DON Fairbrother likes his Coopworths.
He likes them pure, with black feet and noses, and to grow old having lots of lambs.
At the Tarwin Lower property, Kings Flat, Don, 64, and his wife Dorothy farm in Gippsland, their 800 Coopworth ewes are generating gross margins 70 per cent higher than their beef cattle.
Last financial year as part of the Department of Primary Industries’ Livestock Farm Monitor Project, the Coopworth/prime lamb operation had a gross margin of $710 per hectare compared to $418/ha for the cattle.
“My whole focus is on sheep fertility; I want to get maximum lambs per hectare,” Don said.
The Fairbrothers also run 100 yearling cattle, and 200 performance-recorded Hereford cows selected on temperament for the past 40 years, on their 240 hectares of grazing land. Another 40 hectares is fenced off with protected native vegetation.
At Kings Flat the Coopworth rams work hard, but Don hasn’t heard any of them complain. In his youth it was customary to join rams at 2.5-3 per cent, but for the last 15-20 years he has joined rams at one per cent plus one. One Clifton Hill blood Coopworth ram from Chrome Park joined on March 31 last year served 150 seven and eight-year-old ewes in 21 days and 138 of those ewes had 221 lambs marked.
“It brought home to me how we are underutilising our rams.
“We should be using the top rams as widely as we can,” he said.
Don now buys the best sires he can afford and challenges them to perform, but he is always ready with a back-up ram.
“To be in farming and to be profitable you have got to be receptive and try new ideas and not be traditional.”
Coopworth rams are only joined to seven and eight-year-old ewes to produce ewe replacements, as part of Don’s strategy to inject longevity into his flock.
“These older ewes are the survivors.
“The have got to perform to that age to get into that elite mob.”
The rest of the ewes on the property are joined to Southdowns and Poll Dorsets, until they get to seven-years-old. Ewes are culled on structure and if they don’t raise a lamb from two-years-old on.
Past experience and his country has led Don Fairbrother to a late ewe joining date. He started in Gippsland with Perendales, converting to Coopworths in the late 80s to get sheep with a better temperament and producing more lambs. Lambing then was in mid-July, but today all sheep are joined on April 1 to lamb in September, suiting the Coopworths.
“I’m prepared to lamb late, sell at a lower carcase weight and get plenty of lambs.
“The net return per hectare is greater doing that,” he said.
“The two things that are driving our enterprise are stocking rate and fertility.”
Marking percentages have gone from 120-130 per cent with Perendale ewes and first cross ewes Don ran in the 1980s to average 135-140 per cent-plus with the Coopworths, including the ewe lambs. All lambs, apart from Coopworth ewe lamb replacements, are sold by January-early February at 18-22 kilogram dressed weight. About 80 per cent of the 2010-drop of terminal and Coopworth wether lambs were sold in January this year at 20.8 kilogram at $6.44 a kilogram dressed weight.
The two year-old Fairbrother Coopworth ewes marked 148 per cent lambs this year, the three-year-olds marked about 150 per cent lambs; the 4-6-year-olds marked 162-182 per cent and the 7-8-year-old ewes marked 165 per cent. All this was done with minimal interference at lambing, with perhaps 5-6 ewes a year requiring assistance.
“I just pick up the cast ewes,” Don said.
The sheep are shorn twice a year; in January and in July (using cover combs to leave a protective staple length), which cuts out a crutching before lambing. Shed staff are kept to minimum, with only dag, stain and bellies kept out of the fleece. The shearers are told not to go back to clean sheep up.
“I don’t want locks,” Don said.
The Fairbrothers have been joining ewe lambs for 25 years, achieving 60-90 per cent joining rates at seven months of age. Don will tolerate a ewe lamb not rearing a lamb at her first attempt, but no lamb the second time around or at any age after that is a culling offence.
Don hasn’t taken his flock down the maternal composite route in an effort to join earlier, improve muscle or accelerate growth. He is worried about the trend toward increased growth in Coopworth and believes more emphasis should be put on fertility and maintaining the breed’s exceptional temperament.
“They are trying to produce a terminal and a maternal animal in one sheep.
He believes it would be better to develop the maternal qualities of the Coopworth – fertility, mothering and doability - and use a terminal ram to give growth and muscle in the second cross lamb.
“I want a Coopworth ewe to be a milker, a very good mother and to have plenty of lambs.”
The Fairbrother farm has been working to a low-input system, with applications of high-analysis fertiliser ceasing five years ago over the farm’s black sandy peat flats and grey sandy rises. Don said he now treats his pastures with composted pig manure, lime and sulphated potash (not muriate). He also sprays on live microbes to enhance humus formation and the storage and recycling of nutrients.
“We are relying on a more biological system now, not water-soluble.
“Our stocking rate has gone up and our costs have come back.”
The sheep are generally drenched twice during summer and once before lambing, based on faecal egg counts tests.