Wethers are relief valve for Lockhart family

Wethers are relief valve for Lockhart family

Cropping
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Lifting sheep numbers at Lockhart determined by introducing mixed species crops to the rotation

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Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

Increasing the sheep numbers on Oakwood, Milbrulong has enabled Brent Alexander to keep on top of the annual ryegrass and reduce usage of nitrogenous fertilisers in his cropping enterprise through the grazing of vetch as a green manure crop.

Mr Alexander was a keynote speaker during the recent 2020 Graham Centre Livestock Forum conducted through a webinar.

His topic was increasing production on a mixed-enterprise farm by lifting dry matter production, reducing inputs and reducing risk.

Sheep had long been a feature on the family farm, but drought determined a cutback in numbers due to pressure of feeding with small returns.

The winter cereal cropping program then expanded with increasing dependence on the use of pulse crops to replenish soil nitrogen, along with greater reliance on crop selective herbicides for weed control.

But for the fourth-generation farmer in the Lockhart district who operates the Oakwood aggregation of 3250 hectares in partnership with his wife Simone and father Walter, the self-replacing Pastora-blood Merino flock has become an integral enterprise to the farming business.

"We nearly went out of sheep because of the tough years from 2006, but we kept our maidens," Mr Alexander said.

Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

The family then expanded their operation through lease country, but they found some paddocks weren't easily cropped so they bought in more Merino ewes.

"I had always enjoyed growing wool, it was purely a feel-good thing and not an economic decision," he admitted.

"We get our rams from local stud Pastora and they have good wool cut with fine micron and a nice frame."

I had always enjoyed growing wool, it was purely a feel-good thing and not an economic decision - Brent Alexander, Milbrulong

The ewes are classed by Craig Wilson and Mr Alexander is moving towards a dual-purpose Merino to get the two streams of income.

"Regardless of what sheep enterprise you are running, you are still selling surplus sheep so you are reducing your chance of income if you haven't the numbers," he said.

The grown sheep are cutting around seven kilograms and with a mid-ninety lambing percentage Mr Alexander is still aiming at lifting the productivity of the sheep enterprise.

"Wether lambs had been sold over-the-hooks but for the first time in many years we have kept last years drop as wool cutters," he said.

Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

Archie Alexander with his father Brent in the paddock of mixed species cover crops grazed by September-shorn Merino ewes with July-drop lambs.

"We were very understocked because we had expanded the grazing area and it was cheaper than purchasing more ewes.

"The second reason was to make better use of the cover crops."

The introduction of cover crops including vetch as a green manure crop allowed nitrogen levels to be replenished but the growth could be extraordinary with a good autumn break.

"You get a lot of feed sometimes and if at other times you get a late break and you become short of feed, the wether flock gives us a 'relief valve'," he said.

"So if the season was tough we can sell them whereas it is hard to sell our breeding flock."

The sowing of cover crops and the grazing of dual-purpose crops as been a real 'game-changer' for mixed farming enterprises like the Alexander family manage and there place in the enterprise mix spreads risk and opens many opportunities for income production.

Mr Alexander initially sowed vetch to lift his cereal cropping results; but although it has prolific growth in the spring, autumn/winter production was limited and when he added grazing wheat to the mix in 2015, the lift in fed availability was immediate.

That mix was successful and moving on with the advice of his agronomist, Greg Condon, Mr Alexander added tillage radish and purple top turnip to the mix of pasture species.

To better graze the prolific growth through the current season Mr Alexander has split the paddocks using the Kiwitech electric fence system which concentrates large mobs on small areas for a short time.

The cover crop paddocks allow the spelling of the improved pasture paddocks through winter into spring thus increasing the stocking rate, although stock numbers can fluctuate according to the season.

"Obviously we have the wethers to sell if it turns dry, but last year we went heavily into the ewes last spring because things were still tough and we sold the two older age groups to lighten the load over summer," he said.

"And that is why we are now keeping the wethers, because selling our ewes left us with little chance of breeding up.

"We will be able to sell wethers in the future to relieve our stocking rate."

Mr Alexander explained Wagga Wagga-based Merino specialist Craig Wilson classes the maiden ewes at ten percent culling rate visually, with a further twenty pc taken out on figures after the sheep have been micron tested and had their fleece weighed.

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