CASE STUDY: TASMANIA
Farmers: Rob and Hanna O’Connor
Location: ‘Benham’, Avoca, Tasmania
Property size: 3000 arable hectares
Average annual rainfall: 800mm high country, 500mm low country
Why Merinos? Our top three reasons
1. It’s the most profitable breed with both meat and wool advantages.
2. Best suited to our environment.
3. Our Merinos are a system that’s easily replicated to increase our flock size when required.
WHEN the figures started stacking up, Tasmanian farmer Rob O’Connor figured it was time to breed more Merino ewes.
Six years ago, after extensive analysis of his mixed sheep enterprise, Rob decided to sideline his crossbreeding program and shift his focus back to refining his Merino genetics and boosting his flock numbers.
All the figures and market indicators revealed a total Merino operation as the most profitable sheep enterprise for the O’Connor’s 3000 workable hectares known as ‘Benham’ near Avoca, Tasmania.
Even though the O’Connor family had always run a Merino flock, exposure to a fluctuating wool market in the early 2000s and a constrained wool enterprise forced them to consider retaining crossbred ewes to adapt and cope with the situation at the time.
They began producing a first cross ewe flock, joined to a terminal sire for prime lamb production, while still maintaining the best of their Merino genetics.
This set in motion a strategic breeding plan to simultaneously move their Merino enterprise in a new, more profitable direction.
While the two flocks were both successful, Rob said running the two ewe flocks on the same property created extra complication and workload for management and staff, so in 2012 he decided to re-run the figures of the two operations and benchmark them more closely against each other.
After comparing the gross margin per DSE of both enterprises, along with key performance indicators, they found that the enterprises were similar in terms of profitability.
It also became clear at that point in time, that they needed to consistently achieve above 150 per cent lambing in the prime lamb enterprise to be on par with their Merino wool operation.
“We were achieving that 150pc lambing, but we had to be performing at the top of our game to get there,” Rob said.
“Around that same time, we started to see the Merino ewe had greater potential in our situation.
“The Merino is more adaptable to our country and allows us to utilize the property more effectively, and I always thought we would go back to running solely Merino ewes.
“Through keeping figures and benchmarking, we knew we could make some adjustments and improvements with our Merinos to go well past the crossbreds in terms of profitability, with less overall work through de-complicating our system.
“Since then, we have slowly phased out the first cross ewe and are less than a year away from becoming 100pc Merino ewes again.
“Turns out it was a fortuitous decision for us, as the wool market and sheep meat prices have held firm and continued to improve since then.
“We are miles in front now (of where we were) and have no regrets at all going back to solely breeding Merinos.”
As it currently stands, the O’Connor’s run around 20,000 sheep, 8,000 of which are ewes, 5000 wethers and 4000 Merino hoggets and finish around 4,000 prime lambs.
After a decade hiatus of not retaining wethers, Rob said they are working on building those numbers back up to split their operation 50/50 between ewes and wethers, enabling them to capitalise on a premium wool market and maximise the use of the property’s run country.
Being on the finer end of the wool scale, Rob said back in their prime wool-producing days the family’s O/ROC (wool brand) clip averaged around 16-17 microns, but over the last few years he has shifted their focus to breed a more fertile, larger-framed animal with heavier cutting high-quality medium-fine wool of 17-18 microns.
He selects breeding stock purely based on figures, purchasing 300 straws of semen every year to produce his own rams, artificially inseminating their nucleus flock of ewes.
It’s a process Rob likes to refer to as ‘genetic multiplication’, using a mixture of proven sires from up to three top studs, that have top figures for wool cut and micron, with quality wool and body type to quickly and efficiently achieve his breeding objectives.
He still wants to produce fine wool, but as heavy cutting as possible off ewes that have a strong frame and heightened fertility traits.
“I enjoy producing quality traditional type superfine wool, but there just isn’t as much of it as there used to be,” he said.
“The new direction is more profitable and better suited to our operation, but the quality of the wool is just as good, if not better.
“The ewes were on the smaller side and fertility was low, so we had to improve that, and create more options to maximise the breed’s duel purpose flexibility before we made the complete shift back to Merino ewes only.
“In the ten years we ran the first cross ewe, we worked on the size and fertility of our Merinos, but I still think we have a little way to go.”
In recent years, the O’Connor’s Merinos averaged around 90pc lambing over a five-week period in September, after the rams are joined earlier in the year around mid-April.
They shear in August over four weeks and during the transition period of the last six years, there has been a noticeable improvement in the wool clip.
Rob is looking forward to seeing the new data on his wool clip now that the transition to 100pc Merino ewe base is almost complete, get it benchmarked and see what the figures show, but he is sure the results will be positive.
The O’Connor’s sheep make up a huge sector of their varied farming enterprise, with 60pc livestock, 30pc cropping and 10pc forestry.
Of that 60pc livestock, 45pc is sheep, while the remaining 15pc is reserved for cattle. Farming in a valley, Rob said overall the property is more suited to livestock than cropping, with a high portion of crop also used for grazing in an integrated system.
In the lower lying country with only 500mm of annual rainfall, Rob has established 900ha of irrigated land for cereal crops, canola, poppies and fodder for intensive winter grazing and finishing stock throughout the year.
In the warmer months, the livestock graze on the high country, where an average of 800mm of rainfall ensures there’s plenty of native pastures available.
It’s a system that is humming along nicely after some fine-tuning and simplifying in recent years, with the most important change evolving as a purely Merino sheep property.
“We’re only going to concentrate on improving and refining our Merino operation now, there’s no turning back for us,” Rob said.
This case study is part of the BMME campaign, demonstrating the unrivalled performance of the Australian Merino Ewe. To read other case studies or to find out more information, go to www.merinos.com.au.
By CAITLYN BURLING