Merino still backbone of business

Corrina RidgwayCountryman

A Condingup farming family says its success was borne on the sheep’s back, reports Corrina Ridgway

The importance of the Merino in farming has never been lost on the Fowlers.

Simon Fowler and wife Robyn are head of stock management for the family enterprise, run with parents Richard and Elaine and brothers Andrew and Tim, who with partners Marie and Kath, commandeer the cropping program.

The family run a large-scale rotational grazing and cropping program over 16,500 arable hectares, ranging between 90 and 120km east of Esperance in the coastal district.

With 2000 breeding cattle, 1600 finishing steers and heifers and just over 30,000 sheep, the Merino breed still reigns supreme.

Beginning with Merinos in the late 1960s as an entirely wool producing entity, the success of the current day business was borne on the sheep’s back.

“Merinos got us to where we are now — they have set us up, ” Simon said. “Making a profit on them let us increase our farm size.

“I have no intention of changing breed. I really can’t see the productivity gains to be made.”

Normally purchasing 60–80 rams a year, the family has run a Collinsville-based bloodline since 1970, traditionally sourced from Greenville stud.

Kolindale stud rams have also played a role in genetics and recently Simon has been keeping an eye out for other players.

“We have sourced a few locally in an attempt to see how they go ... and I will be going to the field days, ” he said.

With huge numbers, the main aim for Simon is to keep a flock of large-framed, dual-purpose sheep that cut plenty of good quality wool. The sheep yield an average 22 micron, 5.5kg fleece.

“In the past we have cut 1000 bales of wool in a year, but we are more focused on filling bales rather than chasing finer microns.”

Simon believes the key to the Merino’s success in recent years for them has been its versatility.

“We have British Breed and Merino lambs for the shipping market, ” he said. “They are well suited to a high stocking rate and get pregnant easily with the ability to breed at different times through the year.”

Ewes are run to seven years old and the oldest three age groups are mated to cross breeds.

This year 12,000 breeders have been sired to Merinos and 8000 bred to meat breed rams.

Simon has 6800 crossbred lambs on farm to be moved in late August, September and October once finished as well as 5000 wether lambs to ship in March.

Simon runs two breeding programs to suit the Merinos and the Merino crossbred lambs for market.

Crossbreds are dropped early in March so they are ready for market in September before harvest.

Merinos are joined to drop in June and July, also benefiting from the green feed and grazing crops. Forty lick feeders also ease early crossbred lambs on.

With lambing rates for the Merino ewes of 90–95 per cent it is easy to watch stocking rates climb, the key to the family’s operation.

The aim of the enterprise, with 20,000 ewes mated each year and running 350 rams, is to increase production numbers to maximise return and mesh with a massive cropping program.

“Our goal has been to achieve a higher stock rate, ” Simon said.

“We have gone from eight to 18 to 20 DSE and it hasn’t really cost us extra.

“The reason — for us — is that the pasture phase is really critical for the performance of our crops.

“Also, the return at a low stock rate just wasn’t good enough.”

About 10,000ha of the property is cropped with cereals and canola this year and 5150ha are stock pastures.

Pasture and grazing management is of maximum priority.

“We make sure pastures have a very strong clover base, ” Simon said.

“We also seed 500ha a year of ryegrass and clover for finishing steers and lambs.”

To complement the cropping program and keep density of head, the sheep are also put onto grazing crops.

This year alone the Fowlers are grazing 6000ha of their cropping program, including canola.

“The importance of grazing crops is high. Without it we definitely couldn’t get our stocking rate, ” Simon said.

“We are very conscious of the impact on yield. The cropping program is our main source of income and we don’t want to compromise yield.

“It’s vital to graze correctly, not overgraze, and get them (stock) out of crops at the right growth stage.”

The intensiveness does have its rewards though. The farm ran weight gain trials for weaners grazed on cereals last year with an astounding 300g per day increase per head.

Perhaps key to keeping high DSE and not costing a fortune in additional feed is the Fowlers’ silage program. In an effort to avoid the problems associated with coastal haymaking, Simon began a massive silage program four years ago.

Each year 570ha of pasture are put aside for silage and the family has six pits — the largest with a 20,000-tonne capacity — giving them huge storage capacity.

“We found that silage was the cheapest form of energy … and a better quality feed, ” Simon said.

“It can last indefinitely in the pit and with a big stockpile helps droughtproof the farm.”

In terms of husbandry, Simon’s policy is to keep one step ahead. Such large numbers mean he and his three full-time workers take the initiative in keeping on top of flies and other issues. They jet before flies become a problem and drench twice a year.

Shearing is from September to November and creates good cash flow during the September–October period before harvest.

Although he hasn’t benefited from the high wool price yet, Simon is excited. Good prices for cast-for-age sheep is the main benefit he sees.

“We have had $85 on-farm per head for our green and purple tag ewes, ” he said. “I’m a lot more confident in the meat than the wool.

“But if wool stays up, it will certainly have a big impact on how we stock.”

For the moment though, he is intent on further increases. Culling has been marginalised until DSE rates are obtained.

The family is also forging ahead with infrastructure improvements to secure the future of their Merino enterprise.

“Most yards and sheds are pre-existing from the 1960s and in need of overhaul, ” Simon said.

“We built two brand new sets of sheep yards last year and have another to do this year. Another will get replaced the following year.

“Merinos will always be a large proportion of the enterprise. I see the Merino stocks increasing and us reducing the cattle numbers.”

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