The simple tried and tested system of producing fast-growing and high-yielding grassfed lambs for heavy export and sucker markets is paying dividends for the Brook family at Goroke, Vic.
Farming in this medium rainfall zone of the west Wimmera, Paul and Catherine Brook run 4000 ewes and a broadacre cropping enterprise with Paul's parents Locksley and Marianne on two properties covering 3000 hectares.
We want our lambs on the ground when the winter season is breaking to ensure there is optimum feed for them to grow, and for ewes to recover. Then we want fast lamb weight gain through to late September and October, when we aim to start selling into the heavy export market sector
Their sheep system uses first-cross Border Leicester/Merino ewes that are mated to Poll Dorset and White Suffolk rams to produce strong performing and highly marketable second-cross prime lambs.
In the past few years, joining has been bought forward by a few weeks from the family's traditional mating period to late November and early December.
This is designed to ensure an April-May lambing and hit markets as early in the spring as possible - when price premiums tend to be available.
Paul Brook said this timing also worked well around cropping operations, with the tail-end of the lambs able to be grown-out on stubbles going into the summer months if necessary.
"We want our lambs on the ground when the winter season is breaking to ensure there is optimum feed for them to grow, and for ewes to recover," he said.
"Then we want fast lamb weight gain through to late September and October, when we aim to start selling into the heavy export market sector."
The Brooks graze sheep on improved clover-based pastures during the winter.
Their lambs average about 55 kilograms to 60kg liveweight when turned-off - at an age of six to eight months-old - to produce a 27-28kg dressed weight carcase.
Top lines regularly exceed carcase weights of 30kg dressed and attract strong repeat demand from processors, including the family's main buyers JBS Australia and Thomas Foods International.
"We supply direct to these processors, and this year we have locked-in forward prices for a proportion of the 2020-drop lambs," Mr Brook said.
"This has taken some of the pressure off thinking about sales in a difficult market, and we will continue to look for selling opportunities in coming weeks and months as lambs reach target weights."
The Brooks have had to revise lamb and sheep budget expectations several times this year due to the unprecedented havoc caused by COVID-19 lockdowns in Vic - and the pandemic's impact on global agricultural markets in general.
As consumers locally and across many export market countries have been forced to stay inside and limit travelling, prices for lamb in Australia have contracted - in some cases by $3/kg to $4/kg below the pre-COVID-19 budget estimates of many east coast livestock producers.
"People are just not going out and eating, which affects the restaurant trade - and the export market has also slumped," Mr Brook said.
"This has created many marketing challenges for us in Australia and we are just going to have to think about market alternatives and take any opportunities to optimise returns where we can.
"We will be closely monitoring the value of any more forward contracts, that is for sure, and we might find other options in the supermarket-trade weight categories in Australia.
"The biggest issue is unpredictability in markets, as our production hasn't changed and the season has been conducive to excellent lamb survival and growth."
This year, the Brooks achieved one of their best scanned flock conception rates for several years.
Only 6 per cent of ewes in a flock of 4000-head was dry.
Typically, the long-term average of dry ewes is about 10pc.
Lambing rates were about 120pc, which is on a par with recent years and has been trending up.
"Our rams are doing an excellent job when it comes to fertility genetics and performance in the field," Mr Brook said.
The Brooks have been buying Poll Dorset and White Suffolk sires from the Hausler family's Janmac stud - based locally in Goroke - for many years.
"The British Breed influence from their Poll Dorset and White Suffolk breeding flocks over our Border Leicester/Merino ewes provides a real kick in second-cross lamb growth rates," Mr Brook said.
"We know the progeny will perform in our environment and seasonal conditions.
"The Border Leicester infusion in the ewes gives us great flock maternal traits in easy birthing, high lamb and ewe conception, survival and weaning rates and good nurturing. Our experience is that these mothers really look after their lambs."
Mr Brook said ram selection emphasis was put on fertility traits - with twinning, in particular, being a key criteria to double the production from single ewe 'units'.
He said he also assessed Australian Sheep Breeding Values for early growth, eye muscle and intramuscular fat.
"But, at the end of the day, it is a visual assessment that matters to me the most," he said.
"I know the Janmac stud is making rapid and continual genetic progress in improving the profit-driving traits for our lamb enterprise, and this then flows-down to boost my productivity in the paddock.
"Even when buying flock rams, I know these are genetically as sound and proven as their top stud sires.
"All their rams are good - you couldn't pick a bad one, which means I don't have to stress too much over closely analysing ASBVs."
Janmac's Poll Dorset stud was formed in 1979 by Malcolm and Janet Hausler and the White Suffolk stud started in 2012, based on the Laurelview stud.
Mr Brook said because Janmac also ran a commercial sheep flock, the Hausler family knew what type of rams were required to produce quick growing, high yielding lambs in the local area.
"It gives me confidence that Janmac-sired lambs will always weigh and yield well in our conditions and climate," he said.