To cope with ongoing dry seasonal conditions, Violet Town commercial sheep producers Lyndon and Sharon Kubeil have taken their "wool goggles" off, breeding a fertile, early-maturing Merino with a strong focus on carcase traits.
The Kubeils' operation was profiled last week as part of the Climate Smart Farming series workshops hosted by Agriculture Victoria and consultant Jason Trompf, which showcased operations resilient to seasonal challenges.
The Kubeils run 1400 Merino ewes, averaging six-kilogram fleece cut at 19 micron, on a strong phalaris sub-clover pasture base, in a 550-millimetre rainfall zone.
They purchased Laurana in 1999, which Mr Kubeil said came with a high level of debt and a high level of risk, forcing the family to evaluate both seasonal and market risks and to focus on the main profit drivers, being pasture and genetics.
Their operation is driven by a pasture management program which includes regular soil testing, which steers a fertiliser and grazing management plan.
Individual paddocks are tested to maintain Phosphorus levels above 15 (Olsens P), a minimum pH of 5.5 in calcium chloride, Potassium above 100 mg/kg and Sulphur above 8 mg/kg - critical performance points to optimise production.
READ MORE: Soil probe a weather weapon
"It's about attending to your most limiting element; soil fertility is key to growing more grass and extending your growing season," he said.
"When I started here I worked hard on phosphorous, which is where you get your biggest bang for your buck, followed by a strong liming program and more recently increased use of Gypsum.
"Don't always think about flexibility in your system for the downward flex in poor seasons, it's just as important to take advantage of the good season which is when you make your money.
"So you need the flexibility to move both ways and have systems in place when the season is good to turn that grass into dollars."
They run an average annual stocking rate of 12 dry sheep equivalent per hectare, with peak carrying capacity in spring increasing to 18-20DSE/ha.
"Forget about genetics until you get your pasture right because you need to be able to feed them," he said.
"If you are not soil testing, you need to start.
"Grow grass, grow grass, grow grass, and then think about your genetics."
Half the Merino ewes are joined to a Border Leicester to lamb in June, and the remainder to a Merino sire to lamb in August.
This is a strategic decision to mitigate market and seasonal risk.
"August lambing compared to June lambing is a walk in the park in terms of feed ahead and keeping condition on ewes," Mr Kubeil said.
"But a split lambing means I don't have all my Merino ewes lamb at the one time, it gives me market and seasonal options."
The Kubeils started their operation with heavy cutting Merino ewes, averaging eight-kilogram fleece weights and marking on average 75 per cent of lambs to ewes joined.
They quickly learned the sheep they were breeding were not suited to their dual-purpose goals, and set about to aggressively increase carcase and fertility performance.
To achieve this, Mr Kubeil took his "wool goggles" off by classing ewes off shears.
"The biggest shift I had to make was to let go of my passion for wool quality to breed a more balanced sheep," he said.
They purchase rams from Toland Merino stud, Violet Town, and target sires in the top 20pc for weaning weight, yearling weight, eye muscle depth and fat.
The fat has provided ewes with resilience when the seasons get tough and helps with increased ewe fertility and decreasing lamb mortality.
"I've come from a heavy cutting ewe that reared bugger all lambs, and I'm now breeding a more balanced animal that is fertile and grows quickly - that has changed our whole system," he said.
By classing ewes off shears, Mr Kubeil said he was able to select ewes based more on shape and structure and reduced the temptation to put a wool sheep with less carcase into the breeding program.
"Genetic fat is where we get our fertility from and resilience, I'm now increasing my focus on earlier maturity, which adds lots of flexibility levers such as joining merino ewe lambs at 7 months of age to restock quicker following a poor season," he said.
He has shifted production from an average 8kg fleece weight and 75pc lamb marked to 6kg and 124pc respectively.
"What I lost in wool volume I've gained in production, resilience and reduced feeding, with the ability to produce a 20kg Merino wether lamb carcase at seven months on stubbles," he said.
Calculating our wool-to-meat/surplus sheep income ratio was another game changer.
Excluding the past couple of years with extreme wool prices, their wool to meat ratio was about 35pc wool to 75pc surplus sheep and meat.
"Even with the recent extremely high wool prices the income ratio was still only 50:50," he said.
"Wool producers tend to remember the market peaks but forget about the troughs.
I didn't want to put all my eggs in the wool basket because I know how temperamental the market is."