Louth producer Tim Murray of Idalia says getting his sheep flock through the last drought was one of the toughest things he's ever had to do.
Mr Murray runs about 10,000 Merino breeding ewes, alongside his wife Jane, at their 120,000 hectare property on the banks of the Darling River.
Getting their sheep through the drought involved 20 months of feeding, and 2789.81 tonnes of barley, plus 1126 tonnes of hay, but a fortuitous late lambing, prosperous goat operation and sky-rocketing store lamb prices enabled the Murrays to reach the other side.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
Mr Murray said although they've fed sheep before, this time was very different.
"The couple of times we've fed previously were to get us through three to four months and then we were lucky enough to get rain so we could stop," Mr Murray said.
"This time it just kept going."
He explained that they were determined to hold on to 10,000 ewes from their flock, after spending years building up their genetics.
"We haven't bought a mob of sheep since 1967, we had Dick Jago classing for 40 years until 2010 and we have had Chris Bowman since," he said.
"We usually class out about 20 to 25 per cent of the ewe lamb drop, so we were desperate not to lose the flock we had.
"The important thing for me about how many you feed, is that you need to work out what your critical mass is in terms of breeding ewes and how many you need to bounce back quickly.
"In our case I had decided it was 10,000 so come rain, hail or shine we needed to feed 10,000 ewes."
LATE LAMBING RISK
After a poor lambing in 2018 the Murrays decided not to join their ewes in 2019.
However, game-changing rain encouraged them to bite the bullet.
"If we had kept feeding we weren't going to join at all, then we had an autumn rain of 75 millimetres and we thought we should give it a go with 8000 of the ewes," Mr Murray said.
"Normally we would join in mid-March but we were six weeks late, we were terrified this would leave us exposed to a heatwave during lambing in October, November.
"So we bought 10 seven metre by four metre shade sails and erected them around the waters where there was no shade, giving our lambs somewhere to get out of the sun and heat.
"But luckily for us it was a mild-November and we got away with the late joining.
"For such a terrible joining situation we found after scanning everything that there was a very good conception rate of 130 per cent. We marked 98 per cent from the ones that were in lamb."
Mr Murray said the older ewes conceived higher than the younger ewes. "That's usually the story with Western ewes, their major wool producing days are over but they'll have you some lambs and they do know how to rear them," he said.
"If you're trying to recover numbers you hold on to them."
This year they are on track for a long-sought after average year.
Having recorded just over half their average rainfall of 300mm, the Darling is flowing again and they are on the way to rebuilding their numbers having joined 10,000 ewes.
"With 10,000 joined we'll potentially end up with 9000 lambs," Mr Murray said.
GOATS LEAD IN DROUGHT
Merinos are not the Murrays' only business - goats also played a significant role in helping them through the drought.
"For many years feral goats would drift in and you would muster them, back in the 1970s we would sell the big ones for $2 and the little ones for $1," Mr Murray said.
"But, they became more valuable as time went on."
The drought would have been really tough without the goats. I'm hoping that they may well pull up the slack in the wool cheque in the short term too.
Mr Murray said he started running goats on a 6000 hectare block at the back of their property in 2003.
"It was rocky and hilly, it seemed to be a magnet for goats, so I electrified the fences, put in some lanes and built a set of goat yards and it proved to be very successful," Mr Murray said.
"So I did some more and I'm just about to do some more again."
They now have 5500 goats running on 18,000 hectares and are ready to electrify another 13,000 hectares, hoping to have it completed by the end of the year.
The goats usually head to Charleville or Wodonga abattoirs.
"The drought would have been really tough without the goats, I'm hoping that they may well pull up the slack in the wool cheque in the short term too," Mr Murray said.
HEDGING BETS ON WOOL MARKET
With the sharp drop in the wool market, the Murrays also hedged their bets with their wethers this year and sold just over half as store lambs to take advantage of the high restocker demand.
"We auto weighed and drafted our entire wether lamb drop and 60 per cent of the lighter ones we sold in the wool," Mr Murray said.
"The heavier 40 per cent we shore and we will grow them out.
"I think they will be going to processors come September, just before they cut their teeth."
He said they had also taken forward contracts for 40 per cent of their wool clip in early-May for delivery in June and July.
"The rest of the strategy is to sell all the cheaper lines and hold the best fleece wools," Mr Murray said.
Mr Murray said it was hard to tell where the wool market would end up.
"Common sense says we can't keep pushing wool in the bottom if Chinese aren't selling it out the top, with Europe in the predicament it's in, maybe there will be harder times ahead with the wool market," he said.
"But, people aren't going to stop eating so the goats and sheep that we can sell for slaughter may well become very important in our strategy to keep going."
ONLINE SALE WIN
Online selling platform AuctionsPlus has enabled them to cut the cost of transporting sheep hundreds of kilometres to the saleyards.
"AuctionsPlus has been the most wonderful thing for us out here, in every form, wethers, culled ewes, whatever it is, we've managed to achieve better than saleyard prices on occasion without having to fork out for the cartage to Dubbo," Mr Murray said. "If we send them to Dubbo, we are committed, if we don't like the price, we aren't going to bring them home."