Dean Wheaton didn’t think his Merinos could perform any better than the 2017 season.
Then along came 2018.
Wool prices increased by 30 per cent, sheep values continued to climb and his lambing rates were also heading higher, making for a perfect storm of Merino magic.
Farming in the marginal area of Victoria, north of Kaniva and Nhill, Dean has always believed livestock to be an integral part of his farming operation, and these days his sheep are more profitable than cropping.
He crunched the numbers for the 2017 season after his Merino wether lambs sold for $163/head, earned him a $52/head average wool cut and combined to give him a gross return of $215 per wether lamb.
This meant that for every Merino lamb Dean’s 1200 Merino ewes produced last year, it brought in $215 plus the $78 average wool cut off the ewe, totalling $293 total gross income per ewe.
That’s an exceptional gross return per unit according to Dean, who said he’s looking forward to similar, if not better, returns this season.
“Last year was the best ever for our Merinos,” he said.
“I kept saying I don’t know how we’d ever top it, but this year wool is up 30 per cent and meat values are also holding strong.
“Even though we might not cut as much wool this year due to the dry season, we will still hopefully make great gains because prices are up.
“With the wool and meat prices the way they are at the moment, there’s not much point to cropping in a marginal area like ours, and there’s a lot of expense associated with cropping.
“When you’re talking those sorts of figures and returns on investment for your sheep, the
question is, why would you crop when you could be running Merinos?”
Of course, there is some cropping associated with the Wheaton family’s 6070 hectare farming operation, with just over 2000ha going into crop, 1600ha of which is harvested and sold, with the remaining 400ha sewn as vetch for feed.
The other 4000ha is sandy, desert country on which the Wheaton’s run their livestock, including 250 Poll Hereford breeders and 2200 Merino ewes.
Dean selects the top 1200 ewes with the best wool and body conformation to breed with Merino rams, with the 1000 lower class woolled females joined to Border Leicester rams to produce a profitable first cross lamb.
The Wheaton family have always maintained a Merino ewe flock, but when times were tough in the industry around 20 years ago, the decision was made to diversify their operation and produce a Border Leicester-Merino lamb alongside their pure Merinos.
It worked well for the Wheatons and they continued with the successful combination, joining the ewes with Border Leicester rams on October 20, then the Merino rams five days later on October 25.
They are removed once harvest is finished, usually by the middle of January and once March 25 rolls around, the Border Leicester-Merino lambs begin to arrive, shortly followed by the Merino lambs on April 1.
Before that happens, Dean said he likes to perform as many sheep husbandry jobs as possible at the beginning of March, such as crutching, drenching and vaccinating all the ewes.
That way he is able to gauge the condition of the ewes before they are trucked 30km over to the family’s sandy country, with plenty of time to settle in before lambing.
To prepare those pastures for lambing, Dean clays his sandy soils and crops barley for sheep feed, boosting the nutrition of the ewes before they lamb and as a result increase lambing percentages.
Last year his pure Merinos achieved 101 per cent lambing, with fast-growing genetics assisting the lambs to be ready to be weaned onto vetch pastures by August 1.
By the time the lambs reach shearing at the beginning of November, they have grown an average of 92mm length of wool.
Much of the grown flock are first to be shorn during the last week of August, with the ewes averaging seven to eight kilograms of wool and 20 microns, with an aim to lower that to 18 or 19 microns in coming years.
These sorts of figures are quite the achievement for Dean, who considers himself a traditional wool grower and prides himself on selecting and breeding top quality wool characteristics.
He breeds his own rams from a nucleus flock, retaining around 40 ram lambs and selecting the top 15 rams every year for their own use.
Dean selects for a long wool staple, excellent meat characteristics and a tall, long sturdy frame upon which plenty of wool is freely growing.
Last year, he artificially inseminated 120 ewes, majority of them with semen from a ram he spotted at Bendigo the year before, who was huge in stature, very straight and correct, with excellent wool.
Dean hopes the 86 lambs that resulted from the AI will fast track his ambition to breed a fast maturing Merino sheep, with a big frame and long stapled wool.
After the Merino wether lambs are shorn in November, they go onto freshly harvested bean stubbles, preparing them to be sold over the hooks at the end of March, just before they reach their first birthday.
Last year Dean sold the top two thirds of his Merino wether lambs for $163, then four weeks later sold the remaining third for a dollar more at $164.
He believes the price of meat is just as important as the wool cheque, which is where the power of the Merino lies.
“It’s the dual purpose nature of the Merino that gives us a good balance,” he said.
“You can’t overlook the price of meat when you’re getting over $160 for your Merino wether lambs.
“Together with the excellent price of wool, it only makes sense to breed Merinos.
“For the last 20 years, the entire strength of our enterprise has been our livestock, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon.”
This case study is part of the Breed More Merino Ewes campaign, demonstrating the unrivalled performance of the Australian Merino ewe.
To read other case studies or to find out more information, go to www.merinos.com.au.