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Beyond the Bale : Jun - July 08
By Kellie Penfold W hen stud breeder Ross Baldwin contemplates the future of the Australian Merino industry, he looks to the genetics built into the Merino breed by stud masters over the past 150 years. Breeds such as the Saxon, German and Rambouillet Merinos, and English Leicester, Cotswold and Lincoln, were crossed into the Spanish (Australian) Merino to lift wool and meat production and improve hardiness. Drawing on his extensive library of reference books on sheep breeds and genetics, Ross enjoys following the bloodlines that flowed to create the modern Merino, and quickly points to traits from other breeds that are evident in today’s animal. “It makes you realise how exciting the future is for the Merino,” he says. “If we look at everything we’ve done in the past and think about the potential for this animal, it’s mind blowing. The type of Merino we could have in 10 years’ time could be vastly different from the animal we’re running today.” With his son Rick and daughter-in-law Jill, Ross runs ‘Bundilla Merino Stud’ from farms at Young and Orange in central NSW, supplying rams to clients around NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Now more than 35 years old, the stud, which was founded on Wonga bloodlines by Ross and his late wife Susi, has never strayed far from its foundation principles: to breed sires that perform well in a variety of climates, with exceptional fertility and high early growth rates, and internal parasite resistance. Today, the Baldwin family run ‘Bundilla Merinos’ with 1200 fully pedigree ewes and a further back-up flock, of up to 1500 ewes, used in progeny-testing stud sires. The stud flock has a 15-year average weaning rate of 143 per cent (Figure 1), and a five-year average wool cut of 7.8 kilograms of 19.5 micron wool, with a yield of 68 to 70. Ross says that it is the ability of the ‘Bundilla’ genetics to wean more lambs that makes it special within the Merino industry. “Managing high fertility is a job in itself,” he says. It has taken the Baldwin family 35 years to develop a management program that can achieve 143 per cent weaning. “There has been a lot of talk of achieving 180 to 200 per cent weaning-rate averages over a number of years, but in commercial conditions with the Merino we do not think this is achievable. To wean over 160 per cent you would need to scan in excess of 200 per cent, and with environmental factors affecting maiden ewe growth and fertility – like over the past five years – this is always going to be difficult.” This said, the Baldwins believe fertility is what drives genetic gain, getting growers to where they want to be, faster. “When I speak to clients who want to improve their Merino profitability, the first thing I ask is what management practices are they willing to carry out, such as meeting hogget growth-rate targets, scanning, lambing mob size and ewe condition scores. And, if they are prepared to do the work, the first priority must be fertility without compromise to any other trait, particularly wool cut.” Ross is enthusiastic about the potential to enhance the Merino industry’s profitability and has a personal ambition of helping the industry reach an average weaning percentage of 120 to 130 per cent, while maintaining competitive wool production and a continued focus on growth and meat quality. He sees the Merino as versatile, and highly suited to the Australian landscape. Ross believes fellow producers are already returning to Merinos in their enterprise mix and recognising their profitability more and more as they compare returns with other enterprises. All ‘Bundilla’ breeding objectives are financially based and assessed on a yearly basis through actual data collected and assessed through MERINOSELECT analysis. In 2004, an independent financial analysis carried out by Harden Rural Advisory Service on the ‘Bundilla’ commercial flock identified greasy fleece weight, wool value, growth and number of lambs weaned as the flock’s main genetic profit drivers (Figure 2). The aim of the analysis was to identify the most profitable breeding objective for the stud’s future genetic direction. All prices used in the analysis were based on 10-year averages. The 2004 analysis gave a $37.11 DSE (dry sheep equivalent) gross margin with sheep stocked at 12 DSE per hectare ($445/ha). Their long-term breeding policy was vindicated. The analysis showed fertility was the number-one profit driver for their flock. In 2008, the current gross margin has improved to $40.83, a 10 per cent increase. This is a result of a combination of higher prices and higher weaning. The Baldwins believe a ewe base with high fertility, mothering ability and milk production is vital. When scanned, the stud and flock consistently average more than 70 per cent multiples. If a ‘Bundilla’ ewe is empty she is Genetics Beyond the Bale Photo: Kellie Penfold Ross Baldwin’s personal ambition is to help the industry reach an average weaning percentage of 120 to 130 per cent, while maintaining competitive wool production and meat quality A fertile flock pAys dividends
Jun - Jul 08 Supplement
Aug - Sep 08