Easy-care sheep trial shows promise but it’s no done deal

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

He might be better known as a cattle man but sheep still play an important role at David Roe's Beermullah farm, north-west of Gingin.

David, who farms with wife Sara and parents Bruce and Pauline, has 600 Angus breeders but spreads his risk with a prime lamb operation.

When the bottom fell out of the wool market the Roe family turned to a crossbred ewe program in which first-cross Border Leicester/Merino ewes are mated to Poll Dorset rams.

But about six years ago David and Bruce foresaw potential problems getting labour and decided to see whether an easy-care sheep might suit their operation better.

"We could see shearing was going to get more difficult - there were no young people coming into the industry," David said.

"And as dad and I run the place and dad is 80, we have one labour unit to 7600 DSE.

"We're pushing things a bit and were trying to make things a bit easier.

"I thought maybe the Dorper, with non-shearing, might suit this country."

The Roes now have more than 400 Dorpers as well as 1300 F1 ewes but it's taken a juggling act to get the mix of easy-care and high turn-off right.

The crossbred ewes lamb in April or early May, the aim being to have the lambs as the first suckers on the market when prices are traditionally strong.

"It does cost you and you certainly have to look after your ewes," David said. "But the way we look at it, you spend $10-12 extra feeding the ewe but you get it back in getting rid of your lamb before you have to shear it, before the flies arrive and before the glut.

"We get 90 per cent of our lambs off their mothers as suckers."

All the ewes get pregnancy scanned and then twinned. The twin mobs are run separately in small management groups.

This year the crossbred ewes were scanned at 141 per cent, although that figure is normally 135-138 per cent.

It's this high fertility rate and hybrid vigour that make the crossbred operation profitable and David concedes that even though the Dorpers are easy-care, it took some thinking outside the box to make the numbers for the exotic sheep work.

"On a gross margin we certainly make more out of our traditional crossbreds than out of the Dorpers," he said.

"Crossbred ewes are 135-138 per cent (lambing) and the Dorpers were 112-115 per cent.

"I thought they were supposed to be fertile but we don't seem to be getting the lambs out of them in each lambing.

"What was happening with the traditional lambing in April, the Dorpers hadn't the same growth rate because they hadn't the hybrid vigour of an F1 ewe.

"So we were trying to market them in October when everyone else is selling lambs and getting run-of-the-mill prices.

"The way the Dorpers might work is if you can get three lambings in two years - they seem to be able to do reasonably well out of season.

"If you went to three lambings every two years, you're up to 160 per cent per year.

"That's where you pick up your numbers and that compensates for your lack of wool clip."

Traditionally ewes wouldn't be mated until two years of age but David tries for a mating at eight months

Although it may only generally give a lambing percentage of 60 per cent, the ewes which aren't successfully joined can be mated again at 12 months.

"We've had (Dorpers) with twins at 12 months which are mated eight months later and by the time they're two years they've sometimes had three lambs," David said.

"But you've got to really look after your sheep to do that.

"It's just another thing we are trying and that can make them quite profitable."

The system aims to mate a particular group of Dorpers every four months so ewes are lambing every eight months.

Ewes are lambing in April, August and January to try to capitalise on out of season prices.

But lambing out of season - and so frequently - means flock management is of supreme importance.

"I've just tweaked it a bit now and have gone back to a December lambing, so they lamb when there is a little more feed around but it is a long haul," David said.

"They do seem to do well on the dry feed but you wean them very young at two months. You've just got to accept you have to feed them, it's a cost.

"We basically weaned the August lambs in December and we've fed them every third day since probably since the middle of January.

"It's costing us 10 cents a day for probably 100 days, so it's $10 of feed to maintain them.

"They're getting close (to being ready now) and normally the market is good and you'd be expecting $140.

"But, of course, the guts have fallen out of the lamb market and the plan has fallen apart as happens some times."

Timing is of key importance when it comes to marketing the Dorper lambs.

The January drop can some times be sold as soon as they are weaned in May, with the rest sold in August.

David said that originally the aim was to try to sell the April lambs in the first week of September.

"But they're never quite big enough then because they don't have that growth," he said.

"So you end up trying to sell them in the third week of September or early October, which is when they're ready but when the market is worst.

"Now we don't push them so much - we just wean them in September and try to sell them in December when the market is a bit better."

But despite the work the Roe family has put into making their Dorper venture profitable, David said it was still in a trial phase and he might yet return to a solely F1 crossbred operation.

"We buy the F1s in and the thinking was as the crossbreds were culled for age we wouldn't have replaced them with young ewes," he said.

"We thought we'd end up being self-sufficient and have 1200 Dorper ewes lambing three times a year but I'm just not convinced yet.

"What I'm thinking now, the way the sheep market has gone, those F1 ewes could be reasonably priced again to buy next year.

"Last year we paid $160 and $145 for our replacements which is too much. Next year if the lamb market is a bit weak and we can go and buy those F1 ewes for, say, $85-90, you'd be mad not to and then we'd forget about the Dorpers."

What was happening with the traditional lambing in April, the Dorpers hadn't the same growth rate because they hadn't the hybrid vigour of an F1 ewe.


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