Ellen finds balance between crops, stock

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman
The West logo

Farming is all about balance for young farmer Ellen Walker, who mixes sheep with cropping on her family's Brookton property.

The area is traditionally known as sheep country and although the Walkers commit about a third of their land to barley and oat production, sheep are still the mainstay.

Ellen said getting the right mix between stock and crops - especially with market volatility - required not only forward planning but flexibility when conditions did not pan out.

Never was that more apparent than this autumn, when six weeks of dry weather followed early May rains, which had just been enough to get crops poking out of the ground.

With lambing just beginning and a patchy crop germination, last week's 30mm falls came just in time.

"The sheep feed was getting desperate, pastures were starting to die off," Ellen said. "That was stressful - we'd used up all the hay and we still had plenty of oats but the sheep were hanging out for roughage.

"We started seeding about two weeks after that (rain in early March) and got all the Baudin barley in and most of the oats. Then it started to get too dry.

"We did drop out some paddocks. We were going to put them into hay, but we weren't ready when it first rained. They went green before we had a chance to burn them.

"But it's worked out for the best because we've been able to use them as sheep feed."

Seeding of the family's oaten hay paddocks started again after the rain, with the family finally winding up last weekend, but the dry May has meant a patchy germination.

So far they have not had to reseed, but Ellen said they would make that call when they had time to properly assess the crops.

"We've floated the idea of grazing some of the crops this year - some are a little ahead of themselves and there is some concern about the frost window," she said.

Ellen has been back on the farm seven years and, with a passion for the industry, she is keen to stick around.

She said sheep would always remain a focus on the property, but they were moving towards dual-purpose sheep rather than straight wool production.

"We've traditionally been wool," Ellen said. "Dad used to run a stud and I spent most of my childhood hanging out in the shearing shed, so I remember dealing with wool in that boom context.

"During the dry years in 2006 and 2010, we cut back on surplus stock and we seemed to hit it at just the right moment in terms of prices.

"We're now trying to rebuild but it's too expensive to buy them in, so we'll have to breed them."

While Ellen is confident they will continue to run sheep, exactly what mix of sheep aimed at which markets remains uncertain. "The restrictions that they're putting on live export … it makes sense in that nobody wants to see an animal suffer, but it's also not good in terms of being able to maintain a market and be culturally aware of that market," she said.

"We traditionally used to run 1000 to 1500 wethers up here in the hills where it's rougher country.

"But there's no point keeping those wethers if there's no market for them - the shipping market is really the only option for two-year-old wethers.

"For us, grazing and cropping are a good mix in terms of the way the land handles it - there's no way we'd ever go all cropping - but it's about having enough options of what you can do with the sheep.

"Things like prime lamb, I think we've reached the upper limit of what the price can be.

"The future of farming is being smarter about how you use your land and what you produce, rather than being bigger or chasing yield."

Fast facts *

_WHO: _ Ellen, Kate and Neil Walker

_WHERE: _ Brookton

_WHAT: _1700 Merinos mated to Merino rams, 700 Merinos mated to Poll Dorset or Texel rams, 400 Dohne ewes as well as Baudin barley and oats for feed and hay.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails