CONSUMER desire for ethically and sustainably produced locally-grown food is underpinning trailblazing prime lamb production on the North Coast.
By delivering a paddock-to-plate product that ticks all the consumer demand boxes, young farmers Boyd and Leisa Holden have been able to target niche markets that provide a premium which has enabled them to tackle the challenges that have long limited the sheep game on the coast.
They are turning off grass-fed, hormone-free lambs at six to nine months of age with a 19- to 22-kilogram carcase weight direct to customers under the Clarence Valley Lamb label.
The couple run 1200 Dorper ewes at “Oakbank”, Old Bonalbo, west of Casino, as part of a mixed livestock operation which also produces European Union-accredited Angus and Brangus weaners.
Both former agriculture consultants, they could see an opening for locally-produced high quality lamb in the Northern Rivers but realised it would involve forging new frontiers to overcome issues like worms, predators, flies and feet problems.
They’ve done this through innovative measures and sheer hard work, including breeding guard dogs, rotational grazing with cattle, upgrading more than 20 kilometres of fencing, selective breeding and being constantly on the ball with drenching.
Ewes are joined at rates of 1.5 to two per cent and lambing is now at 120pc.
Lambs are weaned by 14 weeks and put onto alluvial flats that have been planted to fescue and clover pastures which are fertilised regularly.
Opting for a shedding sheep took care of the fly problem but worms, particularly the devastating Barber’s Pole worm, has presented the biggest challenge.
This had been made worse by the fact that “Oakbank” had copped the worst possible seasons for sheep production in recent years – excessive rain and humidity during summer and mild winters without regular frosts.
“We haven’t had a dipstick (worm burden) test not indicate the need to treat, so we are drenching every 28 days and there is very little window for not being exact,” Mrs Holden said.
“We combine that with rotational grazing so sheep are given fresh, clean pastures immediately after drenching and cattle go in immediately after sheep to reduce worm burdens.”
Meanwhile, a fencing program has seen the four-barb fencing taken to seven wires, with three plain electric wires, which is very close to being dingo-proof.
But it is the livestock guardian dogs, Maremmas, which have been core to their success.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without them,” Mrs Holden said.
“We run 12 of them with the flock, which may seem a high ratio but our country is undulating and we need to have a dog in every valley to do the job properly.
“There is a process to preparing them – they have to be bonded with the sheep and we do that by confining them in large pens.
“They are then transferred to small paddocks with more sheep and they then need time to establish a territory and start their boundary runs.
“But they are so protective and do an incredible job.”
The Holdens are now, as a side business, breeding Maremmas to supply Queensland sheep operations and even some poultry farms.
Meanwhile, selection for good feet has been strict and rams are sourced for the trait, along with growth rates and high lambing percentages.
The sheep are put through a footbath after every drench to reduce lameness.