APPLYING on-farm research within a new paddock/containment system has transformed the performance of the mixed cropping and sheep enterprise Wirrinourt at Lake Bolac in western Victoria.
Smaller mob sizes during lambing, containment paddocks, split lambing, the end of mulesing and changes to pastures have helped the business to improve in almost every aspect.
The 5100 hectare operation is owned by the Paterson family and is spread across three sites north and south of Lake Bolac. About 4000 hectares are dedicated to cropping and 1015 hectares to grazing.
Each year the farm joins between 8000-9000 ewes, including 500 stud Merino and poll Merino ewes, reaching a peak of about 20,000 sheep.
Livestock manager Matt Charles said the changes mean the farm is reaching its peak.
“It’s like a curve, you get to a certain point with your stocking rate and then your gross margin per hectare starts going down; we feel like we’re at that point.”
One of the key changes has been the introduction of smaller paddocks and mobs during lambing.
Matt attended field days at Dr Steve Cotton’s four MLA Producer Demonstration Sites at Willaura and Tatyoon, where he saw the ongoing research into the impact mob and paddock size has on lamb survival and what temporary fencing may offer in the lambing period.
Inspired by the success of those trials, the system was implemented at Wirrinourt, with immediate results.
“We picked up that mob size and paddock size has a massive influence on survival rates.
“In the trials, the results were replicated on all four properties that were lambing at different times and with different sorts of sheep,” Matt said.
“The smaller the paddock and smaller the mob, the higher your survival; and that’s exactly what happened to us as well.”
Fencing was upgrade in stages
In the first year at Wirrinourt, temporary fencing was used to split four paddocks. The next year in addition to temporary options, permanent fencing was added along the front of plantations to create five hectare paddocks.
The results were better than expected. The first year they marked nearly 20 percent more lambs than elsewhere on the farm. With nine additional small paddocks the following year, there was again close to 20pc more live lambs than other areas.
“I pick the smallest paddocks as the first priority,” Matt said.
“A lot of our twins won’t be in bigger than a 10-hectare paddock and we have a maximum of 10 ewes to a hectare in any of those paddocks.”
The farm has put the permanent paddocks in front of plantations and continues to use temporary fencing to split 20-hectare paddocks.
The success of smaller mobs and paddocks is just one of many improvements made in recent years.
“We’re getting more intensive; we’re probably lambing down about 2000 more ewes now than when I started three years ago,” Matt said.
The increase has stemmed from improved pastures, with more annuals to increase carrying capacity, and containment yards used in February to May, allowing more direct feeding and retention of feed for the lambing period.
Inspired by information from the MLA Producer Demonstration Sites and the Best Wool/Best Lamb group also co-ordinated by Dr Cotton, the farm now has 50×100 metre containment pens with attached feeding troughs.
“We put everything in there; all the breeding ewes, weathers, rams,” Matt said.
“We can feed a bit less by doing that and it stops them baring out the pastures and stops pastures blowing over summer. We can get up to 2000-2500 kg/DM before we put the sheep in.”
About 350 sheep are placed in the pens, but they still have ample room to roam.
“It cuts the job of feeding over summer.
“They’re now in one spot; you can feed 10,000 sheep without opening a gate.”
The farm has an average stocking rate of 16.8 dry sheep equivalents per hectare.
“That’s quite comfortable; if we go much higher, we’d end up feeding more and not getting the benefits,” Matt said.
Focus on joining date and scanning has helped increase lamb numbers
Six years ago, Nick Paterson returned to the farm, starting a gradual succession planning process with his father Rowly. At that time, they were marking about 80pc lambs to ewes joined, last year that reached 99pc.
Other changes included introducing scanning for singles and multiples and separating accordingly, condition scoring every sheep three or four times a year and a split joining that has been used the past two years.
“Split joining has really helped,” Matt said.
“Last year our first cycle of lambing was through some atrocious weather where we had some losses, but the second cycle was perfect weather and pretty much everything survived.
“If we were still on our normal five-week joining, that would have been smack in the middle of the bad weather and the losses would have been a lot worse,” he said.
“This splits the risk.”
They now start lambing about August 1 for the first cycle and five weeks later in early September for the second cycle.
After joining Dr Cotton on a New Zealand tour, the farm stopped mulesing in 2019.
“I think it doesn’t have long left before it is stopped completely, but we’ve had tremendous success from not mulesing in terms of growth rates and survival rates between marking and weaning and then weaning to 150 days old,” Matt said.