Soaring feed prices and highly variable climates are constraining the profits of Victorian livestock producers.
This is why consultant and farmer Jason Trompf has embarked on a comprehensive genetic selection trial which clawed back over $20 a head in revenue from meat and wool by identifying the right maternal balance of traits in rams.
This equated to a gross margin difference of almost $200 a hectare.
Together with his wife, Penny, four children and Penny's parents, the Trompfs farm about 350ha in the Greta Valley, which receives an average annual rainfall of 650 millimetres and an average growing season of seven months.
They run 3000 composite ewes at a high stocking rate of about 20 dry sheep equivalent a hectare.
Adult ewes lamb in June and maiden ewes lamb in August, with most lambs sold at before five months, between 20-26 kilogram carcase weight, and the balance carried over to sell in late summer.
In 2014, they refined their breeding objectives and began tracing individual ewes' performance through the entire supply chain, from embryo to entree.
Ewes were selected for their good doing ability and early maturity, to enable them to run at high stocking rates, while adult ewe sizes were evaluated against fleece values.
"There is as much variation within breeds as there is between breeds," Dr Trompf said.
"So, it was important not to see this as a breed comparison but an evaluation of the traits and to examine what is the balance of meat and wool that is most profitable in our system."
The trial was based on assessing the performance of 500, 2015-drop ewe progeny bred from the crossbred ewe flock which were joined to sire teams representing five different maternal bloodlines.
Australian Sheep Breeding Values and visual appraisal were used to source the five different maternal ram groups, which included the Maternal Merino, Maternal Composite, Terminal-maternal, New Zealand Composite and Maternal White Suffolk.
The wether progeny were sold as lambs and the ewe progeny were retained and measured in the trial.
A sixth group, first-cross Border Leicester/Merino ewe lambs, were bought to represent normal practice.
The ewes, which are currently on their fourth lambing, have been measured annually using Smart Sensors, electronic identification and hook tracking for their total wool and meat production and value, condition score, adult weight, lamb survival rates, and worm burden.
"This has allowed us to measure the total dollar return per ewe," Dr Trompf said.
"This has been critical to informing the gross margin analysis for comparing the profitability of the six genotypes on a production per head and profit per hectare basis.
"An interesting outcome of the trial is that there is more than one way to achieve similar outcomes."
For instance, the profitability of the maternal White Suffolk sired ewes was driven by high scanning rates, lamb survival and marking rates, relative to other ewe groups, as well as higher body condition score throughout it's life.
However, while the White Suffolk sired ewes produced more meat on a per hectare basis, they had the lowest wool return driven by low fleece weights and high micron, Dr Trompf said.
Whereas the Maternal Merino group was in complete contrast to the White Suffolk group, consistently having the highest wool return driven by finer micron and moderate fleece weights, and meat production per ewe or per hectare that was around average across all sire groups.
"It has shown us that it is critical for sheep producers, particularly those with dual-purpose flocks, to measure total production from their ewes when comparing genotypes," he said
"In order to thoroughly evaluate different maternal genetics, it is critical to understand your system efficiencies and benefits, cost-of-production and welfare outcomes.
"All of which are influencing our ongoing ram purchases and ewe selection."
The plan is to measure the ewes for their fifth year of production and undertake some measures of feed intake and maintenance requirement of the different maternal lines, to better inform the gross margin analysis.
The trial results will be discussed during the upcoming workshops on 'Producing more in varying seasons', being held across Victoria from next week.
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