For Andrew, Jodie and Tom Green, Aloeburn Poll Merinos, Boree Creek, one of the most crucial parts of their breeding operation is monitoring the maternal traits of their ewes and the birth data of their lambs.
Mrs Green, who was an early adopter of this process in Merino flocks, said they were dedicated to making sure their birth data was as accurate as possible, setting their breeding flock up for a lifetime of accurate, repeatable and reliable data.
Aloeburn has two stud lambings - autumn, which is usually a smaller mob of maiden ewes, and a spring lambing beginning in mid-July, which is about 500 ewes.
It also has 6000 commercial females, which are split into two breeding flocks, one to lamb in autumn and one in spring.
The Greens have a specific process for lambing their ewes, and it's paying dividends for their data. They first prepare their ewes for the lambing intervention by hand-feeding them in their paddock every day for two weeks before lambing begins. And it is worth all the extra effort.
"It's all about the preparation. It's like an athlete going to the Olympics - you don't just rely on pure talent. You have to prepare for it to perform at your best. If you want to optimise the way your sheep perform, you have to optimise your care for them," Mrs Green said. "It's important that the ewes are well managed and ready for it, so that I can measure their mothering instincts and maintain a calm environment for the newborn lambs. The ewes are quiet and calm when we check them, and tag the lambs. They respond in a really lovely way. They are tremendous mothers."
The ewes are brought to the yards around three weeks prior to when lambing is due to commence and a cattle tag is attached to a piece of elastic around the ewe's neck, recorded as their temporary ID. Once lambing starts, the lambing ewes and lambs are checked twice daily, lambs are tagged and weighed, birth status confirmed and the ewes' maternal score recorded. Sheep Genetics' recognised maternal scores are used ranging from one, which is the best, indicating a ewe who remained at the birth site and did not leave her lamb, to five, being the lowest. Now in the seventh year of capturing this information and being able to remove ewes that don't demonstrate the right maternal traits, Aloeburn records a maternal trait of one for many ewes and the majority of ewes are twos and threes.
Often Merinos get a bad rap when it comes to mothering, but Mrs Green doesn't agree. "Merinos have a bad reputation for being flighty and susceptible to abandoning lambs," she said. "My observations every day is that they are excellent mothers. They will perform poorly as mothers if they are under some sort of stress, particularly nutrition or some other health issue."
In autumn, the Greens tagged almost 200 lambs from a mob of 150 maiden stud ewes. And of these maiden ewes, only three got a maternal rating of four. All of those ewes returned to their lambs once the pressure of the intervention was removed. Any ewe that finds the intervention too stressful is placed in the commercial mob.
And taking note of what a ewe births is equally as important. Mrs Green said rather than just focusing on lambs weaned, there was increasing emphasis on conception rates, litter size and the ewe's rearing ability.
"These are the traits that will ultimately provide more accurate indicators of fertility in flocks," she said.
Their ewes are scanned, and placed in mobs depending on what they are carrying. For instance, ewes carrying triplets are placed in smaller mobs of about 20 ewes.
But Mrs Green said just because a ewe was scanned with twins or triplets didn't mean she would give birth to them. "About 15 per cent of the ewes that are scanned as carrying triplets don't deliver triplets," she said. "This is not a scanner criticism. Sometimes mother nature just takes its course and a foetus dies or is aborted. Despite initially gestating as triplets, that is not how they are born, which is extremely important data to record so the Sheep Genetics analysis can be adjusted correctly when calculating the lambs' ASBVs with consideration to their birth and raise status. In the recent autumn lambing, we had 37 ewes scanned carrying triplets, but three had quads, and five delivered only twins."
Aloeburn's meticulous record keeping has meant it is currently included as a reference flock with Sheep Genetics for research into the development of reproduction breeding values. The ewes involved were first joined at 10 months, and their reproduction data is being monitored and analysed by Sheep Genetics over a two-year period.
And it's not only Aloeburn's focus on accuracy that's impressing buyers. Recently the stud sold 1100 eight- to nine-month-old Merino wethers, which had been shorn at six months, for an average of $206 a head. "They had soft and beautiful wool and a very well-finished carcase," Mrs Green said.
"We want to breed resilient, healthy and balanced sheep. We need to make sure what we are breeding is repeating, and the only way to do that is with accuracy," she said. "Our goal is to maximise animal efficiency while optimising welfare. We want to develop animals with strong immunity, resilience and efficiency."