'How we increased joining rates by 21 per cent in drought'

Spring Plains producer turns to livestock agronomist to improve operation

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Sheep at Allabah Pastoral Co.

Sheep at Allabah Pastoral Co.

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Livestock agronomist helps implement management changes.

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Last year will go down as one of the worst on record for many producers but despite the seasonal challenges Spring Plains lamb producer Ben Watson was able to lift his joining percentages by 20 per cent thanks to some management changes.

Mr Watson runs Allabah Pastoral Company consisting of a dual-purpose non-replacing Merino flock crossed with Border Leicester rams and dryland and irrigated cropping.

Like many properties it has tallied 325 millimetres of rain in 2020 after receiving just 245 millimetres in 2018 and 90 millimetres for 2019.

Joining rates normally sit at about 90 per cent but the impact of the lingering seasonal conditions on ewes in 2018 dropped the results to about 70 per cent.

Wanting some advice on the situation, Mr Watson turned to the assistance of Grow livestock agronomist Ed Hiscox in a bid to improve the production of his flock.

As a result of the collaboration, joining results in 2019 rose to 91 per cent.

"We were a year further into the drought and were able to pick up our joining and gain 21 per cent," Mr Watson said.

Producer Ben Watson and Grow livestock agronomist Ed Hiscox.

Producer Ben Watson and Grow livestock agronomist Ed Hiscox.

Their success was credited to the introduction of early weaning and containment feeding practices.

Lambs were weaned from six weeks rather than three months weighing seven to 15 kilograms while the ewes were divided into mobs of 600 and fed a barley and lime ration with ad lib barley straw in two hectare pens.

The 2700 weaned lambs were achieving an average daily weight gain of 280 grams with only three animal losses.

Mr Watson said their operation was traditionally simple and stream lined but with Mr Hiscox's knowledge and support they were able to push the boundaries and gain the confidence to implement new practices.

"The year before (2018) I knew we should have done it but I didn't have the tools for 6000 lambs...it was too big a task," he said.

"Looking back we could have done it, I just hadn't got onto the support that was needed.

"It did a lot of damage to our ewes, they got pulled back in condition a lot because we left lambs on longer and that really hurt when we came back to joining.

Ben Watson at Allabah Pastoral Co at Spring Plains.

Ben Watson at Allabah Pastoral Co at Spring Plains.

"We are all about lambs per hectare and the ewes are the king, she is our little money spinner so looking after her is priority."

Grow livestock agronomy, initiated by Bayer Australia who noticed a gap in the industry, provide tailored advice to producers including building annual management programs.

Since launching last year, the program has had direct contact with at least 300 producers.

"We've had cropping agronomists for 25 years, yet never really had anyone that's been tailor made to the livestock enterprise, which is such a large part of our business, so it's been terrific to get a Grow livestock agronomist on board," Mr Watson said.

The program for Allabah included building a feed budget to meet the demands of a young growing weaner and achieve early rumen development. It incorporated a range of animal health and nutrition products such as StayDry Hy-VitMin, designed to boost the immune system and prevent issues such as pink eye.

Aside from the increased livestock production benefits, the Grow program also had grain savings.

"Feeding grain to ewes to then feed a lamb through milk production is very inefficient, but early weaning meant up to 30 per cent savings in grain that we then allocated straight to the lambs," Mr Hiscox said.

"We had the lambs off the ewes and sold three to four weeks earlier than normal. The ewe was happier, the lamb was in better condition and money was in the bank, so there were some big benefits."

The containment lots proved beneficial during recent rainfall, allowing for easy access to sheep and guaranteed their nutrition was maintained.

With lambing a few weeks away, the ewes are being transitioned onto paddocks which have also been able to recover quicker due to the lessened load.

Mr Watson didn't rule out implementing early weaning practices again in the future, noting the benefits for the condition of the ewe and lamb.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," he said.

"I don't think you can run sheep in our country without (containment feeding), just to take out the peaks and troughs of pricing and also be able to take an opportunity with sheep that may become available."

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