Breeding sheep to suit outback conditions

Wool grower uses ASBVs to breed hardy Merino flock


Sheepmeat
OPEN TO CHANGE: Western Queensland wool grower Jim King, who runs about 3400 head of sheep on his Willowen property south of Longreach. Photo: Steven Trask

OPEN TO CHANGE: Western Queensland wool grower Jim King, who runs about 3400 head of sheep on his Willowen property south of Longreach. Photo: Steven Trask

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It's crucial to stay open to new ideas, wool grower Jim King says.

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It might sound unusual to hear a wool grower talking about muscle instead of microns.

But western Queensland producer Jim King has used such a focus to breed a hardy flock of Merino better equipped for tough, dry conditions.

Mr King, from the Willowen property 56 kilometres south of Longreach, has been selecting rams using the Australian Sheep Breeding Value system for about five years.

Primarily interested in wool production, Mr King said the system helped him mould his mob to better suit the country.

"I've mainly been focusing on eye muscle depth and yearling fat scores, which just gives the ewe a bit more fat in leaner seasons when they are having a lamb," he said.

"It's early days yet, but I reckon my lambs are better, they are stronger and just seem to last a bit longer through a dry spell. They don't fall away as quickly."

Mr King said another trait that he looked for when selecting rams using the ASBV system was clean fleece weight.

It was important to be wary of any trade offs when introducing particular traits into a flock, Mr King said.

"There are trade offs, and you've got to be careful you don't work on one and not the other. You need to have it balanced."

The decision to use the ASBV system came after an eye-opening demonstration run by the Leading Sheep Forum at the Longreach Pastoral College.

"A bloke had rams there that had all been tested. We did a visual test and we all picked the same ram because he looked the biggest and the best," Mr King said.

"But when you checked the ASBVs, he didn't have as much wool as one of the other rams, and he wasn't as fine.

"That's when I thought, if I can read the data and then visualise the ram, it's going to put a bit more money in my back pocket.

"You might have to pay a bit more for your rams, but you know exactly what you're getting."

Willowen, an 8500 hectare property of undulating downs country, is currently stocked with about 3400 head of sheep, although it might run as many as 5000 to 6000 in a bumper season.

"I've got about 1000 wethers and I scanned about 2100 ewes, with just short of 80 per cent scanned in-lamb, which I didn't think was too bad for the season," Mr King said.

Mr King isn't reluctant to try new ideas, with another significant decision being the move to lambing in autumn.

He had done so after participating in the Lifetime Ewe Management scheme.

"I used to lamb in September but I've now changed to autumn lambing.

"That's made a huge difference to my weaning rates, because they survive better."

A move to lambing in autumn had a big pay off in terms of better weaning rates, Mr King said.

A move to lambing in autumn had a big pay off in terms of better weaning rates, Mr King said.

Embracing innovation and ideas

Mr King overhauled his breeding practices in the mid-1990s after attending a seminar in Blackall by the trailblazing wool scientist Dr Jim Watts.

By focusing on the soft-rolling skin (SRS) Merino line championed by Dr Watts, Mr King was able to stamp out mulesing in 2006.

"I went to a Jim Watts seminar in Blackall in the mid-90s and I started going down the SRS line after that," Mr King said.

"So far it has worked. We haven't had much trouble with fly. We have plain-bodied big-framed sheep, and the wool is good."

That decision now has him well-placed to capitalise on the growing premium for non-mulesed wool.

Late last year Mr King cluster fenced his property as part of a Longreach Regional Council initiative.

"I'm completely closed off with my neighbour. So that's about 50,000 acres, which is manageable. If we ever get a dog in it, we'll get it out."

Although there was always a cost to change, Mr King said it was important to try new things that could add value to his enterprise.

"You've got to be open to ideas to keep ahead, or sometimes even just to keep your head above water," he said.

"It can take a while for you to change sometimes.

"You really do have to try and see the ideas or innovations that can benefit you.

"Some might work but might not be in your monetary range. But you do what you can do."

The story Breeding sheep to suit outback conditions first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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