Saturday, 30 May 2009

Our First Foray into Livestock Ownership

On Thursday we took delivery of a truckload of sheep, our first foray into livestock ownership. What follows are some of the factors we took into account in making our decision.

Sheep V Cattle
All things being equal our preference would be to have cattle as they are more effective at land regeneration due to the way in which they graze (cattle from the top down using their tongue whilst sheep nibble from the bottom up) , the animal impact they produce (cattle are more effective at breaking the soil surface to allow water infiltration on capped soils, their dung creates a more effective micro-climate and supports dung beetle activity, and they spread seed delivering greater pasture biodiversity due to the way their digestive system works) and the fact that once trained they have higher regard for electronic fences. We opted for sheep given higher current profitability, we have sheep handling facilities (sheep yards and a shearing shed, although the latter needs some work, and we don’t have cattle yards) and sheep only require minimal water at this time of the year (they source most of what they need from dew and green pasture, and we have yet to install our on-farm water scheme). There is also a quirky alignment in that our solar farm power system will generate more power during the warmer months and be better placed to drive our on-farm water scheme pump during the same period when sheep water demand is also higher. Cattle require less water during winter but sheep water demand can fall to zero. Both of us grew up on sheep / wheat farms and have had very limited experience with cattle.

The last herding animals we had on our place were agisted sheep. They departed at the end of August 2008 and we were determined to allow time for full pasture recovery. During spring 2008 we did have some Australian Plague Locusts which were sprayed when banding in accordance with legislative requirements. They did impact on pasture growth, and rainfall through summer was below average. It has only been in the last few weeks that we have seen sufficient growth to give us confidence to take on stock. We also did not want to leave things for too much longer as we believe we need to ensure that there is appropriate and effective mineral cycling to stimulate plant growth, which the animals do for us. Also, we wish to take advantage of annual plants that flourish during the cooler months – hopefully also reducing the impact of sharp-seeded species such as Barley Grass and Corkscrew Grass.

Breed of Sheep
We looked at many options. Meat sheep such as Dorpers would be good but from an income perspective they can only be sold as breeders or for slaughter. Cross breeds are by reputation ‘hard’ on fences, however a critical factor is making sure they always have access to good quality and adequate quantity of pasture. Merinos provide good quality fibre (wool), can be sold for meat (wethers), and as breeders. We opted for merinos as we believe there will be a return to favourability in the eyes of end users of good quality wool once the mulesing issue is resolved. Gross margins are not too bad either!

Class of Sheep
Our plans for Ochre Arch include tourism, so having breeding animals fits in with giving those not familiar with farming the ability to see and understand animal breeding activities. We wanted older ewes as they will already have been culled several times (the best remain) and ewe losses and problems should be low at lambing. We do have some concerns about how we will source and manage rams but this can be addressed later.

Vendor of the Sheep
We’d not given much thought to this and had made contact with a few friends who generously offered to help us in the sourcing and decision making process (given we’d never purchased stock before). It was looking like we’d go to a store sale not too far from us. Last week, however, we participated in a two-day field trip the run by the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority. Day 1 involved almost a full day visit to a merino stud near Yeoval. During the course of discussions the owner mentioned that he was looking to sell his 2005 drop ewes in view of the extended dry seasonal conditions. Discussions commenced thereafter and were concluded in 2 days.

Characteristics of the Sheep
The people we purchased the sheep from have been operating their stud for the past 15 years. They are breeding sheep that have the following characteristics:
• SRS® (Soft Rolling Skin): A breeding system developed by Dr Jim Watts in the 1980's. It is based on driving fleece weights up and fibre fineness down (of both secondary [fleece] and primary [hair] fibres until they become almost indistinguishable), through the application of certain visible fleece traits which accurately reflect changes in skin biology. The term "soft rolling skin" refers to skin that is demonstrably thinner and more mobile than in many other animals. Finer wool generally commands a price premium.
• Higher weight gain and growth in young sheep, driven in part by the fact that skin thickness is reduced from the SRS® selection process. This means that lambs have the potential to be sold earlier and as ‘fats’ than might otherwise be the case.
• Plain body and larger framed sheep, substantially reducing the risk of fly-strike and enabling heavier carcass weights at slaughter. The sheep are now at a stage where mulesing of progeny to mitigate fly-strike should not be necessary. Minimal wool grows around the face and leg extremities increasing fleece yield (waste around the leg extremities) and virtually eliminating the potential for what’s called ‘wool blindness’.
• High fertility and mothering capability, delivering more lambs on the ground with higher survival rates, driving higher returns.

The vendors currently shear their sheep every 8 months (3 times in a two year period) to further help mitigate fly problems and at the same time optimise cash flow. Staple length averages 75 mm.

The sheep we purchased are 2005 drop (born around September of that year), all ‘scanned in lamb’ (meaning all of the ewes we purchased are currently pregnant) at 164 %. This means that multiple lambs in the wombs of the ewes have been ‘counted’ as well, and if all survived through to birth then there would be 164 lambs born from every 100 ewes. Last year the weaning percentage (lambs alive at the time of weaning as a percentage of the total number of ewes) was 128 % - a figure well above industry average.

All of the sheep have been handled using Low Stress Stockhandling techniques, originally developed by Bud Williams from the USA. We also use these techniques and know full well the benefits in terms of the health and wellbeing of both ourselves and the animals. The sheep have also been managed using electric fencing which we intend to use from time to time as part of our grazing management.

Feed Budgeting
Based on the number of sheep purchased and our estimates of feed quality and quantity currently on our farm (theoretically and assuming zero rainfall) there is sufficient feed to feed all of them for at least 6 months. Of course reality may be different, and we will be closely monitoring feed demand and supply so that we ensure we are not put in a position to have to ‘substitute-feed’, destroy our ground cover or place our animals under stress.

The size of our mob also aligns with what we think would be a worst-case all-year-long farm carrying capacity. These calculations are based on the productive farm area, 2007 year rainfall (a very dry year --- we’ve excluded what fell in December of that year), assuming pasture growth of 5 kg of dry matter per hectare per millimetre of rain, and various assumptions of the feed demand of the ewes and probable lamb numbers through to post weaning and sale (of both lambs and / or cull ewes).

Decision to Purchase rather than Other Options
Part of our personal goal is to engineer regular and new experiences. We have agisted sheep previously and decided to try owning and managing our own mob.

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