Quality key to family's success

Rebecca TurnerCountryman

Dandaragan mixed farmer Hugh Roberts and his family have a long history in the prime lamb industry and it is their attention to detail and consistency in turning off quality lambs that makes them one of V&V Walsh's top producers and the faces behind the Amelia Park Lamb brand.

Since 1995, the Roberts family have sold the majority of their lambs direct to V&V Walsh with all fitting the brand's specifications packaged under the Amelia Park Lamb label.

Hugh said that with lamb becoming so expensive, branding was an increasingly important tool to help distinguish lamb in the market place.

"More so than ever, consumers are chasing quality," Hugh said.

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"I think this is due to cost: people are looking for best value for money and a local product."

Hugh said to ensure that quality could be achieved consistently, producers were increasingly relying on improvements in technology.

He said installing an auto drafter on the farm in 2002 was an example of how improved technology was enabling them to produce a better quality lamb.

"The auto drafter has enabled us to weigh lines of lambs coming into the feedlot to ensure their background weight is high enough to meet market specifications," Hugh said.

"Rarely do we get a kill sheet back with a lamb on it that shouldn't have been there."

Hugh said each line of lambs sent to Walsh's had an average dressed weight above 20kg and fat score of 2/3.

He said the large majority of lambs they produced came straight off the paddock, with the remainder finished in their feedlot.

"While it varies from season to season, last year we turned off 3500 head of lambs from the paddock and the remaining 1900 were put onto stubbles and then went into the feedlot," Hugh said.

"Between September and October we were turning off on average 400 lambs a week to V&V Walsh."

Hugh said this year they were aiming to turn off 5000 lambs, which was a normal yearly average for the farm.

He said that after receiving good winter rainfall he was hopeful pasture growth would now push feed up over spring - however, like many WA producers the beginning of 2011 had been one of the hardest on record.

"We started hand feeding in November and didn't stop until the first week of July this year," Hugh said.

Hugh said despite the tough start at the start of the year lambs were looking very promising.

He said producers were finding it increasingly harder to get heavier weights on lambs to fit into the spring market.

Growing lambs quicker was one of the main aims into the future for the Roberts flock with estimated breeding values (EBVs) playing a pivotal role in ensuring rams produced lambs which finished faster at a lower cost.

The Roberts' 8100 head flock is a mixture of Merino, Poll Dorset and Border Leicester genetics.

Rams are put in during December with a total of 2500 self replacing Merino ewes, 3000 first-cross Border Leicester ewes and 1500 Merino over Border Leicester self-replacing first cross ewes mated.

The remainder of the flock of Merino ewes is then put to Poll Dorset rams.

Hugh said the family purchased all their rams based on EBVs, looking for figures that predicted quicker lamb growth rates, leaner carcases at heavier weights with higher yields.

The lambing period runs from early May to early June, with most lambs turned off during September to October.

While the majority of lambs are turned off grass, the feedlot begins operation in late November with lambs firstly put onto stubbles and then entering the feedlot at a minimum weight of 40kg.

Lambs then spend a maximum of 30 days on feed which consists of Gilmac pellets and hay achieving an average weight gain of 350 to 380grams/day, at a total costs of between $13 to $15/head.

Lambs are weighed on entering the feedlot and again at one and a half to two weeks achieving an average turnoff liveweight of 50kg and dressed weight of 21.6kg.

Hugh said he was confident those involved in the WA lamb industry were becoming "better, smarter and quicker" at producing quality lamb but as with all industries there would always be those that did things very well to those that didn't.

He said that, looking to the future, the size of WA's flock was a big concern and he felt the potential for lamb prices to fall was what might hold industry expansion back.

Hugh said both the risk of processors closing their doors or a reduction in demand for sheep from live exporters because of new restrictions placed on the industry could result in a drop in prices.

"It is uncertainty of competition remaining in the WA market place that is holding producers back," Hugh said.

"I think we will see pockets of producers in WA getting back into livestock, but as long as we continue to get high yielding years for grain production I don't think we will see these people rebuilding their flocks," Hugh said.

"Those that have stuck with livestock will stay, but if prices come down it will impact confidence."

Hugh said that as long as production costs for lamb remained stable, he was confident world-wide demand for protein would provide a strong future for the industry.

He said he was equally as confident Amelia Park Lamb had a very strong future in both WA's retail and food service sectors because of its high quality and consumer support in WA for locally grown produce.

Hugh said the Amelia Park brand ticked all the boxes consumers were looking for in this respect and it was Walsh's commitment to providing such a consistently high-quality lamb product that would ensure consumers continued to come back and keep supporting the brand long into the future.

"I think Walsh's has proven itself to be one of the quiet achievers in the industry; while we often hear and read reports of other export processors closing their doors, Walsh's continue to process year in year out," Hugh said.

Fast facts *

_WHO: _ Hugh, Anna, Angus, Lachlan, Bert and Kerrie Roberts

_WHAT: _ Amelia Park Lamb

_WHERE: _ Dandaragan

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