CASE STUDY: QUEENSLAND
Farmer: Mike and Sue Pratt
Location: Longreach, Queensland
Property size: 40,000 hectares
Average annual rainfall: 325mm
Why Merinos? My top three reasons
1. Merinos now have the capacity to yield phenomenal returns with the right management. What you put into your Merinos, you get back tenfold.
2. Ideally suited to our low rainfall and relatively harsh environment.
3. Merino sheep build and sustain local communities like no other industry.
WHEN Mike Pratt looks at his Merinos, all he can see is growth.
Growth of flock numbers, growth in genetic advances, physical growth of meat and wool, growth in his local community and growth of the entire Merino industry across Queensland and Australia.
It’s only positive news in his view, an advantageous position that the industry stalwart has welcomed with open arms, particularly for his 14,000 Merino sheep.
This is despite the fact that Mike and wife Sue farm 150 kilometres southwest of Longreach, Queensland, where the dreaded double D’s – drought and dogs – have wreaked havoc on the local Merino population in recent decades.
It’s a staggering statistic that between 2002 - 2018, only three of those 16 years, their local government area of the Barcoo Shire has been free from official drought declaration.
That’s 13 years of drought, and in addition to the devastating effect wild dogs were having on sheep flocks across the state and they are very challenging reasons to question running livestock at all.
But in the face of this, the Pratts faith in their Merinos never faltered and they only ever wanted to grow quality wool, and produce a large framed sheep for the mutton market.
Mike was born and raised on a sheep property near Stanthorpe, spending the first 10 years of his working life with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) on a research station near Julia Creek, and then moved to Goondiwindi to work as a sheep and wool extension officer.
In 1981 Mike resigned from the DPI, married Sue Ferrier and moved to Richmond to manage the Cassilis sheep and cattle aggregation for the Keats family company for 15 years.
After decades of working in the agricultural sector, Mike and Sue sold a small starter block they had purchased at Richmond to finally realise their dream of owning their own larger property, Waroona, in 1995. Buoyed by a few good seasons they went on to buy neighbouring Bellfield in 2000 and then during the 2002 – 2010 drought bought Ban Ban in 2005, for drought fodder.
In the last 23 years, they have had to agist all or some of their Brahman breeders numerous times to better pastures, as compared to only one instance of agisting their Merino ewes to NSW in 2015/16.
Having lost 200 freshly shorn ewes to wild dogs over a two week period between shearing and trucking to agistment, Mike made the decision that the sheep would not return home until a 60km exclusion fence was built around Bellfield and all wild dogs therein destroyed.
“The fence really put us back in the driver’s seat of being able to protect our sheep, eradicate predators, manage total grazing pressure and rest pastures,” Mike said.
“It was 2010 when the first influx of wild dogs started to have a massive effect on sheep numbers in our area, and we knew then that we had to build a fence if we were going to run a viable and sustainable Merino enterprise.
“Thanks to a State and Federal Government cluster fencing subsidy scheme, there’s now 2,500 km of exclusion fencing in Central Western Queensland protecting 100,000 ha in 23 clusters of 124 properties, creating the opportunity to dramatically increase sheep numbers.
“All I can see is growth from here, because there’s so much opportunity in Merino sheep again and the ability to control predators has injected a huge amount of optimism.
“Even though we are in a drought at the moment, people are still optimistic about the sheep industry and spending money, because they know it will rain again.”
However, the same couldn’t be said about the Pratt’s cattle, and in 2017 they made the decision to destock their herd completely, to focus on their Merino flock.
Mike said it was a relief to finally remove cattle from their operation and the extra management and feed requirements that came along with it, instead choosing to grow and refine their Merino flock and purchased 1800 weaner nanny goats in April last year to provide a sustainable and more profitable alternative to the cattle, and control Gidyea thickening and encroachment.
“This country is better suited to Merinos and commercial goats, and when the market peaked for cattle in March last year, we decided it was time to sell,” he said.
“We were sick and tired of chasing grass trying to keep condition on them and keep our numbers up.
“So when the money was good we thought why not sell the cattle and reinvest back into the property to make it more viable for Merinos and commercial goats.”
During the 15 years Mike and Sue managed the property at Richmond, Mike put a lot of time, money, management and care on building and refining its Merino flock.
When the time came to go out on their own, their employers, the Keats family, fortuitously decided to move in the direction of cattle and offered the Merino flock to Mike and Sue for purchasing, providing an excellent starting point for the couple.
They have managed the same line of sheep for 38 years, something Mike considers an extremely valuable commodity. He has always tried to keep a finger on the pulse with the latest Merino developments and selects top grade rams from high performing studs, aiming to breed the ideal Merino sheep.
“I have the ideal Merino in mind and just keep working towards it, but it’s slow and continuous process,” Mike said. “When you open up the wool on a top performing Merino, it’s like opening up a present, it’s a genuine gift.”
In an average year, the Pratt’s Merino wethers would traditionally cut between a 6.5/7kg average, with the ewes producing a 5.5kg average, with a 65-70 per cent yield and 100mm staple length.
His flock averages 19 microns and Mike said he’s looking forward to increasing wool production and lambing marking rates in the coming seasons, particularly now the wild dogs, foxes and feral pigs are under control.
And with the Eastern Market Indicator (EMI) hovering around 2000c/kg clean and mutton prices currently at $4.80 per kilogram, by Mike’s calculation a Merino ewe can produce an annual gross margin of $170 or $110 per hectare.
That’s a very profitable incentive to breed more Merino ewes, so three weeks before joining in November and December, Mike spike feeds with faba beans or chick peas and follows through the eight week joining period.
This ensures his flock are in the best condition for conception and lifting lambing rates when they arrive onto quality feed following an average summer wet season.
Mike has begun production feeding, in addition to the wild dog exclusion fencing, which has increased his lambing percentage from 65pc to 90pc. He estimates the cost of supplementation to be approximately $800 per 100 ewes over the 11 weeks prior to and during joining, resulting in an extra 25pc lambs.
Shearing gets underway in early March just prior to lambing to enable the scanned empty and cast for age ewes and wethers to be shorn, fattened and then sold shortly after to capitalise on the usually strong autumn mutton and restocker markets.
If things continue to improve and the seasons start to stabilise, Mike said they looks forward to marking over 100pc lambs one year, increasing their wool production and continue to improve the quality of their Merino sheep.
This case study is part of the BMME 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.
By CAITLYN BURLING