Pastoralist breaks with tradition in meat move

Rania SpoonerCountryman

Nullarbor pastoralist Rod Campbell and his family lived off the sheep’s back for close to 40 years, but when wool prices plummeted at the turn of the century, they turned to sheep meat.

The Campbells are not the only WA pastoralists to trade in their woolly Merinos for the resilient fat-tailed sheep to sell for meat.

Since an embargo on importing embryos from South Africa was lifted in 1996, the number of Damaras has steadily increased to an estimated 400,000 hybrids in WA.

Despite early interest in the sheep meat trade, Department of Agriculture and Food senior technical officer Matthew Young said the Campbells may be the only station on the Nullarbor running Damaras at present.

“It’s not easy for a lot of these places to change over,” Mr Young said.

“But with sheep prices what they are at the moment, it’s like winning lotto for these guys.”

Mr Campbell said it was hard work to convince his family, who have run Kybo Station, 505km east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, as a Merino operation since 1965.

“They thought I was crazy,” Mr Campbell said.

“It’s very hard when you’ve been a traditional woolgrower to convince your other family that we’re going in the wrong direction.”

About 10 years ago, Mr Campbell, suffering from an adverse wool market and growing conditions, began to research his options and said he had already increased his income in his first year of producing meat.

“I realised the wool industry, especially in the low rainfall country, was in desperate straits,” he said.

“We’re now growing sheep aimed at the Middle Eastern market and it looks to be a very bright future.”

Mr Campbell said Damaras were ideal for the arid pastoral conditions of the Nullarbor.

“Damaras are easy to handle and they don’t need to be shorn, which is a bonus,” Mr Campbell said.

The Campbell’s Merino flock was mated with Damara and Meatmaster rams and, eight years later, Merinos have almost been phased out, Mr Campbell said.

“There’s a demand in the Middle East for Australian stock, from WA in particular,” he said.

“The main market over there is the religious period, which is roughly November to March, and that ties in well with our seasonal commitments, lambing and so forth.

“We would expect to turn over 5000 or 6000 sheep a year over the next 10 years and we’re looking at about $100 a head.”

Mr Campbell said he was happy to see the price of wool rising, but did not regret his decision to move away from the market.

“There will always be a market for wool, but it’s becoming increasingly a niche market for fine wool and we cannot grow fine wool in this area,” he said.

Wild dogs remain a constant sheep threat for Goldfields-Nullarbor pastoralists.

Mr Young said he believed wild dogs were deterring other pastoralists from moving into sheep meat.

But Mr Campbell said Damaras appeared more resilient to the problem, because they moved in packs.

“Damaras have a good herd instinct,” he said.

“Merinos, particularly during the lambing period, tend to go off on their own and they’re so vulnerable they just get picked off.”

Mr Campbell is running about 8000 head of fat-tailed sheep and about 1000 head of cattle.

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