Birds spread their wings

Rebecca TurnerThe West Australian

"Paddock to plate" is the mantra of Wickepin farmer and successful businesswoman Audrey Bird.

The Bird family operates Windorah Farms, a 2000ha cropping and sheep property in the shire of Wickepin.

First-generation farmers Frank and Valerie Bird initially came to Windorah in 1958, with son Peter and his wife Audrey taking over management of the farm in 1980.

Their son Daniel is now also part of the farming operation.

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It is an understatement to say Mrs Bird is a busy woman - not only is she in charge of the family's own lamb brand Facey Country Lamb but her newest venture is as the owner-manager of the Wickepin Hotel and Harvest Cafe.

The Birds bought the rundown hotel at the start of this year and have spent the past three months renovating and developing the business, including extensive refurbishment of the accommodation and opening a new cafe with a focus on getting more local produce on the menu.

It is Mrs Bird's passion for the lamb she produces which has given her the determination to oversee the entire supply chain of putting Facey Country Lamb on the table.

The Birds began branding their own lamb in February 2013.

"I wanted to produce a product, not a commodity," Mrs Bird said.

"We produce a very good product and I didn't think we were getting the benefit of our efforts."

Facey Country Lamb is now available for purchase as half and full bodies in and around Wickepin and Narrogin shires and on market days, or directly on the farm.

While initially the branded lamb was being marketed in other areas of WA, including Perth, the cost of freight has meant pursuing this avenue for further development is no longer being considered.

Instead, Mrs Bird has decided to go the extra mile and has plans to create value-added lamb products, which can be more economically freighted to Perth customers and still provide a much better return to the "farm gate".

"We couldn't get our lamb to Perth at an economical rate, so I started looking at options to value-add our lamb on a local basis," Mrs Bird said.

The Wickepin Hotel was for sale and having a commercial kitchen, this presented a great opportunity.

"The hotel has become our focus and our aim is to increase the amount of local lamb on the menu as well as down the track we plan to turn out our own pastries including lamb sausage rolls and meat pies."

The hotel is not sitting on its laurels and has already received the accolade of WA's Best Steak Sandwich from a Regional Venue at a competition held at Crown Perth recently as part of the 2015 AHA Hospitality Expo.

Chef Jody Dunn created the winning combination of Facey Country Lamb and other seasonal ingredients, such as beetroot and caramelised onions, which impressed the judges and beat other bigger and well-established venues from across the State.

Facey Country Lamb is not only featured in the award-winning Facey Country Lamb burger but a pulled "lambwich" from a slow- roasted shoulder as well as various specials such as lamb curry are on the menu at the Wickepin Hotel.

Mrs Bird said developing the Wickepin Hotel and Harvest Cafe over the past three months had seen her back off promoting their lamb as a fresh and quality product.

She said what was disheartening when promoting her brand in the WA food service industry was the lack of support from chefs.

Mrs Bird said it seemed while the majority of chefs approached were initially interested in using a local lamb product, they could not go past the cost advantage in some situations of importing frozen lamb from New Zealand and the Eastern States.

While it is hard to believe product from New Zealand can be freighted to WA and still be cheaper than a quality locally produced product, it is unfortunately a reality of the industry and as such Mrs Bird is determined to find a solution.

Mrs Bird said she planned to still sell Facey Country Lamb as a fresh product, with the remainder of each fortnightly kill used at the Wickepin Hotel.

The Birds run a 3000-head commercial sheep operation across their Wickepin properties, of which 2000 are Dorpers and 1000 are Merino cross Border Leicesters.

The Facey Country Lamb brand uses only Dorper lambs, which are hand-picked by Mrs Bird and processed at Corrigin abattoir.

The remainder of lambs are sold direct to abattoirs or through the saleyards.

All lambs for the Facey Country Lamb brand aim to finish at a 21kg carcase weight and are finished either on green feed or through the farm's feedlot once feed dries off.

The feedlot has a 1200-lamb capacity and offers an economically viable option for finishing sheep on pellets when the right price incentives are available in the market.

Mrs Bird said she had been in Wickepin for 36 years and a profitable prime lamb enterprise had always been a desirable portion of the farm business.

While initially the family farm ran Merinos, a move was made into a shedding breed to reduce labour demands and fit better into the Birds' farming system and management practises.

Quality prime lamb production became the soul focus for their sheep enterprise.

In 2008, the farm began moving into Dorpers.

"We started off breeding composite Dorper cross Merinos," Mrs Bird said.

"When the market was very strong for high-fertility Merino type ewes, we sold the majority of our ewes and bought in the equivalent value of third and fourth- cross Dorper ewes. "We find Dorpers fit our system very well; they love summer weeds and this helps reduce the amount of spraying needed.

"They also thrive on dry feed, such as stubble residues, which is important as we only have a six-month growing season.

"Dorpers are also a lovely animal to work with in the yards."

Mrs Bird said she believed the Australian prime lamb industry had a very bright future, however if processors were serious about securing a consistent supply of lamb, there needed to be better price incentives for producers.

"At the moment, I don't believe producers are getting the right price incentives," she said.

"Farmers also need more feedback on our carcases; some of us put a lot of effort into the sires we select and we are not getting the information back we need."

Mrs Bird said more investment in technology was also needed to improve the Australian sheep industry's potential for profitability.

Looking to the future, Mrs Bird said their aim was to have full control of their lamb production from paddock to plate.

"This is the ultimate goal, then you can really guarantee the quality of your product," Mrs Bird said.

Mrs Bird said her long-term plan was to ideally build a butchers' room alongside the Wickepin Hotel's commercial kitchen.

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