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Beyond the Bale : Oct - Nov 08
Productivity Beyond the Bale Profitable Merinos a measure of balance Focusing on achieving a slight improvement in all traits will improve returns at the end of the day, says Western Australian woolgrower Ashley Hobbs By Stephen Cooke W estern Australian woolgrower Ashley Hobbs compares running a mixed farming operation to breeding well-balanced Merinos: just as cropping and livestock give access to more markets and reduce risk, so does the right balance of wool and sheepmeat. “The wool market and the meat market are not always great, so you have to produce a diverse product – along the lines of mixed cropping,” he says. Ashley and his wife Lucille run 2500 Merino ewes on their 2080- hectare Brookton property ‘Ingle’, about 100 kilometres south-east of Perth. They are running 1350 commercial ewes this year and 1100 stud ewes, which originate from the Australian Merino Society’s (AMS) sheep- breeding cooperative. Ewes from both flocks are selected for the same characteristics – plain-bodied, fertile, large-framed, good meat traits and soft-handling, low-micron, long stapled wool – which have been honed through benchmarking and performance recording for more than 50 years. Ashley is the fourth generation of his family to manage ‘Ingle’, selected in 1901, and it was his grandfather Edwin who first performance- recorded their flock by measuring clean fleece weight. Ashley’s father Bruce began recording bodyweight when he joined the AMS in 1972. The AMS is a WA-based breeding cooperative of which Ashley is a past president. The cooperative uses a combination of visual selection, performance measurement and index selection to maximise profit. Members have access to genetics, bred through a three-tiered group breeding scheme, to improve their flock. It was Bruce’s involvement with the AMS that encouraged him to measure more traits – those considered by the AMS to be of economic importance and heritable. Fleece weights vary with the seasons, yet there is little wool above 18 microns. But this is only part of the equation on ‘Ingle’. “We measure our performance on the return per hectare, not cut per sheep,” Ashley says. “We take carcase measurements as well as wool measurements because sheep are sold in the end and a profitable animal needs a combination of the two.” The Hobbses took part in their first wether trial through the WA Department of Agriculture in 1998, which left them with questions about the direction of the bloodline they were using. “I thought my bloodline was good, but everyone else thought their bloodline was good too,” Ashley says. “The wether trial confirmed we were finer than any other bloodline locally and although we cut less wool per head we had more live sheep at the end of the day. “It motivated me to ask where we were and what we could do to improve.” Ashley says the wether trial simply measured wool and not the reproductive rate of the flock, which is crucial in the ewe-based flocks prevalent in WA. “You need to measure reproductive performance because you can’t improve the other traits without that.” In 1999, the Hobbses employed the services of local farm consultancy FARMANCO and each year since have sent their facts and figures for analysis. FARMANCO benchmarks the financial performance across the whole business. They have also been sending measurements, including worm egg counts, dag scores, bodyweights, clean fleece weights, scrotal circumference, eye muscle depth and fat depth, and sire pedigrees to MERINOSELECT, starting with their 2000 drop. This data is entered into the national database to enable them to benchmark their flock genetics. The Hobbses now derive half their Merino income from wool and half from sheepmeat and their selection process is focused on maintaining that balance. “I’m mystified at times as to why people focus entirely on wool,” Ashley says. “If you try too hard to increase your fleece weight or your carcase traits, you may increase the value of the trait you select for but decrease the value of the trait for which you don’t select. There is no point in increasing the size of one trait at the expense of all others. “If you focus on achieving a slight improvement in all traits, you’re going to improve your returns at the end of the day. If you don’t neglect an economic trait, you won’t get your sheep out of balance.” Ashley’s experience is that all economically important traits need to be measured because just about all are interconnected. This year Ashley tested 19 sires as part of the progeny testing program with the help of MERINOSELECT.
Dec 08 - Jan 09
Aug - Sep 08