farm's feed resource." Nigel is convinced that working with the environment, rather than against it, is the only way woolgrowers will cope with climate change. He considers that he is now already dealing with a "Nyngan-type (dry) climate at Yeoval" -- traditionally a higher-rainfall area. This means 100 per cent ground cover has already become essential for achieving full water-use efficiency. For a traditional woolgrower, Nigel realises the thought of achieving organic certification could be overwhelming : "We've undergone a massive paradigm shift in our operation ... but a definition of insanity would be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome." ú More information: Nigel Kerin, 0427 464 070, email@example.com To read more about environmentally sustainable and organic wool production and worldwide demand for such fibres, see the Eco Trends supplement with this issue of Beyond the Bale. 9 FARM MANAGEMENT BEYOND THE BALE www.wool.com.au SUPPLEMENT ISSUE 05 FEBRUARY -- MARCH 2008 ECO TRENDS AUSTRALIA IS WELL PLACED TO CAPITALISE ON GROWING CONSUMER DEMAND FOR ENVIRONMENTALLY ASSURED WOOL Moving to organic accreditation is a natural next- step for Nigel Kerin of Yeoval, NSW.
Feb - Mar 08 Supplement
Apr - May 08