LAST weekend, I attended the National Merino Challenge in Melbourne, along with almost 110 like-minded students from secondary schools and universities.
The event is run annually by Australian Wool Innovation and allows young people to develop their skills and knowledge within the wool industry.
I entered the NMC for a variety of reasons; the main one being that, at least a few months ago, I knew very little about wool and wool production. I come from a fourth-generation farming family near Yea, and although our property has a history of running Merinos, within my lifetime we have only run crossbreds for prime lamb production.
The closest I had ever come to typing wool was watching the wool classers sort fleeces while I kept up the sheep in the catching pens for the shearers. However, over the course of my training for the competition, I have come to feel comfortable using a variety of skills used by people in the industry, and can understand how producers can utilise some of these skills to achieve their goals and maximise productivity on-farm.
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At the competition, students participated in seven challenges focused on various aspects of the industry. Challenges included AWEX typing, wool pricing, condition scoring, feed budgeting, visual assessment, and selection of breeding stock based on key criteria given by producers.
The event is also designed to work as a networking opportunity, allowing students to find contacts and discuss career options with industry professionals. In an industry where it is often not just what you know, but who you know, the chance to meet with real people in the industry is truly invaluable. Many of the industry figures that attended the event were in our own position not that long ago and provided unique advice that was relevant to agriculture students.
The program included an industry dinner, providing another opportunity for students to connect with industry figures and other young people keen to get into agriculture. Keynote speakers were president of the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders, Georgie Wallace, and AWI director, Colette Garnsey. Each spoke with passion about their experiences in the Merino industry. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Colette the following day, and was blown away by both her enthusiasm and absolute commitment to her work, as well as her willingness to offer support to young people keen to get involved.
I entered the challenge as part of the University of Melbourne team, which was one of the largest tertiary teams to attend the event. Of the 14 students from Melbourne that competed, some were more experienced, having trained and competed in the competition in previous years or come from their own sheep properties, while others, such as Jia Shuen Chia, had little or no experience before entering the competition.
Jia Shuen, from Malaysia, is studying the Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of Melbourne, and explained how she entered the competition to gain more hands-on experience in the sheep industry.
“I wanted to learn about real techniques used by producers and people in the industry, like how to use ASBVs in the selection of rams,” she said.
She hopes she can now apply what she learns in university to practical situations as a result of her experiences at the competition.
The overall winner of the secondary section was the Cummins Area School team from South Australia, while the Charles Sturt University from New South Wales won the tertiary section. A CSU team also won the challenge in 2014 and 2015.
Networking works for University of Melbourne winner Emily
The competition also recognised individual overall winners, as well as top-scoring students in the wool, production and breeding-based activities. Emily Attard, also from the University of Melbourne, won the production and wool sections of the challenge to be the overall individual tertiary champion. Although not originally from an agricultural background, Emily has started a Corriedale stud with a friend. She said the competition allowed her to get more practical experience and extend her knowledge in parts of the industry she was not as confident in.
Emily also spoke of how important the event was for meeting people.
“The networking is probably the biggest part of the competition for most of us, as well as connecting to other students in agriculture.
“No other industry outside of agriculture has anything quite like it; an opportunity for students to learn, connect and compete together,” Emily said.