Leap to sheep paying off for Riverina croppers

Growers add sheep to mitigate cropping risks

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Peter Rayner and his son Harry have adapted their business to incorporate sheep, starting a Merino flock at the family's Walla Walla property, aptly named Merino Park, to mitigate cropping risks.

Peter Rayner and his son Harry have adapted their business to incorporate sheep, starting a Merino flock at the family's Walla Walla property, aptly named Merino Park, to mitigate cropping risks.

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Fodder crops stand in for pastures.

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Riverina farmer Peter Rayner has always been a cropper.

But in the last couple of years, like many other growers, the Rayners have introduced sheep to their enterprise, hoping the move will mitigate risk as cropping becomes more of a gamble.

The Rayners now have around 450 Merino ewes at the family's Walla Walla property, that was run by Mr Rayner's parents, Alan and Marj, and is aptly named Merino Park.

"My parents were cutting back and some of their country at Walla is too wet to crop so we had to do something," Mr Rayner said.

He said adding diversification to their business was important with seasons becoming more unpredictable.

"With it not raining, cropping has become high risk," Mr Rayner said.

"I've been expecting the lamb market to fall over at some stage because it traditionally used to but it hasn't happened and the demand for natural fibres doesn't seem to be easing."

But Mr Rayner said learning about and investing in a whole new industry has not been without its challenges.

"We've very amateur at this stage, I have a few mates in sheep and I keep ringing them and saying 'what do you do about this'?" Mr Rayner said.

His philosophy, when embarking on it, was to prioritise quality.

"We thought if we were going to have sheep we might as well have ones we like so we bought a 400 head mob of ewes with Woodpark genetics, they're good quality ewes," Mr Rayner said.

"We've got Rex Bennett from Elders classing them and trying to keep them improving."

The Rayners also purchased the top-priced ram at this year's Eastern Riverina ram sale from Meadow View Poll Merino stud.

Mr Rayner said they were looking to put in pastures but it had been difficult due to the seasons.

"We've been doing sacrifice paddocks in the autumn so we don't get the ground too bare, it will probably take a few years to get some decent pasture going," Mr Rayner said.

"We plan to take one cropping paddock out each year and put it in Lucerne, just to get on top of the rye grass and to have an out if it gets too wet on the other paddocks.

"A lot of those paddocks have been cropped for 30 years and they're still doing well but it would be good to have a change.

"The legume pastures can replace the legume crops that were grown at Walla.

"Having a perennial that can take advantage of summer storms would be really good."

Fodder crops bridge the gap

Peter Rayner said before they were able to get pastures in for their new sheep enterprise, fodder crops had bridged the gap.

"It was very, very successful, any poor paddocks just got planted to grow fodder," Mr Rayner said.

He said agronomist Greg Condon advised they plant a mix of Kittyhawk wheat, purple top turnips and tillage radish.

"We had the sheep on grazing wheat and let these fodder paddocks grow so by the time we took them off the crops, the fodder paddocks were knee high and the turnips were huge," Mr Rayner said.

"We got so much feed out of them, we ended up having so much of it that we cut it for silage and now they're eating what's left after the silage.

"We had 400 ewes and 400 lambs in 12 hectares, they were there for two weeks and they only ate a third."

He said they had also used containment lots in the autumn.

"We actually had to lamb in the containment lots last year which wasn't ideal but worked out okay, I think if you can get them on feeders and in small mobs it really helps," he said.

One of their mobs had great scanning results this year of 153 per cent and they weaned around 400 lambs off 330 ewes.

He said they had been selling their wethers into the Corowa saleyards, last year achieving $199 a head for their two-year-olds.

"It's a solid return we have made with just a couple of hundred ewes," Mr Rayner said

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