Quick-maturing lambs produced from Southdown sires and the popular maternal Border Leicester-Merino combination are the key to turning a profit for veteran sheep grazier Matt Tyrrell.
Based at Bellarine, only an hour out of Melbourne, his livestock operation relies on the ability to produce high numbers of fast-growing lambs to turn-off at five or six-months-old.
Mr Tyrrell has been farming and shearing for most of his life and currently works with land owners in a management and share-farming arrangement that involves splitting costs and profits.
Each year he runs up to 1200 head of breeding ewes (it is about 800 head in 2020), and a small herd of Angus cattle, on three adjacent properties covering 280 hectares.
The business structure gives him the flexibility to take advantage of good seasonal conditions and participate in opportunistic trading.
In the sheep enterprise this year, an exceptional season and good management delivered a 170 per cent lambing from a mob of 6.5-year-old ewes.
The top line of these lambs was sold in late September for an average price of $148.90 per head at an average carcase weight of 21.5 kilograms.
On two properties, he has set up irrigation systems - pumping water from 400 megalitre-capacity dams - to grow subclover and ryegrass on 16ha. About 80 per cent of this feed base is subclover and 20pc ryegrass and Mr Tyrrell said the mix provided high energy and feed value that was similar to lucerne-based pasture. But, he warned it did need extra fertilising with potash.
Using licensed water permits, the irrigation pivots run from March until June - if necessary - to provide green feed for ewes with new lambs. The sheep go on the irrigated pasture areas when lambs are about five-weeks-old - as this is most energy-sapping period for the ewe mothers and optimises their milk production to promote maximum lamb growth.
The irrigated green feed carries the ewes and lambs for three or four weeks, after which they are grazed on non-irrigated natural winter pastures and supplementary fed quality hay and some barley grain.
In a typical year, Merino-Border Leicester cross ewes are mated to Southdown rams at the end of October for a late March lambing and then sucker turn-off from mid-September.
"This requires careful management, and that's where the Southdowns come into the equation," Mr Tyrell said.
"Because it is a fast-maturing breed, Southdowns produce quick-growing lambs with a short, tight pelt that can handle cold, wet and hot conditions - without a set-back in growth.
"And high fertility from both the Southdown genetics and the Border Leicester influence in the ewes ensures high numbers of lambs per hectare."
Mr Tyrrell said in any business, the best dollar made was the first dollar made and the aim was for sucker lambs to come off their mothers without needing extra feeding, shearing or crutching.
"This reduces costs and means minimal handling, which cuts labour requirements," he said.
Mr Tyrrell said this year's exceptional seasonal conditions meant he did not irrigate any pastures, but did supplement the ewe flock with barley grain during August.
The oldest of Mr Tyrrell's ewe mobs - comprising 267-head of 6.5-year-olds - produced a whopping 444 lambs this year. This was a 170pc lambing rate and approaching the best lambing rates he has achieved - of about 190pc - from grazing sheep on lucerne.
The first line of 227 of these lambs was sold direct to a processor in late September for an average price of $148.90/head. These lambs had an average carcase weight of 21.5kg/head - ranging from 18 to 26kg/head.
Mr Tyrrell attributes much of his flock improvement and prime lamb business success to having a good relationship with his Southdown breeder Anthony (Ned) Nagorcka, of Nedelle Downs stud near Hawkesdale.
His stud is renowned for producing easy lambing, tight skinned Southdown sheep.
Mr Tyrrell said using flock rams from Nedelle Downs met his requirements as a modern lamb producer.
"These rams produce many twins and triplets, but still allow me to run ewes at industry-standard, year-round average stocking rates of about 1.5 head/ha," he said.
"Southdown genetics enable me to have high lamb numbers and produce optimum quality carcases that meet processor requirements - predominantly from dryland pastures.
"The proof is in the pudding, and last year I produced my heaviest-ever sucker lamb at a carcase weight of 41.5kg for a 6.5-month-old. It sold for $275.
"Also last year, 40pc of my sucker turn-off had carcase weights of more than 30kg."
With bountiful paddock feed this autumn Mr Tyrrell tried a new tactic of buying-in and mating ewe lambs to Southdown sires.
These were sourced - with help from his stock agent Peter Korth - at the 2020 annual first-cross ewe sale, held at the Central Victorian Livestock Exchange in Ballarat.
There were 94 Border Leicester-Merino crossbred ewe lambs in the line, which Mr Tyrrell mated to three Nadelle Downs rams over a six-week period (two cycles) and then marked 124 lambs from them in June.
"Even more astounding was that the ewe lamb mothers had still not cut their second-teeth at that stage, and their lambs were cracking - really thriving," he said.
"I didn't have to pull any lambs either, which highlights the benefits of using Southdowns for easy management."
Mr Tyrrell said these ewe lambs would be added to the breeding flock, but he didn't think he would try mating ewe lambs again.
"It was a trial and I think is a bit hard on them at such a young age, unless the season is optimal" he said.
Mr Tyrrell said he sold his lambs direct to local Geelong-based processor and meat wholesaler, M.C. Herd, after his local saleyards were mothballed and the nearest yards were now 125 kilometres away.
"For animal welfare reasons, I am not willing to subject my sucker lambs to being emptied and transported to the saleyards and then transported again by the buyers," he said.
"Now I know the lambs get transported only 25km on one day and are on the hook the next.
"And the most recent contract I negotiated was 30 cents/kg above market value because I have a good relationship with the processor and they have confidence in the quality of my lambs."
Mr Tyrrell said he appreciated that M.C. Herd supplied high quality meat products to a range of independent butchers and retailers domestically and to key export destinations.
"Overall, my production and selling systems are working well for the processor, myself and my business partners - and I don't plan on making any major changes," he said.