Measurement focus improves flock performance at Merrimba
31 August 2015
IT may have only been three years since Jack Brennan took over the management of Merrimba Station near Warren in New South Wales, but in that short time there have been big changes.
Jack made the move to Merrimba in September 2012, where he lives on the station with his wife, Grace, and their three young children, Eliza, Maggie and Charlie.
Merrimba is owned by the Paraway Pastoral Company and spans 19,057 hectares with 450 millimetres of annual rainfall.
The station dedicates 10,600ha (which includes two other farms where Jack manages the cropping) to dryland winter cropping of predominantly wheat, barley and chickpeas and 1215ha of grazing crops for livestock.
They generally run 8000-10,000 Merino ewes and this season joined about 8500 ewes.
When Jack took on the management of Merrimba, he brought with him many fresh ideas and immediately set about putting them into practice.
He is a firm believer in objective measurement as a management tool; looking at the fleece weight, fibre diameter and comfort factor in each sheep and using it in conjunction with other indicators to measure each animal’s performance.
Using that method, Jack has been able to identify the non-profitable sheep and cull them from the Merrimba flock in an effort to refine their genetics, as well as introducing new bloodlines from Pooginook Merino Stud, Jerilderie, NSW.
The results so far have been considerable.
“It’s actually quite astounding. I didn’t expect the differences to be quite so astronomical, but we’ve seen some amazing improvements in a short period of time,” Jack said.
“In 2012, the sheep were cutting an average of 5 kilograms across the board. In 2013, the maidens cut about 6.1kg and this year they cut 7.5kg.
“We went on a pretty serious genetic escapade and started culling our young sheep at pretty high rates and also culled a lot of our older sheep. We went through the flock and basically found anything that was underperforming and culled it.
“We’ve been working on making sure that every sheep that’s on the farm has about six or seven pieces of information on it, to ensure our ewes are paying all the running costs in their wool value and then from there on, it’s profit.”
Jack doesn’t see scale as being restrictive to his management techniques; it’s the drive to produce a consistent and high quality animal with good growth rates and exceptional fleece that pushes him to succeed.
He also attributes Paraway’s unique structure for allowing his methods to flourish, describing them as a corporate company functioning with the values and passion of a small family farm.
Even though fleece weight and overall flock performance has already increased significantly, culling subjectively and objectively still plays a vital role in the mob refinement at Merrimba.
All ewes are pregnancy scanned and any dries are culled, regardless of age, as well as lambed and lost sheep.
“We still subjectively class. I think it is very important not to forget our stockmanship, so we’ll take 30 per cent out with our classer and then we’ll go back in post-shearing with our maidens and take another 10pc out based on objective measurement,’’ Jack said.
Traditionally, joining is in January for a June/July lambing, but this season Jack trialled joining in December.
It wasn’t a great fit in terms of timing, as seeding coincided with lambing, so they will assess the cost benefit before making a decision for next year.
Essentially, Jack said the aim was to match peak feed demand with peak feed production to maximise lambing percentages and growth rates.
“Because we have such cut-on, cut-off seasons, we can only get a six-month run at it, but I know I can always grow a fair bit of fodder even if I store summer moisture to grow fodder into the winter,” he said.
“Our stocking rate increases by about 30 per cent between June and August and then goes up again when we wean, so that three to four months of the year is when we try and grow our most feed.”
With Warren having such a warm climate, Jack said they were able to grow a lot of high quality natural pastures.
Their single bearing ewes usually lamb down on natural country, unless feed is scarce, in which case they have 36, 3.8-tonne Advantage Feeders on hand.
“We try and run our young stock on lucerne over the summer and anything that’s twin bearing will lamb down on lucerne or dual-purpose wheat/barley,” he said
“We also finish 2000 of our own bred Merino wethers, taken up to 50-55kg liveweight before they are contracted.
“The twin bearers are split off and we try and lamb them down in mobs of no bigger than 180 head, with singles in mobs no bigger than 200 head. So we’re constantly splitting up our paddocks to try and get our mob sizes smaller to reduce mismothering issues.”
As far as lambing percentages go, this season Jack said they were on track for 110-115pc for ewes joined, with anything under 100pc considered to be disappointing.
He said they worked on losing 20pc of the scanned lambing percentage and this season had scanned 137pc in lamb, so expected around 115pc lambs weaned to lambs joined.
“The number of lambs weaned is definitely one of our biggest profit drivers, but so are growth rates. There’s no good weaning 10,000 lambs off 10,000 ewes if they’re all going to be weaned at 18kg,” Jack said.
“We want to turn stock off at optimum weights into optimum markets.
“That’s wool-wise as well. We’re constantly trying to tighten everything up. It’s not so much about the scale, although that’s important. The way I see it is the most important thing is the quality and quantity of the product and being able to produce it consistently.”
In order to help achieve those goals, Jack dedicates time to condition scoring and weighing sheep to identify any growth issues.
The aim is to have a body condition score better than 2.5, preferably around 3, by taking measurements of the eye muscle and the rib eye.
“We spend a lot of time weighing our sheep too, especially to track the growth rates of our young sheep,” he said.
“We have targets, so when they come through the yards we see how they are tracking and if they are not hitting those targets, we’ll take them out and put them on lucerne or supplementary feed to help them catch up.
“We grow enough crop now and store barley on-farm to be able to run a sheep feeding program when we need it.
“The return on production by feeding sheep can be very attractive, particularly with current markets.
“We do have a feedlot, but we’ll only get it going if we can forward contract our lambs for the right price and if the grain price is right.
“We work on our opportunity cost of grain, not on the production cost, so even though we can grow a big 5t/ha barley crop and it only costs us $55/ha to produce it, the opportunity cost is that you’re probably selling into the market at $280, so that’s what we have to value it at.”
Shearing at Merrimba occurs in March, with this year’s clip totalling almost 500 bales.
They average 19 micron fleece and aim to get above $6.50/kg greasy, with an average cut of 7.5kg for adult sheep and 3.8kg for weaners and yields above 55pc.
To market the station’s sizable clip, Jack works closely with Quality Wool North West NSW representative William Reddington.
“Will is great to work with and I’ve got the benefit of having known him for many years. I’d actually call him a mate,” Jack said.
“We forward sell about 50pc of our clip, then once we shear we make the decision what to do with the other half.
“We’ve found the autumn period to be a pretty powerful market, so we often find ourselves selling wool straight out of the shed.
“Quality Wool is always in contact with market updates and wool reports, which helps a lot.
“We’ve sold the whole clip already this season and we averaged about $1200/bale for the entire clip including oddments, so we’re certainly happy with that result despite the market rallying hard after our sales program was complete.”