Poll Dorsets have proved the top choice for prime lamb production as part of Steve Eckert’s sheep and wool enterprise at Belvidere via Langhorne Creek, on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia.
Every year 800 to 1200 fine wool Merino ewes are mated to Poll Dorset rams, varying dependent on seasonal and commodity price fluctuations.
“I used to feedlot 2000 to 3000 lambs a year and bought many different lambs through the SA Livestock Exchange at Dublin,” Steve said.
“I found the Poll Dorset cross was continually one of the top performing breeds. At the time, I used electronic tags and a weight crate to weigh about 10 percent of the lambs I bought. Poll Dorset crosses always came up well in weight, and yielded well on-hooks.”
When Steve began running first-cross ewes he began purchasing Poll Dorset rams to produce second-cross prime lambs because of this performance.
“They were also the best genetics I could buy at the price,” he said.
“I used to work as a shearer for Lynton Arney from Strathalbyn so I was well versed in LambPlan, and I found I was able to select and purchase Poll Dorset rams that rated extremely well on LambPlan for very reasonable prices.
“You can’t improve what you can’t measure and the reason I buy my rams from a leading Dorset stud, they have been objectively measuring their stock for a long time, they rate very well on LambPlan and they also perform very well against other studs at shows.”
He selects and purchases Poll Dorset rams from Newbold stud with moderate birthweight figures and good post weaning weights.
Steve is an avid follower of Holmes Sackett benchmarking principles and focuses his enterprise strategy on dollars produced per hectare, rather than prices per head or per kilogram.
While his major focus is on fine wool production, Poll Dorset-cross prime lambs continue to provide a solid sideline income stream, with older and broader micron ewes mated to the meaty sires.
“You just have to look at the Holmes Sackett reports – it’s the fine wool enterprise with a prime lamb component that is the most profitable,” Steve said.
“So, it is the model that I have continued to follow on-farm.”
It’s a strategy that has proved very profitable, with sheep outperforming broadacre cropping on the 1456-hectare property, which includes an 809ha cropping program of wheat, barley, oats, lupins and canola, and a 72ha vineyard.
Another benefit of the Poll Dorset cross is no contamination from black fibres.
They also produce lambs with quality skins, being longer and broader in the crimp.
“Last year I sold crossbred lamb wool, about 22 microns, for 707 cents a kilogram greasy,” Steve said. “The skins seem to be quite good, and from what I’ve observed their wool has a blockier tip, and blockier, neater skin which helps ensure a good quality skin.”
Rather than focusing on sucker lamb production, Steve instead lambs from July 7, to match feed requirements to ewe and lamb nutritional needs.
Lambs go into the feedlot in November and are sold within 12 weeks, by February.
Additional lambs are bought in April, and turned off in July, dependent on the season.
Lambs remain in their age groups – or in the same mob as they were bought in by – throughout their time in the feedlot.
He aims to maximise pasture growth and utilisation, with 364ha dry sown to Dyna-Gro Verdure ryegrass at rates of 20 kilograms/ ha in mid-April each year, a variety selected with the help of Landmark agronomist Todd Price.
Since focusing on pastures Steve has been able to increase his stocking rate by an incredible 50 per cent – he focuses on a stocking rate of about three ewes an acre, with twin bearing ewes run at lower stocking rates and singles slightly higher. All ewes are pregnancy scanned, with dry ewes given “two cracks” to get in lamb before being sold.
Prime lambs learn to eat grain by being trail fed grain while ewes are in the paddock, before being weaned onto ryegrass pastures at 13 weeks old. Grain distributed is built up slowly to 1 kilogram per head per day, before lambs are transferred into containment and feedlot areas before being sold.
Steve said “ideally” the Poll Dorset cross lambs were sold within 12 weeks of weaning.
Sowing ryegrass as a pasture also competes with barley grass, meaning fewer concerns with grass seed contamination in lamb carcases.
As well as ryegrass pastures, sheep are also run in neighbouring vineyards before bud burst, and kept in containment areas as needed.
“In the past I focused on turning off lambs in this November to February period as the high prices then were related to shipping meat to the United States for the barbecue season around Easter, which is traditionally when they have the highest consumption of lamb,” he said.
“But I’m now essentially a store lamb producer and grow out lambs in a feedlot.
“My focus is on production – I really enjoy working with sheep but it needs to compete with cropping. In our last business spreadsheet, which compared our enterprise incomes during the past 10 years, it proved that our business is sheep and wool, as they outperformed all of our other enterprises.
Steve’s father Michael passed away in the past 12-months, but Steve still farms in a family enterprise working with his mother Margaret, uncle Peter and auntie Sue, brother Dave, cousin-inlaw Dave Kropp and cousin Tom Eckert.
In his most recent sales, in February-March Poll Dorset cross lambs sold over-hooks to Woolworths averaging $155 a head at 22 kilograms carcaseweight.
While the second cross Poll Dorset lambs were much heavier, the Poll Dorset-fine wool Merino lambs still come up in weight well. Steve focuses on producing prime lambs to an “optimum point,” about a fat score three.