Strong team effort aids Parilla farm business

Parilla producer John Gilbertson (centre) has forged a strong relationship with Steve Davidson (left), Quality Livestock, and Greg Ewens, Quality Wool, to assist his farm business.

JOHN Gilbertson has learned many lessons in his 37 years of farming, including the importance of being surrounded by the right people to help his business succeed.

John farms more than 1336 hectares at Parilla in South Australia’s Mallee region and has a further 648ha at Keith.

He runs a mixed cropping and livestock enterprise; cropping about 900ha for cereal production and running a Merino sheep flock comprising 1500 breeding ewes.

The cropping program is based mainly on wheat and barley, but also includes lupins, lentils, canola, oats for hay production, plus land sown to pastures such as lucerne and clover.

The majority of crop is grown under dryland production, but John does have some irrigation systems in place as a means of drought-proofing his operation.

His home property at Parilla has centre pivot irrigation, which can water 162ha, and is used to finish feed crops if the season requires.

The Keith property, a more recent acquisition, is used predominately for running livestock and has 24ha of floodplain irrigation, with the ability to increase in the future.

“We’re pretty much in the driest district in the driest State in Australia, so that does present challenges and we prepare the best we can,” John said.

“We expect to hand feed sheep every year leading up to lambing and we always have hay and grain on-hand for that.”

John’s livestock operation is predominately a self-replacing Merino flock, along with 300 ewes mated to Black Suffolk rams.

The Merinos are based on Glenlea Park bloodlines from Pinnaroo, with an average micron of 21-22.

With a traditional lambing of April/May for the Merino flock, John also aims for a smaller spring drop of lambs, which are usually crossbreds, in order to “play the market’’ and spread the risk.

Shearing is undertaken twice a year or three times in two years, producing an annual wool clip of about 100 bales.

“Wool seems to grow faster now and we find that, by shearing twice a year, they seem to lamb down better,” John said.

“We’re consistently seeing yields of between 60-70 per cent, which is very good for this area.

“Genetically, I think we’ve improved our wool and that’s played a big part in those results.”

Merino wether lambs are held over summers and run on stubble, before being autumn shorn and then finished off in John’s feedlot and sold, usually to one of the two local meat processors.

The feedlot has worked well for John over the last decade, allowing him to finish off about 550 Merino lambs annually on a diet of hay, oats, vetch, barley and lupins – depending on what’s grown that season.

“I normally leave them in there for four to five weeks to finish them off, to get them away before the end of April and they’ll usually reach 25-26kg dressed weight at 10-11 months old,” John said.

“I have put the crossbred lambs through the feedlot as well, but more recently I’ve gone more towards Merinos.

“It can take a bit longer to finish them off, but the wool prices are good at the moment so it’s worthwhile.

“If we can find a good forward contract for the lambs then we’ll lock it in, so we know what we’re getting and can target that specific weight range.”

John has an annual agreement with a vineyard in McLaren Vale, where he sends between 600-800 ewe hoggets for agistment during his tightest feed period between May and August, before bringing them back home.

Culls are sold to an off-shears market, with last year’s cull ewes selling for $165/head. John is expecting even more demand for breeding stock this year.

To help market his wool and livestock, John utilises Quality Wool and Quality Livestock and has worked with local representatives Greg Ewens and Steve Davidson for many years.

He’s known Greg, Quality Wool’s marketing representative for the Riverland, Murraylands, and SA/North West Mallee regions, for more than 20 years.

For John, it’s more about the person than the company and he trusts Greg to help him make the best decision in selling his wool clip.

“He’s a good operator and knows the business, so when he joined Quality Wool it was a pretty easy decision to follow him,” John said.

“We speak regularly and he sends me market updates, as well as coming out to visit during shearing and we’ll have the conversation about what we should do.

“The last five years we’ve been sending all our wool to auction because it’s been the best option price-wise.”

It’s a similar relationship between John and Quality Livestock Mallee representative Steve Davidson, who has been helping market John’s sheep in excess of 20 years.

John said having access to the level of market knowledge from both Steve and Greg was a big advantage.

“Both Greg and Steve are very passionate about their jobs and what impresses me is that they treat you like they would if they were selling their own stock,” he said.

“They are always updating me on any market changes, especially at this time of year.

“Steve knows what stock I’ve got and he’ll let me know if an opportunity comes up or if there is a forward contract we should be taking.

“Last autumn we locked-in to a forward contract on Steve’s advice as he believed the price was about to go down and, sure enough, we locked in at $5/kg and a week later it dropped.

“If someone is looking after your interests like that, then that’s worth something.

“Communication is the key and having the right people on your team makes all the difference.”