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Over-the-hooks switch benefits NSW producer

A switch to over-the-hook selling has led to big changes in Brett Johnstone’s prime lamb enterprise Malmo Partners at Woodstock, near Cowra, New South Wales.
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Using feedback has meant he has been able to tailor his Poll Dorset-sired lambs to match exactly what his local processor, Breakout River Meats, requires.
“I’m convinced we get a premium for our lambs,” he said. “We also have built up a rapport with the processor and are getting paid for what we produce.
“Producing a very consistent product means a very high percentage meet required specifications. We pride ourselves in the lambs we are producing now.”

Brett, who farms with wife Angela, their daughter and son-in-law, Annabelle and Angus Stanford, said he made the switch to over-the-hook selling in 2007.
“I approached Breakout River Meats and started selling lambs to them in September-October that year,” he said. “I decided to make the switch so I could get paid for what I produce and to reduce price fluctuations. I also get feedback on how lambs have performed which is really worthwhile.

“The first year I went in to inspect my lambs in the chiller and asked what they thought. The processor said they were ‘average and too long’, and preferred a shorter, more muscular leg.  It was a totally different viewpoint to what I had received in the past from the industry “experts”.

That year Brett began discussions with the owner of the stud where he bought Poll Dorset rams. Brett had in his employment a man that produced Border Leicester rams. This breeder sold the rams to his own brother who bred the first cross ewes Brett purchased. “It meant I had an input into the rams and ewes I bought,” he said. “I wanted a bigger focus on meat, to match the processors requirements. I looked at the ram sale catalogue and was able to find five to seven rams that were closer to where I wanted to be.

“The second year I went back to see the lambs again, and asked for feedback, it was similar to the first year but improving, on the third year when I went to the chiller I was told, ‘they’re peas in a pod, you’ve nailed it’. Since then 95 per cent of my lambs have been sold directly to that processor.”

Brett aims to process lambs at 21 to 24 kilograms carcaseweight. We weigh every lamb. If it hits 45kg, I put my hand on it and feel the loin before I send it to the processor,” he said.

“Poll Dorsets have come a long way in the past 20 years. Lambs dropped in early March can step on the scale at 12 weeks and weigh 58kg, significantly heavier than they were many years ago. There’s been a big improvement in genetics to lift those sucker lamb weights.”

brett-19Brett said he wanted a lamb with growth, eye muscle, less fat and good conformation. A package he could get from a Poll Dorset ram.
“The versatility of the Poll Dorset is a standout,” he said. “It can work across different breeds and still produce an outstanding lamb. Poll Dorsets really deliver.”

Rams are crossed to Super Border Leicester-Merino ewes to produce second-cross lambs.

His autumn lambing ewes begin to drop lambs from March 1, with all sold by late August/early September, well before the “spring sucker crash” hits nearby sales and processors. Splitting his flock to lamb in autumn and spring also evens out feed demand on the established pastures.

“We’re hitting the specs we were after,” he said. “Once lambs are ready to sell, the processor is very flexible on when they can be processed. By negotiation and communication, we have established quite a good rapport with the processor. He is generally happy to accommodate my lambs because they fit his specifications.”

Lambs are weaned early from ewes, at six to 10 weeks old, and run on barley sown for sheep feed, as well as creep fed grain to ensure their continued growth. “After weaning, the ewe is only feed to maintain condition, before beginning to increase her nutrition just before mating,” Brett said. “Our lambing percentage is about 142 to 148 per cent but I would like to reach 150pc. We’re up there but I would like to achieve more. We need to keep fine tuning, it’s the first three days of life that are really essential for lifting that lambing percentage, Poll Dorsets can give low birthweights with excellent growth.”

Ewes are scanned for dry, singles, twins, triplets, early and late, then split and fed according to nutritional requirements. Ewes are fed barley grain for six weeks prior to lambing.