Fast growth rates combined with quality carcase traits make White Suffolks the perfect fit for the Last family's prime lamb operation at Byaduk North.
Gordon and Belle Last, their children and Gordon's parents Peter and Joanne, made the switch to using Merino/White Suffolk-cross ewes joined back to White Suffolk sires about 10 years ago and continue to be impressed with the breed's performance.
They now have 8500 breeding ewes on their 1200-hectare property, Garvald Vale, run on an intensive annual-based pasture system with 850ha sown to a mix of ryegrass and clover species each year.
"Traditionally we were first-cross ewe breeders but we started buying in mixed sex Merino/White Suffolk-cross lambs and then joining the ewe lambs back to White Suffolk rams," Mr Last said.
"It was a cost-effective way to buy in the ewes and has worked really well for us, in the past five years as we have bought more country, we've been able to increase our numbers pretty quickly from 4000 up to 8500 ewes.
"I love the White Suffolk-cross, they lamb with great ease, and the lambs just take off when they hit the ground.
"We are producing a consistently even line of lambs with good carcase quality traits and the feedback from processors has been very positive.
"The ewes average about 24 micron and cut $35 worth of wool which is also a free kick for us and they are not overly big sheep, about 65-70 kilograms liveweight, which suits our business and means we can run plenty of them."
Mr Last uses a combination of Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) and visual appraisal to select high-performing White Suffolk rams.
"The three traits we chase are high growth, high muscle and positive fat," he said.
"I am looking for rams which are above breed average for weaning weight and post weaning weight with an eye muscle depth of more than +2.
"I can't control the genetics of the ewes because they are bought in so my ram selection is crucial and I'm certainly seeing the benefits of it in the progeny."
The rams are used in the breeding program for a maximum of three years to fast-track flock performance and ensure fresh genetics are coming through quickly.
About 2000 replacement ewe lambs are sourced each year, with the majority coming from breeders in the Wimmera region near Nhill.
But this year, Mr Last was able to purchase 1.5 year-old ewes at very competitive prices due to the tough conditions in northern Victoria.
"It was an opportunity we were able to take advantage of which has really driven our business significantly this year as instead of having 1500 ewe lambs we have 1500, 1.5 year-old ewes which has given us 20-30 per cent more lambs and they were an earlier drop," he said.
Ewes are joined in mid January for five weeks to lamb in mid-June and are scanned to identify multiples.
This year's conception rate was 92pc and of the ewes in lamb 50pc scanned to singles and 50pc were scanned with twin lambs.
Any empties at scanning are re-joined to lamb in the spring.
Ewes are separated into single and twin-bearing mobs so the ewes carrying twins can be given preferential treatment in the lead up to lambing.
Stocking rates for twin-bearing mobs average about 10 ewes per ha while the single ewes are run at about 11 ewes/ha, although Mr Last admits this season the single-bearing ewes had it "pretty tough" due to the late break.
Depending on the dry feed available, ewes are supplementary fed with hay and silage during summer.
All the ewes are placed in containment pens from mid-March until two weeks prior to lambing and fed a ration of hay, silage and grain.
Annual pastures can then be sown and paddocks locked up to allow a wedge of feed to grow before lambing.
With assistance from farm consultants, each paddock is assessed pre-lambing with the best quality feed allocated to the twin-bearing mobs.
"As soon as we get to 1800 kilograms/ha of pasture feed, we will get the twinners out of the containment pens and in their paddocks," he said.
"This year we didn't quite get there, the feed-on-offer was about 1650kg/ha."
Targeted fertiliser applications are carried out pre-lambing, in July and at the end of August to boost pasture growth.
"We focus on the twinners to make sure they have ample feed in front of them and that's why I love the annual system because every blade of grass is a winner," he said.
"Our biggest issue is preserving enough dry feed for the summer."
Last year, a trial weaning program was implemented but Mr Last admits he is not convinced it is beneficial. The lambs were weaned at 12-14 weeks of age in early September.
"The unweaned lambs were definitely better lambs by a mile, they seem to hold their condition better if the season gets a bit tougher and I personally think the milk is undervalued," he said.
The weaned lambs were drafted into four weight categories; below 25kg, 25-30kh, 30-35kg and above 35kg, and grazed better quality pastures at about 30 lambs/ha.
"I don't worry too much about the tail-enders, I am more focused on the lambs we can get to market as quickly as possible," he said.
"Last year we bred about 9000 lambs and sold nearly 7000 through November and December."
Although Mr Last will trial weaning a portion of the lambs again, the majority will stay on the ewes and be sold as suckers.
Depending on the price, most of the lambs are marketed over the hooks to the Midfield Group, Warrnambool, at an average carcase weight of about 20.5kg.
Replacements are purchased as ewe lambs at about 32-35kg, with the spring flush of feed used to boost their weight to more than 40kg.
They are then placed into the containment pens and joined on a rising plane of nutrition to lamb in September.
"Joining them in the feedlot works well for us, the rams don't have to walk anywhere and although it is a bit more expensive, you know they are going to be cycling as they are putting on weight."