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Beyond the Bale : Aug - Sep 08
16 ProDuctivity Beyond The Bale Thirst for information and benchmark trials shape profitability Focusing on the essentials of fleece weight and micron, and using wether trials and fleece competitions to check their progress, has taken Pat and Marion Drew right to the top By Kellie Penfold S outhern New South Wales woolgrowers Pat and Marion Drew are planning a late retirement. Turning 40 next year, Pat calculates that if he plans a normal retirement he only has six generations of lambs to produce – seven if he can hang in there until he is 70. “That’s not enough time to do everything I want to with my sheep,” he says, adding that he wishes he was starting out in the wool game as a young bloke all over again, but with the knowledge he possesses today. Running 850 Merino ewes on the 400-hectare ‘Anunaka’, at Bethungra, between Junee and Cootamundra, the Drews say they could easily have walked away from wool growing when they started out on the property in the early 1990s and done as many of their neighbours have – moved to 100 per cent grain growing or a grain/prime lamb operation. But today, Pat and Marion say it is sheep production that has kept them afloat during the drought and the bushfires of 2006, which burnt out almost every paddock on the property. Starting with sheep that originated on his family’s home property at Collector, outside Canberra, Pat found that they did not perform in a drier, warmer environment and were becoming unproductive. “They were ordinary sheep,” Marion says. “Thirty to 40 per cent of them had fleece rot. In those days there was plenty of summer rain so we’d spend a lot of time chasing flystrike.” The ewe-based flock was averaging 5.5 kilograms of 23- micron wool at a time when market premiums were for fine wool. The couple looked at alternatives to wool production, decided they did not like crossbred sheep and felt they were up to the challenge of producing top-quality Merino wool. So Pat started asking questions. He spoke to fellow producers, classers, stud operators – anyone he came across about how they progressed their flock. That feedback helped the couple make the decisions that today sees the ‘Anunaka’ flock cutting seven to eight kilograms of 18.5-micron wool a head. It is wool that Pat describes as “non-traditional fine Merino wool”. Achieving this meant being persistent with their search for information: “If I didn’t get an answer I’d find someone else to ask,” he says. “We knew we weren’t barking up the wrong tree when we went to a seminar on soft rolling skin, and while we didn’t follow that path, it showed us the power of genetics and that good Merino wool could be grown if you focused on the essential elements.” Ten years ago Pat sold the rams he had been using and moved to sires from ‘Pastora’ Merino stud, the Lockhart- based operation run by Peter and Tim Westblade. Those essential elements – the two driving factors in wool income – were fleece weight and micron, the Drews decided. To measure and compare how they were travelling in these areas, Pat and Marion started entering teams in wether trials and fleece competitions. In wether trials run by Craig Wilson Livestock (CWL), wethers from the Drews have consistently performed in the top 10. In the recently concluded Alectown trial, which encompassed 51 teams each of 15 wethers, the ‘Anunaka’ team was ranked fourth, and the highest commercial producer, coming in behind three of Australia’s leading Merino studs – ‘Nerstane’, ‘Yalgoo’ and ‘Yarrawonga’. The Drew’s trial wethers, which were selected randomly from their entire wether drop of 2005, produced a fleece worth $49.55 a head in 2007 and $40.07 in 2008 (or $179.24 worth of wool over four years and an average $44.81 a year), with a meat value of $32.50/head in 2007 and $50.27/head in 2008 (average $42.81). Total production from those wethers over four years was $222.05 per head. All trial wethers are run in the same mob, in the same conditions, and Pat says it is trials that have given him the most valuable feedback to date. “There is enormous potential within the wool industry for all producers to increase profitability,” he says. “In the most recent trial the top 20 per cent of producers returned $21.27/head in extra fleece value than the bottom 20 per cent. Production costs per wether are the same, so that extra money is profit. “It has been shown that those who participate in wether trials are already in the top 15 to 20 per cent of producers, so if the difference between the top 20 and bottom 20 per cent of producers in the trial is so great, what must it be in the industry generally?” As Marion puts it, running a property at a conservative 10 dry sheep equivalents (DSE) per hectare, a sheep that produces an extra $20/head profit a year will return the grower $200/ha profit. Or as Pat puts it: “That’s the equivalent of producing an extra tonne to the hectare of wheat at $200 a tonne. Show me someone who can do that.” The Drews also carry out their own on-farm Marion and Pat Drew, of ‘Anunaka’, Bethungra, nSW, with two and three- year-old wethers about to be shorn for the Bendigo Sheep Show fleece competition. benchmarking to help them with classing decisions. When maiden ewes are shorn their fleeces are individually weighed, micron scanned and recorded. An ear-tagging system is used to identify those meeting production goals, which helps when other factors come into play, such as fertility and mothering ability. All ewes are weighed prior to joining and are later pregnancy-scanned so they can be managed according to whether they are carrying singles, twins or are dry. “It bears out the recommendations of Lifetime Wool,” Pat says. “Those ewes in better condition prior to joining are nearly always those carrying twins, and the lesson we have learnt from this is to start supplementary feeding earlier than you think the ewes need it. You’d be surprised at the results.” In the year following the bushfire, when the paddocks were bare and low rainfall meant no paddock feed, the Drews were able to retain an average lambing of more than 100 per cent using a droughtlot system. Through high fertility, Pat and Marion hope to build up their ewe flock to 1000, from which the offspring would be used as replacements, with the wether portion sold off as lambs at 10 to 12 months of age. And the information/advice circle is turning: Pat is now being asked how he improved his productivity. He has established his own classing business and is working as a sheep manager for a neighbour. “Everyone has sheep within their flock which are producing high fleece weights at below average micron – it is just a matter of finding them,” Pat says. “Generally, you can establish a new ewe nucleus flock using what already fits the parameters within the existing flock, and then buy in ewes which meet the criteria. If you are prepared to class hard, you can get to a more productive sheep quite quickly. “That’s why I can’t imagine how much more you could do if you had your whole lifetime ahead of you to fine-tune further.” More information: Pat drew, 02 6943 4201, firstname.lastname@example.org ú Photo: Kellie PenFolD
Jun - July 08
Oct - Nov 08