About five years ago, John Cooper sent half of the 8000 sheep on his ‘Wandella’, Lackrana, Flinders Island, Tasmania, farm, to slaughter.
Mr Cooper had previously relied on Footvax to control footrot in his Merino flock, but after that was banned in Australia in 2008, he had no other way to eradicate the disease.
“Because [our climate] is similar to Gippsland, we used to get a fair bit of footrot, but if you gave them a shot, they’d keep on their feet, and grow a lot of wool and had good lambs,” he said.
He said he would normally inject his sheep once a year but if they had a wet autumn, he would give them two jabs.
At about $1-$1.20 a shot, he said it was an easy and affordable way to manage the disease.
“I bought enough [Footvax] for four or five years when they announced it would be banned, but I eventually ran out,” he said.
After years of dealing with the disease, and with no other adequate vaccines on the market, in 2013, he decided culling was his only option.
He said it was a “bloody awful” thing to have to do, but as a “one-man operation”, he did not have the manpower to do anything else.
Originally, his operation was half sheep, half cattle, but after this incident, he bought a few more cows and kept the heifers to increase his breeding herd.
Mr Cooper now only runs cattle.
He said he misses running sheep, but can’t imagine ever being able to again.
And Mr Cooper wasn’t the only producer on Flinders Island to make such a significant operational change in recent years.
Roberts Flinders Island branch manager Richard Mollineaux said there had been a “big reduction” in Merino sheep numbers on the island in the last decade.
Mr Mollineaux estimated that back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, about 80 per cent of producers on the island ran Merino sheep.
Now, he estimated there would be no more than 10pc of producers still running Merinos.
He said prior to 2000, Flinders Island’s Merino flock size was at about 200,000 head, and now, it was around 42,000 head.
He said when Footvax was banned, producers realised they “simply couldn’t operate Merino sheep anymore”.
While new vaccinations have come onto the market since, he said you need to get the strain of footrot on your property tested, and that could be a costly process.
But footrot was not the only cause of Flinders Island’s transition from sheep to cattle.
Mr Mollineaux said another big factor was workload.
“The majority of farms on Flinders Island are single man operations, and sheep are a lot more work, so some producers find it easier to run cattle,” he said.
He said the shearing industry was dramatically impacted by the reduction in sheep numbers.
“There are no real shearing teams on the island anymore, any shearing that’s needed is done by teams from Tasmania,” he said.
He said despite this, Flinders Island’s agriculture industry was “as strong as it’s ever been”.
Producers were running large numbers of cattle, so were getting favourable returns.
As well as beef, producers were transitioning into crossbreds, he said.
One of those producers was Terence Klug, Killarney, Flinders Island.
After 35 years running Merinos, about six years ago, Mr Klug started breeding crossbreds instead.
He said his main reason for moving into crossbreds was that Merino wool was not selling well, but it had worked in his favour in many ways.
Even though crossbreds were heavier sheep, with adult sheep ranging between 80-100 kilograms, their feet tended to be able to handle the conditions better.
He said he was not aware of any footrot incidents on the island in crossbred sheep.
“The good lord made [crossbreds] with better tyres, whereas the Merinos were awful,” he said.
Today he runs 1400 crossbred ewes, and also about 320 mainly Hereford breeders.
He said the combination works well.
His crossbreds have been producing 145pc lambs.
“They’re different to Merinos, they’re survivors, and fantastic mums,” he said.
Darren Grace runs his own operation on 1200 hectares at Lackrana, but also manages the largest property on the island, Markarna Grazing, Memana, on 12,500 hectares.
In the last five or so years, both properties have seen drastic changes from majority sheep to majority cattle.
On his own property, he runs 80pc Angus cows and 20pc first-cross ewes, but said previously, this was the other way around.
At Markarna, they run 70pc cattle to 30pc sheep, when previously this was 50/50.
Mr Grace said the downturn in the wool market years ago was a big reason behind the transition, but also the extra work required in running sheep, compared to cattle, that made them less ideal.
“With sheep, you’ve got fly issues, particularly if you get a wet summer, as well as crutching, shearing and lamb marking,” he said.
“You’ve also got footrot and Johne's disease, and that requires extra labour units to manage.
“But with cattle, you mark and wean your calves, and that’s about it until you market them for sale,” he said.
Mr Grace said he has seen this trend across the island.
“If you look across the island, farmers are certainly getting older and they’ve found that it’s hard work running a sheep enterprise,” he said.
He said a lot of older farmers were also hesitant to invest in new infrastructure required for sheep.
“A lot of yards needed updating, but they weren’t willing to go and spend the money on their infrastructure,” he said.
“There’s some good sheep handling facilities around now, but they’re big investments.”
What do you think? Leave a comment below.