Foresight fosters success

BOB GARNANTThe West Australian

When British farming migrants John and Jane Coole bought a bush block in Frankland River in 1972, little did they know it would eventuate into the sheep breeding grounds of a future Wool Producer of the Year.

From modest beginnings, the Coole family adopted Australia's fair-go attitude with three sons of John and Jane's eight children taking up farming careers, aligning them to their early upbringing in Wales.

While reminiscing about this period, eldest son Richard recalled their enterprises.

"We ran cattle, sheep and pigs, and grew barley on our farm in south-west Wales," he said.

Today Richard, 58, wears the 2012 Wool Producer of the Year badge proudly, while running his family's 39,000-head sheep farm, Glenerin, in Frankland River, made up of five different properties.

"After being recognised as the recipient of the Kondinin Group/ABC Wool Producer of the Year, I am thankful to all my family, especially my wife Debbie and daughter Alex," he said. "Alex, who is 24, is keen to continue the farming operation.

"Of course, none of this would have been possible without the foresight of my parents and the support of my brothers in the preceding years.

"Opportunities with the availability of new land, and leased land, allowed us to expand rapidly in the 1980s, and our sheep numbers grew from 6000 to 16,000 over a period of a couple of years."

Richard, Alex, and farm worker Vicky were busy drenching and vaccinating ewes when Countryman visited their farm in late June.

They were also completing some fencing moderations in the lambing paddocks.

Richard said rainfall recordings at Glenerin included 25mm in early March, and the same again in early April, which in many years would have been considered a false start.

"Summer rainfall provided sub-soil moisture, and together with the practice of pasture grazing deferment and good rains in May, pastures took off and by mid-May we were able to stop hand-feeding sheep and let them out on to the paddocks," he said.

Despite the district's annual rainfall of 600-650mm, some years Glenerin only received 50 per cent of the long-term average. For example, in 2010, 340mm was recorded for the growing season. Richard feels that there is no doubt either climate change or some sort of short-term cyclical change is occurring, and therefore he has been integrating new management practices to address this change.

"There have been many dry starts and warmer winters, and the challenge is to bridge the gap to feed our sheep, and get the crops off to an early start," he said.

"After opening rains, we defer all pasture paddocks to allow for optimum plant establishment. Using satellite imagery as a tool, we estimate pasture feed on offer, with a threshold of 700kg-1000kg of dry matter per hectare, before returning the sheep to these paddocks.

"Sheep are held in sacrificial 20ha-30ha paddocks and hand-fed grain and silage produced on-farm during this withholding time."

By running at least 50 per cent dry sheep, the Cooles have flexibility in difficult seasons in which the sheep can be sold or fed-lot until pastures become available. "This also assists in maximising wool production per winter-grazed hectare," Richard said.

In terms of this year's season, Richard said it was still early days. "There are both challenges and opportunities," he said.

"It is likely with the longer season internal parasites may take a bit more dealing with, and if the pasture quantity continues into the spring, red mite numbers will increase and necessitate a larger TimeRite program.

"Of most concern is the lack of dam water this season and the need for some big winter rains."

The original Peppin Merino flock at Glenerin has evolved with a late 1980s push into a plainer type Merino, backed by measured performance using Australian Sheep Breeding Values and stringent visual scoring.

Richard said introduced breeding stock must pass the worm resistant criteria of at least -20 to -30 ASBVs for faecal worm egg count.

Glenerin has a 650-head nucleus ewe flock, from which to breed and select flock rams for the 8000-plus Merino ewe commercial flock.

Surplus ewes from the Merino flock - about 3000 head - are used for cross-breeding with Suffolk rams.

In recent times, Richard has sourced sires from Centre Plus and Merinotech to infuse into the nucleus flock.

"We are rigorously trait testing and began DNA testing our nucleus ewes this year, to give us full pedigrees," he said.

"Full pedigrees will increase the accuracy of ASBVs and allow for a bigger spread in index rankings. These are exciting times because genomics is the next frontier for sheep breeding."

Glenerin uses Sheep Genetics for its analysis of data, which is compiled by Richard and Debbie's daughter, Rachael.

The Cooles regularly condition score their sheep and follow the Lifetime Ewe Management practice.

"Understanding nutrition, stocking rates and every other aspect of sheep management is essential to our production standards," Richard said.

Richard also selects sheep for fertility, muscle, fat, bodyweight, dag scores, faecal worm egg counts, and wool traits including micron, staple strength and length, and colour, with a preference to producing soft-handling wool.

"Our adult ewes average 20.5 microns and cut 5.5-6kg wool," he said.

Richard said wool preparation was of paramount importance and could optimise the standards from both a buyer's and seller's perspective. "For this reason we try to have a member of our staff in the shearing shed during shearing," he said.

Wool represents up to 60 per cent of Glenerin's sheep income, or about 30 per cent of the overall farm income.

The Cooles maintain an average of better than 100 per cent marked lambing, dropped in late July and August.

Crutching and lamb marking are carried out simultaneously in September and shearing takes place in November and December, producing 850 to 900 bales of wool.

In January when wool prices were relatively on the up and up, the Cooles decided to lock in half of their wool clip, selling forward which may work in their favour, because prices have begun to ease.

"This is done purely as a risk management strategy, particularly when wool prices were in their 90th percentile," Richard said.

The Cooles also hedge their farming operation by diversifying with a 1600ha cropping program, including canola, barley, oats and fodder crops.

"We believe the 60:40 sheep:crop ratio is the most profitable model in this area," Richard said.

This year Alex's partner, Mike Bembrick, began working at Glenerin as cropping manager.

Richard has found farming very challenging and hopes the next generation will find it just as rewarding.

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