Easy-care Dorpers lift fertility

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The low-maintenance, easy-doing attributes of the Dorper make it the perfect prime lamb breed for the Maxwell family's busy mixed farming operation and busin...


The low-maintenance, easy-doing attributes of the Dorper make it the perfect prime lamb breed for the Maxwell family's busy mixed farming operation and business interests at Wee Waa.

David Maxwell, his wife Tracy, their children Sam, Lily and Juliet, and his parents Ian and Rosemary, made the change to breeding Dorpers 12 years ago and continue to be pleased with the breed's fertility, growth and hardiness.

They currently run 1300 Dorper ewes and crop 650 hectares of wheat and barley across two farms, Mountain View and Glenarden, which total 1600ha. With the turnaround in seasonal conditions, the family are building sheep numbers back up to 1700 breeding ewes.

Mr Maxwell is also an accountant and partner in C&W Financial Services with offices in Moree, Narrabri and Wee Waa. Due to his full-time work, the crops are contract sown, fertilised and harvested with Mr Maxwell carrying out the spraying.

"Originally we ran first-cross lamb but we decided to trial a mob of Dorpers while my father, who passed away last year, continued to run first-cross lambs," Mr Maxwell said.

"We had both mobs in the same paddock during a dry spell and the first-cross lambs really struggled while the Dorpers kept putting on condition.

"When it got dry they just seemed to handle the dry herbage and grass much better, when it is wet I wouldn't say that, their performance is pretty similar, but when it is dry they really come into their own and unfortunately here it is dry a lot more than it is wet.

"With my job I also needed a breed that was easy-care, I couldn't afford to chase flies and lice, and be shearing and crutching so the Dorpers have fitted into our time constraints."

"Although it has been a bit of trial and error, they have done very well for us."

Mr Maxwell has been sourcing his White Dorper rams from the Amarula Dorper stud at Moree for the past eight years. He uses a combination of visual appraisal and Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) to select rams which will complement the ewes.

"I like a meaty, structurally sound ram with good length of body and a compact size, I don't want the biggest ram in the catalogue," he said

"I also look at the Lambplan figures for carcase traits including eye muscle depth and positive fat as I like my ewes to be carrying a bit of fat to help maintain their condition."

During the past three years Mr Maxwell has also enlisted the help of Amarula stud principal Justin Kirkby to assist in the classing of the ewe lambs which he said has significantly improved flock quality. They aim to keep about 200 to 250 replacement ewes annually.

"We'll class the ewes on structural soundness particularly legs and a nice, even body shape that carries plenty of meat," he said.

"We are also aiming to breed a more moderate-sized ewe due to their lower feed maintenance requirements, they don't eat as much and stay in three score good condition for longer.

"Since Justin has been classing our ewes, we've really noticed an increase in lambing percentages and the quality of our lambs has also improved.

"Although the ewe size has come back, the sale weight of our lambs has increased and we're producing a more consistent line of lambs."

The ewes are joined every eight months, which means they lamb three times during a two-year period. They lamb in March, October and again in the following June.

"We have a tight joining period of six weeks, so about three months from the start of lambing the rams will go back in," he said.

"All the ewes are pregnancy scanned and we will wet and dry them at lamb marking.

"We think the extra lamb is paying for not having a fleece to shear, so we're not losing out there."

The ewes are joined as lambs at nine to 10 months of age at a target weight of more than 45 kilograms. Current conception rates average 90 per cent while lamb marking rates average 110 to 115pc per ewe joined, including maiden ewe lambs.

Mr Maxwell admits the ewes don't receive any special treatment in the leadup to joining and lambing, aiming to maintain them in condition score three throughout the year.

"It does depend on the season, if I think they are slipping, I'll supplement them with some wheat and barley from our on-farm grain stores, but as a rule we try and manage the paddocks so they are in good condition."

"I often find it is the ewe lambs coming in for their second lamb that are the hardest to maintain so we try and wean their lambs a bit earlier and give them the better quality paddocks or supplementary feed to get them back up.

"We used to join the ewe lambs at seven to eight months of age and got about 70pc in lamb and the last two times we have joined them a bit later, up to nine to 10 months-old and we are getting 90pc in lamb.

"Having the ewe lambs at 45 kilograms plus at joining and just a bit more mature seems to be working."

The lambs will be weaned at between 16 to 18 weeks old with Mr Maxwell aiming to turn them off at between 48 to 60kg or a dressed weight of 24 to 29kg. The family markets about 1800 to 2000 lambs each year.

The majority of lambs are sold over the hooks to Thomas Foods International at Tamworth or Eversons Food Processors, Frederickton.

"At a 50kg live weight, I know I'm going to dress out at about 50pc," he said.

"We've received some really positive feedback from the processors and the last couple of mobs have averaged 29kg dressed weight out of the paddock which we're very pleased with."

Lambs that haven't reached a saleable weight by seven to eight months of age are placed on better quality pastures or in an on-farm feedlot to be finished, depending on the season.

The feedlot lambs are fed a ration of barley and chickpeas or faba beans ad lib with pellets also provided which act as a buffer and assist rumen development.

"In the drought the lambs were weaned straight into the feedlot but I would prefer to finish them on pastures if possible," Mr Maxwell said.

"The season can be very variable here so I need a lamb that is tough enough to get through because I know I am going to be able to finish them.

"I can generally get them out of the feedlot in six to eight weeks, depending on their entry weight."

The Maxwell family are also carrying out an extensive pasture renovation program, planting a diverse mix of sub-tropical pasture species. They hope to be able to increase sheep numbers to more than 1800 ewes once the improved pastures are in full production. Infrastructure improvements, including fencing, are also underway.


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