When it comes to lambing percentages, there is a magic number in mind for Barossa Valley producer William Hurn, South Australia – 140 percent.
And, according to William, using Poll Dorset rams over first-cross Border Leicester-Merino ewes is a vital tool in helping him work towards that figure.
William farms south of Angaston with wife Sandi and father Brian, running 1300 ewes across 300 hectares, which includes a small percentage of vineyards.
Historically, the farm was a fruit block, but for the last three generations – William is now the fifth – the Hurns have focussed on sheep, since William’s grandfather ran Corriedales and Dorset Horns.
The Hurns currently turn off about 1600 lambs a year on a lambing pc of about 130.
To achieve a lambing percentage of 140pc, William is looking to improve a number of facets of the enterprise and is being “ruthless” in his approach to get there, starting with ram selection.
He buys rams annually from the Newbold Poll Dorset stud at Gawler River with an aim to continually improve his own ram flock.
“Bill (Close, Newbold principal) sends out the ram figures before the sale which I analyse and then match them against how the ram looks on sale day,” William said.
“We want a ram with nice size – but not too big, good growth rates, good structure and a bit of length.
“If I want to get to 140pc lambing then I can’t afford to skimp on quality.”
Good conformation in rams is so important for William because of the environment he farms in.
On average, the property receives 500 millimetres of rainfall a year. The area is known for cold and wet winters followed by short springs, meaning pastures turn off quite quickly.
Having seen other breeds being run in the area, William is convinced that Poll Dorsets over first-cross ewes are best-suited to his farming environment.
“We tried running Merinos here at one stage, but their feet just weren’t good enough for the conditions,” he said.
“The Poll Dorsets do better in the cold and wet. They have good structure which helps them to stand up in the conditions and they have a clean face, which means they don’t catch any grass seeds around, particularly barley grass which is the biggest issue here.”
William puts rams out in mid-December to run over first-cross ewes sourced from the Naracoorte blue ribbon sales in November as 1.5 year-olds.
Another aspect William looks to be ruthless in is ewe management during pregnancy.
Ewes are scanned and anything empty gets sold – no second chances are given.
Information gained from scanning is used as a management tool for the sheep during pregnancy, with twinning and tripling ewes getting preferential feed.
“We rotationally graze the ewes before and after they lamb,” William says.
“Pasture quality is another thing I want to improve in working towards 140pc lambing, which includes more regular improvement through re-sowing and better management.
“Rotational grazing helps a lot with that and has made a huge difference over the last couple of years.
“It’s not strict rotational grazing in that we don’t have set periods for rotation because the farm isn’t all on the one block, I just do a visual assessment of the pastures to see how they are going and rotate the mobs based on that.”
Ewes are supplementary-fed in the lead up to lambing on pasture hay, barley straw and grain, usually oats or barley.
Lambs drop onto improved clover-based pastures in mid-May, which William says is ideal for their country. Any later, he says, and they would run into trouble with grass seeds late in the season.
Lambs are marked at six weeks old and, following that, mobs are split into groups of 300 to rotationally graze.
William looks to turn-off most of the lambs from about 16 to 21 weeks-old as suckers, aiming for between 18 kilogram to 23kg carcaseweight.
He has built up a strong relationship with Trevor Burns from Australian Lamb Company over the last 20 years, who purchases the majority of the lambs straight off the property.
William also sends a few drafts of lambs to the South Australian Livestock Exchange at Dublin to give him an idea of how they will perform price-wise.
“I prefer to sell most of the lambs on-property,” William said.
“Presentation is everything and it is a lot easier to present them nicely here in our own yards than putting them on a truck and sending them to saleyards.”
Williams weighs a portion of the lambs before they leave the property to get an idea on how they will perform and believes having a long-term repeat buyer in Trevor helps to achieve a consistently good price.
“We try to average over $100 for every lamb that leaves the property,” William said.
Later lambs may be kept on and shorn during the Hurns’ main shearing in October and kept on good pasture until Christmas before being sold.
“Ideally, because of the short seasons, we want a lamb that is going to handle the conditions and the short season and the Poll Dorsets sire a good, fast-growing lamb,” William says.
“The other advantage of the Poll Dorsets is they have a good, tight coat which keeps the lambs warm during winter allowing them to really bloom and grow well in the spring.”
William’s desire to continually improve and reach the target he has set himself will continue to drive his operation.
“I know I can achieve 140pc lambing,” he said.
“Poll Dorsets are a good, fertile ram, that’s why we have stuck with them for three generations.”