Bill Chandler’s faith in the wool industry in western Queensland is finally being repaid after years of financial outlays protecting his flock and keeping it alive, and he’s pretty happy about it.
When Bungy Ross’s shearing team pulled into gear at Hillalong, east of Barcaldine, on Monday morning, Bill, his daughter Annabell and their right-hand man, Liam Balderson, were busy yarding up some of the 4000 ewes that have remained their nucleus through a number of tough years.
In “normal” seasons, they would run 8000 head on their mix of developed gidyea and Desert Uplands country but they’ve had to offload their wethers and have been feeding their ewes lick and fava beans since August.
They’re cutting four to four-and-a-half kilograms, expected to bring between $9 and $11 a kg greasy.
“Some years we were almost sending a cheque down after our wool clip,” said Bill.
“We had some tough years but then the pendulum swung the other way.
“When you look at the remuneration now for wool – I’ll let you know how it feels after the sale.”
The Chandlers have been running sheep at Hillalong since buying the property in 1963 and Bill said that sheep have been their “bread and butter” ever since.
“I like my sheep, and we made more money out of them than our cattle, plus sheep were keeping my regrowth in check.
“Now I wish I had three times as many sheep but you can only breed them so fast.”
It’s a predicament Schute Bell’s Longreach representative, Paul Grams, said was common across the central west as producers regained their confidence in the wool industry and began looking at restocking options.
“People are quietly confident. The guys that have stuck in there, through the last 10 or 15 years, are very happy.
“They haven’t forgotten the hard times – they’re not jumping up and down – drought’s holding them at bay.
“But I’ve got three or four new clients that are the first time in sheep – they’ve taken the gamble.”
The difference, Paul said, to the doldrums that wool producers have risen from is the “golden handshake” they’re being rewarded with once their ewes are cast for age.
“The last 10 years it’s been multipurpose or Dorpers and exotics and they’re getting great meat prices but now the Merino, they’re getting good wool prices every year, they’re getting cash flow and at the end of their life, they’re getting a handshake.
“They’re selling old ewes for $70 to $90, that have given them seven wool clips.”
Paul said the demand for Merino sheep was very competitive and he was holding orders for big lines of sheep.
“Merinos are gaining ground on the exotic sheep,” he said.
“You can only sell a lamb once but with Merinos they’ve got options.
“They can either have a wool-growing wether or keep the ewes and keep going on.
“Thirty dollars to $60 of fleece value a sheep a year is a good return.”
To ensure they get as much value from the record wool prices being recorded, the Chandlers made the decision last year, with winter herbage backing them up, to double join their ewes.
In 2015 they marked about 500 lambs from a couple of thousand ewes but in 2016, thanks to the double lambing, they marked 128 per cent, something Bill said they had never done before.
“Imagine how we could get ahead if we had the seasons,” Annabell said.
Fence worth a fortune
It’s a far cry from the start of the millenium when they didn’t sell a sheep for six years and saw their flock reduced to 2000 head, thanks to wild dog predation.
Bill remembered one year joining 2200 ewes, from which they marked six lambs and mustered 1200 ewes.
“Our fence has been worth an absolute fortune to us,” he said.
“It cost a bit over $5000 a kilometre to put up, and we put in 34km.
“If anybody said I’d be fencing when I was 70, I’d call them nuts but I’ve really enjoyed it because for every kilometre you put up, you don’t have to put it up again.
“And you knew damn well it was going to stop the dogs from coming in.”
Up for about eight years now, it’s a foresight that has paid them richly.
Now they’re considering fencing their desert country and running Dorpers instead of cattle there, saying they were a lot less maintenance in dry times.
In the meantime, with their ewes due to lamb again in February, scorching temperatures and no rain clouds on the horizon, it’s likely their jubilation will be tempered by the need to resume full maintenance feeding for the foreseeable future.