Producing Poll Dorset-sired crossbred lambs adds diversity to what is predominantly a superfine wool enterprise for Gippsland farmers Brian and Jenny Nicholls, Victoria.
The Nicholls’ farm at Stradbroke across 460 hectares on an average annual rainfall of over 600 millimetres running 4500 sheep, of which about 1500 are Merino and crossbred lambs.
Brian, a third-generation sheep producer, says the country suits superfine wool production with their Pendarra-blood flock achieving an 18-micron average.
But crossbred lamb production adds an extra element to their operation and Brian sees the Poll Dorset breed as a key element in producing a quality, versatile lamb.
Each year, Brian and Jenny join about 700 Merino ewes – mostly older ewes as well as culls from the superfine flock – to Poll Dorset rams.
They breed their own Poll Dorset rams using genetics from the Glenore stud at Carisbrook.
Brian is the second generation in his family to be using Poll Dorsets as terminal sires and says their versatility is a major factor in his choice.
They have trialled other breeds but prefer the versatile lamb that the Poll Dorset produces. When his family originally started with Dorsets they were using the horned variety but for much of Brian’s career they have gone with the polled animal.
“We can produce a good domestic or export lamb using the Poll Dorsets as terminal sires,” Brian says. “The lambs have good shape and we have no problems selling them to abattoirs.”
When selecting Poll Dorset rams, Brian looks for extra fat cover and good leg shape, which he says is very important when running them over Merinos as they are not known for having a lot of leg muscle.
Both the Poll Dorset and Merino rams go in at the same time for lambing in the second week of July. The lambs drop onto improved pastures of ryegrass, cocksfoot and clover and, if the season permits, Brian will sow some millet in spring to finish the lambs on.
However, that looks unlikely this year given the tough conditions that have faced his area with a lot of wind but not a lot of rain.
He says he prefers not to supplementary feed if the season permits.
Having finished marking the crossbred lambs in the last week of August, Brian was impressed with the 95 per cent from ewes joined given the season they had faced.
The lambs are weaned at 12 weeks old, but if there is a particularly good draft which catches Brian’s eye he will keep them on and sell them off as suckers to capture a premium price.
Brian does not push to have all the lambs off at a particular time, and is not fussed about hanging on to them for longer – particularly if the price is better.
Lambs are normally sold off at six months old direct to Gordyn’s Abattoir at Sale, but Brian is not shy about sending the lambs further afield should the prices be better.
“They could go anywhere, it just depends who is willing to pay,” he says.
The lambs average between 47 kilograms and 48kg liveweight and dress at about 22kg.
Having an abattoir close-by means Brian is able to get firsthand feedback on how his lambs perform.
“Most times when I sell to Gordyn’s I go and watch them get killed, so I am getting feedback all the time,” Brian says.
“A big feature of our lambs and something that always gets mentioned is the leg shape on them.
“They do look very good when hanging up and the abattoir has no trouble selling them, which is a bonus.”
Adding to Brian and Jenny’s confidence that they are on the right track with their lambs is the fact that they used to regularly win prime lamb competitions at local shows.
Price-wise, Brian and Jenny have been happy with recent drafts, which have been making anywhere between $130 and $150 a head.
While he concedes that the lamb may be faster growing if it were from a first-cross ewe, Brian says the trick is just to be patient.
Their main shearing is in May but they do shear lambs in January before they are sold, adding a boost to cashflow.
“The Poll Dorsets are just good, all-round meat producers with nice clean, white skin which in itself can add to our bottom line.”