A SOUTHWEST Victorian lamb producer has a winning philosophy, writes KATE DOWLER
Philip and Marion Gough's farm is a prime example of an efficient, focused lamb operation, run to a set of simple proven principles.
Yet, the business has not arrived at its annual turnoff of 5000 lambs overnight and is subject to continual improvement.
For Philip, finishing lambs out of a self-replacing Coopworth-Corriedale-cross ewes on summer crops for the supermarket trade at 16-22kg carcase weight and fat score three at 130 days, means playing to your strengths.
His 772ha of grazing country, which includes 163ha of unfarmed native-vegetation land, is spread over three properties at Hotspur and Branxholme, in southwest Victoria.
Philip's parents, Jim and Midge, were Corriedale and Hereford breeders but had handed over responsibility for the chequebook when Philip returned to the farm in 1987 from Marcus Oldham College.
"I was very green, and we had our moments, but it was a good of him (father) to do that," Philip said.
A succession plan was enacted in 2001, giving Philip and Marion ownership of most of the property, while the sale of the Hereford stud enabled Jim and Midge to take over 80ha at Branxholme and continue their Corriedale stud.
"At this point, we changed to a totally commercial operation, and we now have 5000 spring- lambing ewes, 1450 ewe lambs, 85 rams and some trade cattle over winter," Philip said.
He said the breeding cattle were sold off because they put too much pressure on autumn pastures, required supplementary feeding and could not match the productivity of the sheep.
His goal is ambitious: to produce 550kg of lamb per hectare, turning off 450kg of this to the supermarket trade. This will require a lambing percentage of 150.
After the recent run of tough years, lambing is averaging a respectable 130 per cent and production about 300kg/ha of lambs sold.
"Seasons will play a big role, Philip said.
"This year, everything was going very well until the wet weather in August and now we need some good rain to kick the (emerging) brassica summer crops along."
But he is confident this will happen. The property has not had any failed summer crops since he returned home.
"But if that happens, grain is cheap enough and we'll get through," Philip said.
Last year, finished lambs accounted for 69 per cent of the farm's income and wool just 15 per cent.
Initially, Philip began breeding his own self-replacing rams from a Corriedale, Booroola Leicester base.
He tried other genetics such as East Friesian-Coopworth cross, Romney-East Friesian cross, South African Merino and Border Leicesters but the time and energy involved did not pay off.
"So we decided to leave genetics to the professionals and went for a criss-crossing, crossbreeding program of Corriedales and Coopworths for the self-replacing ewe flock, using only LambPlan, top-performing rams," Philip said.
"We want hybrid vigour and both these breeds are heading down the same track as maternal mothers.
"The Coopworths add some fat and fertility, while Corriedales lower wool micron and gives good skin values, which is very important.
"Generally, half the ewes are joined to self-replacing sires and half to high-performance White Suffolks and Poll Dorsets.
"Philip selects for high fertility, growth and adequate fat for both the self-replacing and terminal rams.
"I believe too much emphasis has been placed on negative fat in the lamb industry," he said.
"With the extra growth being pushed by some of the superior genetics and Corriedales being a later-maturing, leaner type, I feel it's important to put some easy finishing qualities in there."
He buys the Corriedale rams from his father's Coora stud, and Coopworths from the annual Hamilton multi-vendor sale.
"There are three main advantages in breeding my own ewes," Philip said.
"Breeding gives control over genetics and what they can do. Secondly, I avoid introducing health issues and thirdly I am guaranteed supply and the price that it costs me to breed them.
"I think it would be very hard to budget if you were buying in each year.
"Prices of first-cross ewes can vary by $100, so I don't know how you plan well doing that."
Philip estimates it costs him $100 for each ewe he breeds on his property.
Lambing starts in August and 120ha of summer crops are sown in October.
The lambs are generally sold around Christmas and rotational grazing starts in January, finishing in July.
Older lambs are sold in March-April after grazing on summer crops.
The Goughs have been supplying Coles for 12 years.
Lambs weighing 45-52kg are sold direct to Coles and lambs that do not meet these grades are carried on crops until they are up to the required weight or sold through saleyards.
"Terminal lambs grow at a rate of 340 grams a day from birthto Christmas, depending on pastures," Philip said.
The pastures on the 530ha of sandy loams at Hotspur are perennial ryegrass, sub clover, demeter fescue and white and strawberry clovers.
With an annual rainfall of 800mm, the country is fast to respond to summer and autumn rains, but deep sand over clay can become water-logged in a wet winter.
The 405ha Branxholme property, with its 700mm rainfall and clay loams, is good in early to mid winter, but is later starting than Hotspur.
Philip wants to get paddock sizes down to 20ha and running mobs of 200 ewes, an ideal combination for maximum mothering.
"We run a simple, rotational grazing system, trying to maximise pasture growth over late autumn and early winter, aiming to have ewes lamb on to 1200kg/ha of dry matter by August 20."
The rotation begins after the lambs are weaned in January and finishes a month before lambing.
Mobs are moved every 15-30 days, depending on pasture growth.
Ewes are also pregnancy-scanned to identify twinning young ewes for the self-replacing flock, with the single-lambers going into the terminal flock.
Philip does most of the labour himself, getting contractors in during busiest periods.
"I like to get off the farm and go fishing during the quieter times and not having full-time employees allows me to do that," he said.
Like many lamb producers, Philip is concerned by falling national sheep flock numbers and the impact this may have on export lamb supplies.
"I think that the lamb industry has a good future and I would like to expand further," he said.
But expansion had been made difficult by the influx of bluegum plantations. Grazing country was now tightly held and difficult to find.
The main water source is bore water from the artesian basin, and Philip has fenced off many waterways and planted native vegetation, which provides biodiversity and shelter.
"When I came back from ag college that was something I wanted to do, so it is great to see the native vegetation now, and wildlife," he said.