Rapanui reaps seeds of success

SIGNATURE PROPERTIES | Rapanui reaps seeds of success

Wool
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The Fowler family has built an innovative sheep and cropping operation at Williams, Western Australia.

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A FARM built on a clover and a seed cleaning business has now established an innovative sheep and cropping operation at Williams, Western Australia.

The third-generation Fowler family farm, now owned and run by Noel Fowler and his wife Sandra, has come from small beginnings of clover, sheep and clearing land.

Noel's grandfather, Aubrey Fowler, and his younger brother Tom took over 1330 hectares of poison-ridden bushland called Congeling Park in 1924.

Within 20 years the property had become the leading producer of clover seed in Australia.

Williams farmers Noel and Sandra Fowler, pictured with their son Lawson, are passionate sheep producers.

Williams farmers Noel and Sandra Fowler, pictured with their son Lawson, are passionate sheep producers.

In 1932 Aubrey began to specialise in producing clover seed.

At that time supplies were low and the knowledge of its nitrogen-fixing benefits were still not well understood.

Research showed clover had great soil improvement qualities and was excellent for grazing sheep. Other farmers soon followed Aubrey's example, using seed bulked up from the innovative seed extraction machine.

After 50 years of pioneering the clover industry in WA, Aubrey and his son Jamie installed a new coarse grain cleaning machine on the farm, creating the Williams Seed Cleaners business.

Williams Seed Cleaners produced bagged oats and horse feed for the Perth market.

Noel spent a lot of time in the business on school holidays, helping his dad bag products for Perth.

The business then moved into bulk produce and bulk seed but not long after and as the farming operation expanded, they stopped commercially cleaning seed.

Noel's father, Jamie Fowler, loves intricacy in designs, making the farm workshop and office into a masterpiece entrance.

Noel's father, Jamie Fowler, loves intricacy in designs, making the farm workshop and office into a masterpiece entrance.

Now the machinery, which is still in its original state, is used to clean up grain on the farm.

Noel said they clean any seed coming onto the farm as part of their biosecurity operation.

Following the closure of the seed cleaning business the Fowler farm has moved into sheep innovation and cropping.

Now in the trusty hands of Noel and Sandra, Rapanui looks forward into the future of farming operations.

These young farmers are embracing new technology to hone and refine both their sheep and cropping operations.

They aren't afraid to absorb new industry information and techniques and adjust their programs accordingly - and they are always looking at ways to improve.

Last year was our best ever lambing percentage, with over 100 per cent from all age groups. - Noel Fowler, Rapanui.

The Fowlers run their own Rapanui Facebook page and website, detailing the day-to-day workings of their 6400ha Williams-based property.

Sometimes of the year, with ewes, rams, lambs and wethers, they can have up to 25,000 sheep on farm.

With so much work to be done and so many aspects to the farm, Rapanui now employees two full-time stockmen and two full-time machinery workers.

There can be up to 25,000 sheep on Rapanui.

There can be up to 25,000 sheep on Rapanui.

Then throughout the year they will hire up to four seasonal staff and a cook.

"In total we have around nine people in our team," Noel said.

But a strong interest of both Noel and Sandra is the health, well-being and operations of their sheep production.

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One minute Noel is talking through their tight sheep husbandry schedule on his iPad, explaining how every working aspect of the farm is timed perfectly for a seamless and symbiotic operation, the next Sandra is explaining how reviewing 'Pastures From Space' prompted them to move their lambing back 10 days, with positive results.

In the near future the entire 8000 Merino ewe flock will be electronic tagged to better measure its performance.

"I think we are starting to really arrive at our destination now," Noel said.

"Over the past couple of decades, our family has made some big changes to our Merino operation and now I feel we are just starting to catch up and grow what the market wants.

"There was never any question about whether Sandra and I would continue to run Merinos, it was more about how we could make our sheep work in a more streamlined and efficient way."

Noel credits a turning point in the Fowler family's Merino production 20 years ago, when his parents Jamie and Jo were advised to infuse genetics from NSW stud Hazeldean.

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At the time, they were producing a broad, yellow wool cut prone to wool rot, but they could see the market shifting towards a soft, white, fine wool with a bold crimp.

They were initially so impressed with the Hazeldean gene pool, the Fowlers bought 50 rams on the spot, trucked them to WA.

"That initial change of genetics had such an immediate and profound impact on our wool type, we've purchased Hazeldean genetics through (WA stud) Rutherglen ever since," Noel said.

"We now run our own nucleus flock of 500 ewes from which we select 70 replacement rams every year.

"Even within our current nucleus flock, the difference in wool type between the older ewes and younger ones is significant.

Traditionally shearing is a four-week process over late March and April, but Sandra said they were now looking at six-month shearing.

"Bi-annual shearing is definitely something we are considering," Sandra said.

"We are planning to trial it with the black tags over summer to see if its viable, and then possibly the ewe flock, while they're carrying lambs to see if they perform well enough to cut a marketable and profitable length.

"Our staple length is getting to the stage where it's too close to the maximum length for the optimal market desired by wool buyers.

"We are also thinking it may help us manage the condition score of the ewes by not having them run with a full fleece of wool."

The Fowler's tightly-controlled stock calendar bundles sheep husbandry jobs together for a more efficient use of time and logistical management of their Merino flock.

Noel and Sandra have also been making small changes to increase their conception, lambing and weaning rates, such as increasing the joining weight for their maiden ewes, separating twin bearing ewes and managing feed more efficiently.

With around 8000 breeding ewes and an additional 9000, one to two year old dries to keep in check, the couple is keen to receive maximum returns from their breeding base.

"One of our main goals in recent years has been to increase the joining weight for the maiden ewes to capture a better conception rate," Sandra said.

"As the maidens are our largest line of breeding ewes at close to 2000, managing them better was the easiest way to increase our overall lamb production.

"Last year was our best ever lambing percentage, with over 100pc from all age groups."

Around the same time, they shifted their lambing period from July 4 to July 14, adding 10 days after reviewing data from the 'Pastures from Space' and determining when their property experienced its peak pasture growth, then matching it with the ewe's peak lactation period.

In the two years since, they have experienced more contented ewes and less mismothering, which has made a huge difference to their bottom line.

It's small tweaks like this, utilising technology, time and resources efficiently, that have streamlined the Fowler's Merino flock into such a flexible, valuable asset to their farming business.

The story Rapanui reaps seeds of success first appeared on Farm Weekly.

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