Science an important flock factor

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Kojonup Merino producer Nick Outhwaite is reaping the rewards of adopting sheep industry breeding and management technologies to achieve higher flock reproductive performance and productivity.

He said he was passionate about Merinos and there were some great tools available to farmers to rapidly progress the struggling industry.

"The average age of Merino producers is 56 and the only way we are going to get young people involved is to move the industry forward," he said.

The Outhwaites have come a full circle in their sheep enterprise, Burrandong Pastoral, from running a traditional 10,000 to 15,000-head Merino wool enterprise in the 1980s, diverging into cropping in the wake of the Reserve Price Scheme collapse in the 1990s and then rebuilding Merino ewe numbers from the early 2000s to about 12,000 head to take advantage of opportunities arising from a declining national sheep flock.

About 90 per cent of the family's gross sheep income was derived from wool in 1980. Wool now represents 40 per cent, with the balance coming from meat.

Mr Outhwaite has been a long-time user of MERINOSELECT and LAMBPLAN Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) and has joined the Lifetime Ewe Management Program (LTEM).

He said practical LTEM strategies had helped him fast-track his sheep enterprise productivity by filling feed gaps and matching nutritional requirements of ewes to available paddock feed. "We are now focused on analysing the nutrient requirements of all our animals, especially our ewes during the reproductive cycle," Mr Outhwaite said.

"We assess feed on offer in the paddock and we condition score our ewes at regular intervals, especially in the lead up to critical times such as joining, scanning and lambing.

"Ewes are split into management groups based on scanning and condition score results so we can focus on their nutritional requirements more closely."

Highlighting the importance of ewe management, Mr Outhwaite said he monitored a small group of twin-bearing ewes from 2010 that reached condition score three by the next mating in 2011. These sheep achieved 150 per cent conception rates at scanning and lamb marking rates of 113 per cent.

A second group of twin-bearers from 2010, that were at condition score 2.8 by the following joining in 2011, had lower conception rates of 105 per cent at scanning and marking rates of 81 per cent.

Mr Outhwaite estimates an increase in marking/weaning rate of 32 per cent is worth an extra $15/ewe and increased lamb survival of 6 per cent is worth about $7/ewe.

For a cost of $2 to $5 in extra feed requirements for ewes to achieve this, the net value was $17 to 20/ewe.

"To achieve this it is critical to wean lambs early to allow ewe recovery and feed at critical times," he said.

Mr Outhwaite's breeding focus is on carcase traits and growth rates and ram selection is based on ASBVs to select for post weaning weight, yearling weight, yearling eye muscle depth and yearling fat.

He said his ASBV parameters for ram selection meant he would only consider the top 30 per cent of rams on offer.

"My ram suppliers are making serious genetic advances in all traits in the breeding flock - well above the national average," he said.

"For example, from 2006 to 2011 the studs have doubled gains in post weaning weight, almost doubled yearling weight and lifted yearling fat from 0.5 to 0.8.

"Our aim in our breeding selection is to have a productive ewe flock and turn off quality wether lambs."

In an attempt to continue pushing ewe reproductive performance, the Outhwaites mated 800 ewe lambs for the first time this year. This was about 25 per cent of the total 2011 ewe lamb drop and the lambs were fed in a feedlot for 100 days before joining.

Teasers were used at one to 2 per cent before rams went in to the mob at a rate of 5 per cent on March 24, when ewe lamb average weight was about 47kg. Rams were removed on April 1 to ensure a tight joining period.

Scanning results showed conception rates of 50 per cent with single lamb, 25 per cent with multiple pregnancies and 25 per cent dry.

Mr Outhwaite estimated the cost of feeding the ewe lambs was about $55/head at a feeding regime of 13.5kg/head/week and the venture had incurred a loss in this first year trial, mainly because of high feed costs. He has calculated breakeven feed cost is about 20 per cent of liveweight and it would be economic to feed at a rate of 9kg/head for 100 days, or the full feeding rate of 13.5kg/head for a lesser period of about 60 days.

"We wanted to know where we were at and we will probably mate all our ewe lambs next year, with a refinement and streamlining of feeding operations," he said.

Mr Outhwaite is convinced Merino breeders and commercial producers could strive to achieve better outcomes for the sheep industry based on adoption of breeding technologies and management tools, such as LTEM.

"We have been using ASBVs for vigorous selection for four years and we have seen massive improvements in our sheep flock and production of wether lambs that are good converters and can grow at 280 to 300g/head/day," he said.

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