More choice at Moorfield

Angus MacDonald diversifies into goats, meat sheep and Merinos


Sheepmeat
Regrowth: Patrolling the exclusion fence in sandy country after rain is a consuming job for Angus MacDonald, Moorfield, Blackall. Pictures: Sally Cripps.

Regrowth: Patrolling the exclusion fence in sandy country after rain is a consuming job for Angus MacDonald, Moorfield, Blackall. Pictures: Sally Cripps.

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Bill and Ann MacDonald were some of the first landholders in the Blackall district to switch from Merino sheep to cattle production in the 1970s.

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Bill and Ann MacDonald were some of the first landholders in the Blackall district to switch from Merino sheep to cattle production in the 1970s.

Their decision was motivated largely by the effect chemicals were having on Bill's health and it was greeted with a healthy dose of scepticism by the staunch woolgrowing region.

While the move to a Hereford herd served the family well for nearly 40 years, their eldest son, Angus has taken another about turn and the 3250ha property south of the central west town is now devoted to a mixture of Boer goats, Dorper sheep and a Merino mob to trade.

After almost totally destocking the property as drought tightened its grip in 2014, Angus crunched the numbers on a variety of scenarios for the future and decided to go into small animal protein production.

"It came down to the bottom line," he said. "Providing it was an average season, on similar equivalencies of stocking rates, I could make nearly double the return out of meat sheep as cattle."

Finance was tight but the first step was an exclusion fence, begun in sections in 2014 and finished in October 2015. The three small animal strings to his bow - cattle are still run at the 2830ha Dundoon block further south of Blackall but will be phased out - are providing plenty of options from behind the wire.

His Boer goats, sourced from Blackall's Clay Armstrong and Joe Taylor and Anita Dennis, are returning him $7.10/kg, while the Dorper Meatmaster cross domestic and export size lambs, based on flocks from Meandarra and Augathella in 2016, are also proving profitable.

Winter rain and herbage in 2016, soon after the fence was up, saw mob weight gains of over 300 grams a day from Dorper lambs.

"The goats were outperforming the lambs actually," Angus said. "They impressed me."

That was a short-lived production burst; numbers were sold down significantly in 2018 thanks to ongoing drought.

Now, after 183mm of rain in March, Angus can look to the future again, and it's one that will include a lamb feedlot, with the abattoir at Charleville a beneficiary.

Annual herbage being enjoyed by one of the Dorper mobs at Moorfield. Angus is progressively replacing the internal electric fencing on the property.

Annual herbage being enjoyed by one of the Dorper mobs at Moorfield. Angus is progressively replacing the internal electric fencing on the property.

Holding more than one card in the deck is one of the tricks the excruciating drought has taught Angus and his family in the years since it began shutting down options in 2013.

Among the various goat and sheep meat breeding flocks running on the new grass is a mob of Merino ewes bought as a trading option.

Angus said he was over the breeding cycle.

"Breeding ties up your country in my opinion. When you've only got a small area and your available feed diminishes, to me you back yourself in to a corner a bit.

"I'd sooner trade and fatten."

Whether that's Merinos or Dorpers depends on restocking prices and the availability of feed and forage.

The cyclical nature of the sheep market, reacting largely to NSW and Victorian trends, is a factor turning Angus towards goats as well.

"The goat market is very stable. It may wander up and down 10 per cent but the sheep can be double that or more," he said.

"Mind you, the lamb price is very good at the moment if you hit the grid in a tight spot. It's $7 as well at Tamworth but it's not that at Charleville. It's $6 there.

"The good thing about goats is that, it doesn't matter whether you kill a nanny, a buck or a big weaner, you get your $7.10 and they yield better.

"There's a 50pc yield on a goat because they eat them skin on."

Angus runs his Merinos and goats together, partly because of their complementary grazing attributes.

In a ball park estimate and what he's seen over the years, he estimated that Merino diets consist of about 10pc tree browse matter, Dorpers probably 25pc, and goats up to 40pc.

With about 70pc of Moorfield pulled gidyea, that's a handy attribute.

Angus McDonald in a patch of gidyea regrowth showing the browse line.

Angus McDonald in a patch of gidyea regrowth showing the browse line.

The switch from cattle to sheep and goats wasn't a difficult one for a man who over the years has worked in most states of Australia, owned a farm at Jandowae, and operated an earthmoving business, as well as set Moorfield up for rotational grazing.

On the meat sheep side, he put Meatmaster rams over Dorper Meatmaster mobs purchased from Meandarra and Augathella in 2016, growing domestic or export-sized lambs that were sent to Tamworth for processing prior to Charleville's works opening to sheep.

Feeding is a routine part of the pre- and post-lambing routine, either chickpeas or a faba bean, whichever is cost-effective at the time, as a supplementation for lactating ewes.

It's an important part of a program when there are so many multiple births, identified and separated by scanning.

At the start, Angus was averaging 140 to 150pc from his twinners, while the single-lamb ewes were producing 90pc rates.

"On a mob average over the whole place per joining, I was averaging around about 125pc," he said.

As grass became depleted through 2017, numbers were sold down significantly, to 30pc of their original numbers.

Angus said he was within an inch of selling all his stock to meatworks when it rained in March.

"This last six months or so have been horrendous," he said.

He now says he'll keep some of his females.

"The core herd are very productive. To double join and still be here, they've got to have lambs every cycle or they go.

"I'll probably keep a core group of females and buy and trade otherwise. I'll breed just because I've got them."

It's the understatement of the year when he says it's a schedule that keeps himself and offsider Ross Allen busy.

"A meat sheep operation, when you double join, workload-wise, would be double the work of a cattle station.

"There's a lot more work involved but you get double the return too."

Goats at Moorfield making use of tree leaves despite having fresh green herbage to eat.

Goats at Moorfield making use of tree leaves despite having fresh green herbage to eat.

The story More choice at Moorfield first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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