Borders bred for local conditions are boosting Boorawa flock numbers

Primed for lamb expansion

Sheep
BOOROWA BORDERS: Ben Johnson is using Border Leicester-Merino cross ewes with Poll Dorset sires to produce top-notch prime lambs.

BOOROWA BORDERS: Ben Johnson is using Border Leicester-Merino cross ewes with Poll Dorset sires to produce top-notch prime lambs.

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Prime lamb producers Ben, Toyha and Peter Johnson are chasing numbers in a re-build phase

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Chasing numbers on the ground is a key objective for Ben and Toyha Johnson, based at Boorowa, as they seek to build-up their sheep flock and improve returns per hectare.

Farming in partnership with Ben's father Peter, they run about 2500 head of ewes; 1200 wethers and lambs; and a herd of 70 Angus cattle on their 970-hectare property and 120ha of leased land.

The Johnsons also plant about 200ha to dual purpose crops each year, which boosts the feed base for the livestock enterprises.

The family's landholding, which is split into four separate blocks, has grown as they seek to continue increasing sheep numbers.

The current flock structure comprises 1400 head of purebred Merino ewes and 400-500 Merino-Border Leicester first-cross ewes to produce self-replacing breeders and wethers for wool - and 700 head of first-cross Merino-Border Leicester ewes that are mated to Poll Dorset rams for prime lamb production.

Ben Johnson said this was the tenth year of using Border Leicester sires over Merino ewes to lay the foundations for a crossbred breeding flock to turn-off second-cross Poll Dorset-Border Leicester-Merino lambs.

"The Border Leicester infusion gives us good mothering-ability ewes that easily get lambs on the ground, in high volumes, for future breeding - and provides diversity, rather than using straight Merinos," he said.

"And they produce wether lambs that grow well and are very saleable."

The Johnsons have been regular ram buyers from Tom Corkhill's Normanhurst Border Leicester stud for many years.

They select sires based on a mix of visual structure, wool type and LAMBPLAN Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) for profit-driving traits such as lamb birth rates, growth rates, eye muscle and intramuscular fat.

In recent years they have paid more attention to wool measurements for average fibre diameter, staple length and wool cut per head, as they seek to produce finer crossbred wool that can attract higher prices.

"How the rams look is our first priority, but our decisions are backed-up by objective measurements," Mr Johnson said.

"I trust our ram breeder, Tom Corkhill, is improving the genetics in his breeding operation and he is very good at guiding us towards the right rams to suit our enterprise and environment.

"His rams are bred for - and raised in - our local conditions, so they are really just changing paddocks."

Mr Johnson said the Normanhurst Border Leicester rams were also highly productive and he put them to the test with two joining periods each year.

These occurred in November-December for an April-May lamb drop, and in April-May for a September-October lamb drop.

Mr Johnson said in recent years, despite tough seasonal conditions, the Merinos mated to Border Leicesters to produce first-cross breeding ewes - or wether lambs for sale - were achieving conception rates of about 90-100 per cent.

The first-cross Merino-Border Leicester ewes mated to Poll Dorset rams had average conception rates of about 120-130 per cent - and about 30 per cent of these were multiples.

"Autumn lambing works well for us because these crossbred lambs go on to graze dual purpose crops for higher early growth rates and can be sold quicker - hopefully before the traditional spring 'flush' of high supplies in the sucker market," Mr Johnson said.

"In theory, in most years, this should provide us with higher returns for those lambs.

"That is what happened this year, when we sold about 50 per cent of the autumn-drop lambs as suckers before prices really started to fall away due to COVID-19 factors."

Lambs born in spring have to contend with hot summer conditions and Mr Johnson said, after experiencing drought in recent years, he was now paying more attention to getting sheep nutrition right and undertaking feed and water testing during these months.

"We don't yet do containment feeding, but we do sacrifice paddocks and provide a ration - especially for ewes rearing multiple lambs," he said.

To ensure continual genetic improvement in his own breeding flock, Mr Johnson gives some breeding ewes only two chances to be 'dry' - once in spring and then again in autumn - and if they don't conceive, they are sold.

He said the aim of management strategies was to build sheep numbers as fast as possible.

"We strive to use ewes that are highly productive and give us lambs that grow fast and meet buyer requirements," he said.

The Johnsons sell lambs through the saleyards, direct to processors and online through AuctionsPlus and work closely with their agent to find the best marketing options.

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