A focus on quality genetics combined with improved nutrition and a switch to shearing every eight months is paying dividends for the McDougall family, who were recently awarded the Elders Southern Clip of the Year for 2018/19.
Sean McDougall, who manages the mixed farming operation, near Maroona, with his parents Bruce and Maryanne, and wife Leila, said they were thrilled with the award.
"We've been nominated a few times before but it was very exciting to win and a nice reward for our efforts," he said.
Passionate about wool, the McDougall family have been breeding Merinos on their 1300-hectare property, Rosevale Ridge, for many years and are pleased their persistence in producing wool is finally paying off.
The winning wool clip had a high yield, averaged 19 micron, with a staple length of 75-80 millimetres and a tensile strength of more than 45 Newtons per kilotex for an eight month shearing.
During the past five years, the family has introduced a range of management changes which Mr McDougall said have all played a significant role in improving the productivity of their Merino flock.
They currently run 3000 self-replacing Merinos, alongside 340 Charolais-cross breeders and crop 500ha of canola, wheat, barley and oats, some of which is used for stockfeed.
Cull and cast-for-age Merino ewes are joined to White Suffolk rams.
The ewe base is founded on Sohnic bloodlines, but genetics have also been introduced from Coryule and last year a ram was bought from Stud Park South.
Mr McDougall likes to use a combination of visual appraisal and Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) for his ram selection, with a focus on wool style, crimp and fleece evenness.
"We are aiming to breed a free-growing, dual-purpose Merino, I also like a high crimping, stylish wool that's able to withstand the wet weather," he said.
"Sohnic genetics were introduced to improve the carcase characteristics of our sheep and more recently we have focused on wool cut."
The McDougalls run an elite flock of 180 ewes which are joined to these stud sires to breed their own rams.
The home-bred rams are classed by Elders sheep classer Glendon Hancock, assisted by Elders district wool manager Craig Potter.
They made a switch to shearing every eight months about three years ago, although Mr McDougall admits the timing can be flexible depending on when ewes are lambing and other farming operations are happening.
Across a two-year period, shearing is carried out in early March, December and June.
"We are targeting a shorter staple length of about 80mm with more than 70 per cent yield and I think they are growing up to one kilogram/head more wool compared with one annual shearing," Mr McDougall said.
"Our wool cut is averaging about 4kg/hd at each shearing.
"It has also made a difference to ewe health as I think we are looking after our stock better to get as much wool growth as possible and that helps with lamb survival."
The eight-month shearing had also helped to spread the family's wool market risk and assisted with their annual cash flow.
In 2015, they also built a set of containment yards which Mr McDougall said has had a huge impact on ewe nutrition and management.
Ewes are put in the holding yards after their March shearing and stay there until the end of May.
They are fed in a three-day rotation of hay, barley and silage.
"The containment yards allow us to get a feed wedge going after the autumn break and also means we can start sowing crops early," he said.
The ewes are joined to Rosevale bred rams in the containment pens to lamb in spring.
Mr McDougall said lamb survival is a key profit driver and he has been able to lift weaning rates from less than 80pc to an average of 95pc per ewe joined.
Lamb foetus survival has increased to 79pc across the flock.
Ewes are pregnancy scanned in May to identify multiples and then separated into single and twin-bearing mobs so the ewes carrying twins can be looked after more carefully.
"I am still fine tuning the management of the ewes during joining and lambing as I am finding the flock doesn't seem to join up as well after the March shearing," he said.
"This year I also trialled split joining, but because I used teasers and flushed the ewes with lupins pre-joining I had 80pc pregnant in the first cycle, it probably hasn't been a great comparison."
Mr McDougall admits the single-bearing ewes are run "pretty hard" while the twin-bearing ewes go on quality legume pastures in the last trimester of their pregnancy.
They will also lamb in the driest, most sheltered paddocks and small mob sizes of 50-80 ewes are maintained to reduce the risk of mismothering.
Lambs are weaned at 12 weeks of age in November and drafted into three weight categories, comprising less than 20kg, 20-25kg and more than 25kg.
Lighter lambs will be placed on dryland lucerne stands and self-feeders to boost their growth rates as quickly as possible.
The wether lamb portion is tip-shorn at the end of February and this year was sold over the hooks in May, with the majority going to the Frew Group abattoir in Stawell.
The draft averaged about $95/hd at an average carcase weight of 16-18kg.
The ewe lambs are also tip-shorn in February before being shorn again in September.
They are classed by Mr Hancock on wool style, body size and structure prior to joining.
Mr McDougall is making the move to non-mulesing and has had no issues so far, with careful monitoring and chemical flystrike protection part of the management.
Electronic tag technology has also been introduced to assist with fleece weight and body weight recording in the ewe lambs at classing time.