Michael Blake, a passionate wool growing and farming advocate, is driven to improve practices on the family’s farm and share his learnings with the broader farming sector and general public.
This has seen he and wife Cathy host around 90 research projects at Bally Glunin Park, in Hamilton, of which more than 65 have been the past 22 years.
Mr Blake also contributes to industry standards and reports on a wide range of topics – from quality assurance (QA), biosecurity, animal welfare, environmental considerations, occupational health and safety and much more.
“This is my commitment back to the industry – I see people who do meals on wheels, rotary programs and other volunteer work, that’s their commitment back, but this is what I love and know so well,” Mr Blake said.
He does this all in an honorary capacity, whether its contributing work to industry bodies, government agencies and international companies.
“It’s all done in an honorary capacity and that way I’m able to provide unbiased directions and reports.”
The property is now 1800 hectares , on which the Blakes are running 9800 sheep, including young stock. About 1900 of the ewes lamb in autumn and 700 in spring.
They do some cropping each year, and the amount and varieties they chose depends on long range weather forecasts. This season, they’ve sown 100ha to oats to produce hay and grain to feed their stock – and do not buy in any supplementary feed.
They also have 200 breeding Limousin cross and Hereford cows, to produce MSA and European Union accredited vealers for for the domestic and export market.
These are some of the 12 QA programs for which the farm is now accredited, and they also use self-assessment tools. The Blakes have taken part in many other such programs over the years, but Mr Blake said only those with the right ethos continued and many shut down.
Mr Blake said his farming ethos is pretty simple – he loves the industry and products, and hopes people will be able to say, “He left thing better than when he took over.”
Some of the long-term programs that have come to fruition in recent years include genetic worm resistance in the sheep and shearing them every eight months.
In 1995, Mr Blake decided he would breed for natural worm resistance. he identified the ram with the best credentials was the Toland family’s Bindawarra Diamond Jim.
He said natural worm resistance is evident in sheep’s phenotype in three generations. He said it was 10 years before it was expressed in the rams they breed their own stud and then another 10 years before it was expressed in the wider flock.
“So 20 years later, the influence was complete.”
Since 1972, the team at Bally Glunin Park has also done drench efficiency testing, which entails a faecal egg count before and after drench.
“We still have single dose rate 100 per cent efficiency across all drench types,” Mr Blake said.
After buying Diamond Jim’s sons and grandsons for many years and succeeding in increasing the flock’s worm resistance, Mr Blake prioritised improving wool cut and quality in the breeding program.
Mr Blake said while Diamond Jim was an elite wool ram, he wanted to get back to producing very fine apparel wool.
“He researched studs and decided to buy rams from the Mibus family’s Glenara stud, Dunkeld, who was then headed by MervMibus.
“Merv helped me a lot in picking the rams I needed.
“I thought a lot of him and the industry did, he was a Wool Monarch.”
Mr Blake’s contribution to the industry was some years later also recognised with this award, and he said although he didn’t see himself in that class, he was very proud and appreciative that his peers had.
Mr Blake has continued to buy top Glenara rams for 12 years. In early August, they purchased two rams from Glenara’s pen of five at Sheepvention in Hamilton, including the top-priced lot of the stud’s draft.
These genetics have helped the Blakes increase the wool quality and cut to such as extent that they now shear every eight months, with the ultimate goal of shearing every six months.
Mr Blake said he travelled to major Italian mills a number of times to seek advice, as well as from wool broker Bruno De Mattia, Fox and Lillie, and understood that the price penalty for too-long staple relfected the production reality.
When they were shearing once a year at Bally Glunin Park, the clip was far too long.
Mr Blake said it took a fair amount of work to transition the flock to be shorn more often – while they were changing over, they shore at six different times throughout the year.
They have now set their program to shear every eight months.
“I measure all the time – the sheep, the seasonal conditions – and we could shear every seven months to get the optimum specifications at this stage, but ultimately we’d like to move to shearing every six months. Shearing more often has also brought animal health benefits, including less fly problems.
“Linking it all together took a lot of planning.”
He said it was vital to be flexible – and he’d found that stopped him from getting stressed.
He said they now produced and extra two kilograms of wool more per sheep in a two year period, with three shearing compared to two.
They sell wool across about six markets a year, and Mr Blake has only missed two in 20 years.
“I like to ask buyers why they’ve bought it and how we could improve it.”
He said their QA programs and controls helped buyers feel confident.
One measure they take to present the wool in best possible way is to do a pre-shearing stain and crutch.
So before shearing, the crutchers take off the wig and all of the jowl a bung hole crutch unless stain needs to be removed, as well as the pizzle stain from the wethers.
Doing this before shearing avoids contamination, Mr Blake said.
He said because there was no set way to bill for the jowl removal in the shearing award, they’ve negotiated payment at an udder blow price.
“Everyone’s happy – shearers tally four or five more sheep a day; we never have trouble finding shearers or people to do the crutching, and we do a broken line instead of a pieces line.”
The flock’s wool averages 17 micron in fibre diameter. The hoggets’ wool is around 14.5-15.5M, two year-olds 15.5-16.5M and older sheep to 18.5.
They have 11 year-old ewes and eight year old wethers, which have been classed each year to stay.
Using a laser machine to test wool and selectively breeding, has seen the Blakes tighten the standard deviation too.
Mr Blake said in his talks with Italian mill operators and others in the supply chain, he found they were concerned about mulesing.
This lead him to gradually stop mulesing, so in 2005, they did 50 per cent, in 2006 did about 15 per cent and then ceased the next year. He said it was also important to have a industry established protocol to accredit wool that was from non-museled sheep. I developed one in 2006 which was subsequently included in the National Wool Declaration.
As of this year, they administer Ilium Buccalgesic OTM to the lambs before lamb marking. Mr blake said this pre-pain relief cost about 44 cents per lamb. He contributed to the inclusion of pre-pain relief in the SustainaWOOL document.
The Bally Glunin Park clip is accredited both under SustainaWOOL and EU Eco, and Mr Blake said at the sales he attends, it is the only wool in the catalogue to carry both.
Improving the environment at Bally Glunin Park is also very important to the Blakes.
“It’s about developing an ecosystem that contributes more to the environment than it takes out; so for example we’ve increased the farm’s water holding capacity by five times by deepening dams, building more and fencing them in and applying key line principles, and we’ve planted 200,000 trees in the past 15 years.”
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