Merino sheep are the backbone of the Draffin family's large-scale mixed farming operation in Western Victoria, and they are finally reaping the rewards for producing quality wool and sheep meat.
Andrew and Melinda Draffin, along with their three adult children Brayden, Josh and Sophie, have a spread of enterprises across their two properties which includes the home base, Rutlands Pastoral, at Vite Vite, and Buangor Park, Buangor, which was purchased in 2017.
The two farms comprise 2300 hectares in total, running 1500 self-replacing Merino ewes alongside 900 Merinos joined to Border Leicester rams and 1800 first-cross ewes mated to Poll Dorsets.
They also have an 1100-head composite flock, included in the purchase of their Buangor property, which the Draffins are gradually transitioning back to first-cross ewes.
Diversifying their operation even further, the Draffins sow about 1300ha of crops at Vite Vite, producing canola, wheat, barley and beans.
"We have always run Merinos and they really are the starting point for the rest of the sheep operation and set us up," Mr Draffin said.
"Biosecurity and animal health is also important to us and breeding our own replacement stock is one of the biggest safeguards against diseases such as foot rot or lice."
The Draffins have been purchasing rams for their self-replacing Merino flock from the Miller family's successful Glenpaen Merino and Poll Merino stud, Brimpaen, for nearly 10 years.
Ram selection has focused on breeding an easy-care Merino sheep with bright, white wool able to withstand a range of weather conditions.
In recent years, Mr Draffin has also increased his selection pressure on increasing body size and wool cut.
"We came to Glenpaen to increase the frame size of our sheep as we felt they were getting too small, with our culls going to Border Leicester rams we really wanted to keep the size in the first-cross ewes," he said.
"We have certainly benefited from buying at the top end of the sale catalogue, the size of our sheep has increased, fleece weights have improved and we are a lot finer in the micron.
"The flock micron would have been up around 18-18.5 micron and is now sitting at an average of 16.7 micron, while the finer line of our hoggets is 15.4, they don't seem to blow out much even when they get older."
Mr Draffin said improving the wool quality in their Merinos had also had a significant impact on the first-cross ewe flock.
"First-cross wool used to be considered a by-product but wool in that 26-27 micron category has been selling extremely well, we recently received 1000 cents/kg for first-cross wool not skirted," he said.
Ewes are joined in mid-March to start lambing in August/September, to coincide with the spring flush of feed.
Mr Draffin admits the Merino flock is run under pretty tough conditions and despite not receiving any special treatment, they continue to perform well.
The ewes are put on stubbles about one month before joining and will then move back onto pasture paddocks once the cropping program is in full swing.
"One thing that has also picked up is our lambing percentages, previously we were struggling to achieve 70 per cent lambing rates per ewe joined and now we are consistently getting about 90pc weaning rates per ewe joined," he said.
"It has certainly helped us with our breeding program as an extra 20pc of lambs means we have more sheep to select from for each enterprise."
The main shearing is in the first week of July so ewes are bare shorn when they lamb, which Mr Draffin also attributes to the lift in lambing percentages.
The Merino lambs are weaned in December onto barley or oat stubbles to maintain body condition and growth rates and will receive their first shearing in the following July.
The Draffins aim to turn off the wether portion after they have been shorn at about 10-11 months of age either through the Ballarat saleyards or over the hooks depending on the market.
"This year we have already sold one draft through the yards and got $175 a head for the tops and an average of $151 a head across the whole draft which was very pleasing," he said.
After shearing, the Merino ewe lambs will be moved onto better quality pastures and supplemented with grain to grow them out.
Mr Draffin classes them prior to joining with a focus on body size, wool colour and crimp and structural soundness, including feet.
Any Merino ewes which don't meet their strict criteria will be moved into the cull flock, along with the six year-old ewes, to be mated to Border Leicester rams to lamb in April.
To fit in with the busy cropping program, the Merino flock joined to Border Leicester rams, all the first-cross ewes and composites are shorn in early March before lambing.
The first-cross ewe flock is joined to Poll Dorsets in late December for a May/June lamb.
The majority of these lambs are sold as suckers from the second week of November through until Christmas, which lightens the stocking rate through summer.
Supplementary feeding, on-farm fodder reserves and an extensive pasture renovation program, including dryland lucerne stands, also play a significant role, giving the Draffins increased management flexibility.