Ewe management delivers results
Growing traditional crimping superfine wool is a passionate affair for Dan and Sarah Calvert, “Kalgara” on the Gara River, east of Armidale.
Both are accountants by training and they bring a sharp pencil to their business structure, which flows into flock management.
However the breeding of sheep goes back much further in their combined histories, particularly for Mrs Calvert, whose great, great, great grandfather John Noble was the long serving stud master responsible for fixing the Bungaree Merino type for the Hawker family of Clare, South Australia.
The occupation of shepherd in Mrs Calvert’s family can be traced back at least eight generations to Portsmouth England, where Merinos were called Spaniards.
When the Calverts came back on the land 19 years ago they started with large-framed Merino ewes, producing 18 micron wool, sourced from Rob Taylor, “Birrahlee”, Kentucky. Since then they have gradually bred a slightly finer type that better suits their light trap soil country. Rams have been sourced from various superfine studs around New England including West Lynne, Glenbrook, Kelvin Vale and more recently Tarrangower and Essex Hill.
These days their adults average around 16 microns and the hoggets around 14. Today's flock of 2000 head, of which 800 are breeding ewes, produces the traditional crimping style favoured by high-end Italian manufacturers.
New England Wool and their Italian shareholders Reda and Vitale Barberis Canonico have been the dominant buyers in the past and the Calverts say their support has been a major reason they have been able to continue producing traditional crimping superfine wool.
“It is wonderful to find a champion for the type of wool we love to produce,” said Mr Calvert.
Ewes are selected on “numbers and science” as well as a visual assessment of phenotype. If a good ewe has slightly coarser micron than desired then she is put to a finer ram and vice versa.
There is no mulesing, only crutching – an effort that is appreciated by European buyers and for which the Calvert’s are paid a premium. Hoggets exhibiting too much wrinkly breech are culled after their first shearing.
Worm burden is a problem shared by all Northern Tablelands sheep producers but the Calvert’s have found excellent help and direction from Deb Maxwell who runs WormBoss clinics aimed at sheep producers through Meat and Livestock Australia.
"We were taught there is no silver bullet and that we need to employ a range of strategies,” said Mrs Calvert, who now measures worm count in sheep droppings 'all the time'.
Clean lambing paddocks, rotational grazing, BarberVax, and strategic drenching are all part of the Barbers Pole control strategy and a small mob of Hereford cattle put to Angus also play a role in reducing worm burden by cleaning up pasture ahead of sheep.
"We haven't had a Barbers Pole death in the past year," said Mr Calvert. "The trick is to monitor and act on data. Once we understood the parasite cycle we were able to reduce our egg burden and as a result have lowered drenching costs by 50 per cent."
Of course meat sheep figure into the Calvert's equation, and they join some older ewes to White Suffolk rams on their other property, 'Briarbrook' at Tenterden via Guyra which is dominated by basalt soils and lends itself to fattening.
But their primary focus is wool.
"We found it hard to move away from wool," said Mrs Calvert. "We put so much into the breeding. We always retain the best ewes as our fine wool nucleus. We rank them based on a side sample of their wool at 18 months. It's a love; a passion."
Shearing is done carefully to meet market specifications, with back, neck and legs kept separate.
“Shed preparation is quite important. We always have two experienced wool hands, Sharon Mayled and Katie Austin on the table,” said Mrs Calvert, who has been a licenced wool classer for the past five years.
“We need quality staff as the end product is quite important. We are fortunate to have good local shearers who have been doing this for a long time. For instance Barry Pearson is into his 50th year.”
Pasture at Kalgara, on light trap soil, is managed carefully with the aim not to overstock. Single super is applied every 2nd year, 125kg/ha, to compensate for a natural lack of phosphorous and also sulphur an essential element for woolgrowing.
Lambs are bred at Kalgara, where the Calverts can keep an eye on ewes but hogget lambs at 3-4 months are weaned and grown out on the basalt soils of Briarbrook where they benefit from a rising plane of nutrition.
The AWI Lifetime Ewe Management program run by Louis Kahn has helped to deliver sound results.
Three years ago the Calverts’ average ewe wool clip was 3.5kg at 16.3 micron and their lambing percentage was 87 per cent.
This season their micron figure remains the same while wool clip averages slightly higher at 3.75kg. Lambing rates meanwhile climbed to 98 per cent last year and to 104 per cent this year as a result of more twins.
The Calvert’s realistic goal over the next three years is to bring their micron to 16 at 4kg per head with 110 per cent lambing.
Part of this improvement has been to ensure ewes are a fat score three or more at joining.
Supplementary winter feed is primarily lupins which meet dietary requirements and are easy to store in their single silo.
"Lupins don't create acidosis in sheep," says Mrs Calvert. "They cost a bit more at $500/ tonne but we find them better value and because they store well we can buy them opportunistically, either broadleaf varieties or narrow leaf. Sheep like both."
Scanning ewes in lamb has brought positive changes to their system, since it was introduced six years ago. This year the 700 ewes joined to merino rams showed 280 with twins.
"Now we know which sheep have twins and they are run in separate paddocks with better feed. Dry sheep are removed. In the past, before scanning, it was hard to assess ewes with twins as they tended to present poorly in the race.
"What has surprised us in the past few years is that the twinners are producing more wool than the singles. Last year the twinners averaged 4kg of wool. We know that’s partly due to better nutrition but it also tells us that there are some great genetics in there and now our challenge is to get that through the whole flock”.