In 1990, Kym Thomas saw 18,000 of her family’s Merino sheep sold from their Cunnamulla properties.
The following year, they shot the same number.
Years later she went to a meeting and heard the light was at the end of the tunnel for wool sheep if she just hung in there a little bit longer.
“I asked myself, why? I couldn’t understand any business suffering for all those years and not changing.
“We tried every different market – fine wool, the lot – and nothing we did brought us money.”
After 50 or so years in wool, Kym phased out Merinos in 2000 and brought in Dorpers, to her father’s horror, and left crutching, shearing and jetting behind.
“We brought them in to mark them, and the next time it was to wean them and sell them,” she said.
“They were basically ‘little cattle’, a whole different concept for us.
“I just couldn’t see the value in wool, or meat on a Merino because they were cutting their teeth before we got them to the right weights.”
She said meat sheep gave them an opportunity to explore organic markets that they wouldn’t have had with wool sheep, because of the ongoing need for chemical use.
Kym said they’d not considered goats as an alternative because they’d never had many ferals on their places.
“They were only a ‘carton of beer’ sort of thing,” she said.
By 2008 they were watching the new Australian White meat sheep breed before taking the plunge in 2012 and undertaking an embryo transfer program.
“We had already introduced some Van Rooy genetics to decrease the structural side of the Dorpers, so that’s why Australian Whites worked for us.
“We already had half the genetics they’re made from, but we needed to put the muscling on.”
The shift has taken her sale sheep from a hot kill weight of 22kg to 25kg and meant there’s markets for heavy and medium trade lambs, as well as for the low end of the mob.
The flock, reduced because of drought to just 3500 ewes, is running on 33,600 hectares of open Mitchell grasslands and herbage, and is organically certified, which Kym says suits their western country.
Their organic turnoff goes to Junee for processing and the rest are sent to various destinations around Melbourne.
They also use a feedlot at Swan Hill in Victoria at times such as now when it’s dry, described by Kym as a “good tool”.
Sheep have occasionally been sold into non-organic markets, depending on market signals at the time.
Some 100 rams have been sold so far this year, to Dalby, Roma and Longreach areas.
“People are looking at how Australian White are yielding and at how they look in the saleyard, and liking both aspects,” she said.
Kym said it was exciting to find themselves in the middle of a sheep meat eating quality revolution.
“We just always knew they were good eating but we didn’t realise until recently about the fat melting point and the omega 3 qualities.”
At a recent field day staged at Kym’s Cunnamulla property, James Cook University lecturer, Aduli Malau announced that, following studies he’d undertaken, he’d discovered the melting point of the fat from the breed was “as good, if not better” than that of Wagyu cattle.
In addition, its fatty acid profile showed outstanding omega 3 qualities.
“I think there’s a lot of blue sky ahead with sheep,” Kym said.
“Cattle have done so much and now sheep are catching up. When it rains, it’s going to be magic.”