Transforming the genetic make-up of a flock of sheep is no longer an inter-generational task, but one that has been achieved by Queensland woolgrower Stuart Mitchell in just six years through the use of objective selection tools.
Mr Mitchell and wife Barb run 9000 Merinos at ‘Cashelvale’, Bollon, and have dramatically transformed the flock’s appearance and performance so they could cease mulesing without putting the flock at risk of flystrike, while also achieving finer micron wool.
Mr Mitchell said the keys to success were having a clear breeding objective, selecting rams against those objectives using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs), and buying teams of similar rams for across the board genetic impact.
"We had a really typical South West Qld flock, mainly 21 micron, quite wrinkly sheep, but about six or seven years ago we made a conscious decision to stop mulesing and we went looking for plainer sheep," he said.
"Over the years they’ve become a lot plainer but we haven’t lost any size and we’ve been able to reduce our micron down to around a 19 micron flock.
"But I think the most significant thing has been the fact that our sheep have become so plain – I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a fly blown sheep. We don’t have a mulesed sheep on the place anymore."
To achieve the goal of plainer bodied sheep, Mr Mitchell switched to purchasing his rams from Errol Brumpton’s Well Gully stud at Mitchell.
He set out two other objectives when he began selecting their rams: a goal of a 19-micron flock average while maintaining or improving fleece weight. In recent years they have placed added emphasis on fatness to help build flock resilience.
"Errol has a really good understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and he understands our breeding objectives," he said.
"We’re big users of ASBVs and I believe they’ve been the reason we’ve made such progress so quickly – they’re just becoming so accurate.
"The process is we ring Errol and tell him what we’re looking for because we don’t always buy the same style of rams. Sometimes we’re trying do a bit of compensatory mating if you like - some of our smaller ewes that are coming through might have some really good wool traits and good fertility traits but need some to put a bit more size into them.
"We can go to Errol and say we need half a dozen rams that are going to put a bit of size into them, plus I need 10 rams that are going to give me the fatness and crimp and the fleece weight and the micron that I’m looking for across the rest of the flock."
When Mr Mitchell arrives at Well Gully he is generally presented with 30 rams which meet the description and have supporting ASBV data – his job is then to "pick out the pretty ones".
The system had proven more cost effective than trying to pick a handful of winners on auction day based on visual selection alone.
"We’re looking for the best average we can get - we might be able to buy a particular ram that stands out that has really strong ASBVs for the things we’re looking for in our breeding objectives, but over our entire flock, it’s just not going to do it for us. We need a really high average ASBV. "I think that’s been one of the secrets for us getting there so quickly has been being able to buy teams of rams that are going to do the job for us."
It’s a method that the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) is encouraging producers to adopt in order to accelerate the rate of genetic improvement and the productivity of the national flock.
Importantly for the Mitchells, the change has also delivered economically, with savings in reduced chemical costs, labour at mulesing and fly-blown sheep.
"Our ewes that rear a lamb generally cut us somewhere between 4.5 and 5kg a year. Our wethers will cut 7- 8kg but if we get a really thumping winter and plenty of herbage they can cut a lot more than that too.
"So it’s all good, there’s good money in our sort of country if you can cut those sorts of weights."
When the Mitchells embarked on this journey they expected it to take more than 10 years to transform the flock into a sustainable and profitable concern.
"It wasn’t until this last season when we did the lamb marking that it just smacked us in the face and we realised that we’ve got there. We got there probably four or five years quicker than we thought we would," he said.
Media contact: Michael Thomson on 07 4927 0805 / 0408 819 666
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