Shedding flock sheds costs

Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

After years of making lacklustre returns from wool, Kojonup farmer Steve McGuire continues to refine his shedding sheep operation in the hope it will ultimately deliver stronger returns.

Mr McGuire, who farms with wife Andrea, started running shedding sheep about 10 years ago when he bought his first Wiltipoll ewes and rams from South Australia.

A characteristic of these sheep is that they shed their wool, reducing the need for shearing, as well as lowering other management costs.

But due to low growth rates, in recent years Mr McGuire started crossing his Wiltipoll ewes with Australian White rams, and in 2015 will add Suffolk rams to the mix.

Mr McGuire said he would mate around 2000 Wiltipoll ewes with Australian White and Suffolk rams this year, thereby trying to create a composite sheep.

In addition, he runs 4500 Merino ewes which will be joined with Merino rams.

Mr McGuire described the composite sheep as his "Plan B".

"I have concerns about the future of the wool industry - I have had those same concerns for the past decade and nothing has really happened in the meantime to change that," he said.

"It wouldn't matter that the wool price had stayed flat if the cost of production had lowered, but, of course, that has not been the case."

Mr McGuire said currently there was still more money to be made from Merinos than the shedding sheep, but he was refining his operation and hoped the latter would become more profitable.

"I am still trying to get the system right. There is the assumption that with shedding sheep you need to get a lambing percentage of 150 per cent to make it worthwhile," Mr McGuire said.

"I'm nowhere near that yet. My lambing percentage is probably just over 100 per cent."

Mr McGuire said there were advantages with shedding sheep that were often overlooked.

In addition to having good mothering ability, he has discovered the Wiltipolls require about 25 to 50 per cent less feed than Merinos.

"The Wiltipolls seem to survive quite happily on a lot less feed and have better conversion rates. The lower feed requirement also means less time feeding, and in addition there is no need to crutch or worry about flystrike, so they are less labour intensive overall," he said.

"These work for me as part of my system. If I had 100 per cent Merinos I would need a farm worker full time; the less labour required with the Wilti takes the pressure off."

But there are also challenges, such as keeping Wiltis in the paddock as they tend to break through fences easily.

Mr McGuire said it was only a small percentage of sheep that caused most of the trouble, so it was a case of identifying and culling those sheep.

Fences also have to be of reasonable quality.

He said though Wiltis had slower growth rates, he was aiming to overcome this by introducing Suffolks and Australian White rams.

"The Wiltis don't grow as fast as a prime lamb as many of the other breeds, hence why we brought in the Australian Whites, which also have a good temperament," he said.

"It is also the reason for introducing Suffolks to mate with half the Wilti ewes this season.

"The Suffolks are terminal sires so all these lambs will be sold.

"I've chosen Suffolks, as with their black points it is much easier to identify which lambs are which."

In terms of the end use for last year's lambs, Mr McGuire is keeping his ewe lambs while wethers are sent to Hillside where they are slaughtered and airfreighted to theMiddle East.

"I'm currently getting more than $80 per lamb straight off their mother so that's quite a good return," he said.

The Wiltis will lamb around July-August.

Mr McGuire said another issue with the Wiltis was that they were seasonal breeders and mate best around the equinox.

His Merinos lamb earlier in the year - around late June-July.

The Merinos are shorn around August and deliver an average micron of 19.

"When you see the mothering ability of the shedding sheep, and their feed conversions, you can see the potential for a low-cost, profitable system," Mr McGuire said.

"The Merino is still a very good sheep, but I feel the genetic gain in the wool industry over the past century has been poor and this is now costing the industry.

"The shedding sheep are working well for me now. I'm constantly trying to make improvements and they're very much my plan B if the wool industry does not improve."

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