Their country has successfully run Merino sheep for over 100 years but in 2011 the Chandler family trucked the last of their flock from their Barcaldine aggregation.
The three-property operation in Queensland’s central west, run by John and Joss Chandler and their sons Ben and Tom and families, was always a reluctant seller but losses from wild dogs were becoming unsustainable.
“We started to be 1000 down, and then lambings started to be really affected – we went from 80 per cent back to 50, back to 30, then back to 5,” John said.
“We trapped 40 dogs just while we were mustering the sheep to sell them.
“They were freshly shorn so it was carnage. We ended up with one mob of bitten sheep we couldn’t truck.”
The only solace was that sheep were bringing $100 a head at the time.
Fast forward six years – sheep are being sold for nearly double that price but western Queenslanders, the Chandlers among them, can’t wait for enough rain to restock their paddocks with Merinos, all thanks to a multi-million dollar exclusion fencing push supported by federal and state funds.
Williams Hall Chadwick director Andrew Perkins has calculated that for every dollar property owners are contributing to cluster fencing projects, they get an increased gross margin of $1.49 per year.
“In other words, payback in one year – it seems unreal but that is the way the numbers come out,” he said.
“If a producer spent $105,000 on their contribution to fencing they would see an increased gross margin of $157,000. This is true regional economic development.”
The data is supported by a recent Regional Australia Institute report, which highlighted bringing back sheep as one of six priority areas for western Queensland, calculating that fencing could provide potential regional economic growth to $38.8m annually through increased gross margins from sheep production.
It estimated this would stimulate jobs for an additional 158 people in the industry alone.
Morgan Gronald is the project officer for the Remote Area Planning and Development Board, the body responsible for administering the scheme in Queensland’s central and north west, and he said that despite ongoing drought, people just can’t wait to get back into sheep.
“A lot of the people we’re talking to say they can get returns so much faster with woolly sheep,” he said. “The really interesting thing is, people who once ran sheep say they just don’t have cattle country, but their hands were forced.”
The presence of a stout wire barrier is instilling confidence that hasn’t been seen in the wool industry for a number of years.
For the Chandlers, who are part of a 44,515ha fencing cluster scheme, the positives are overwhelming – sons brought up in the wool industry, existing infrastructure in good order, country that lends itself to wool production, and the security of a diversified business are some.
“Our country lends itself to sheep,” John said. “We’ve had four below average summers and we’re virtually destocked in places that we could be running sheep on.”
They are also watching gidyea encroaching onto downs country, something that was kept at bay when sheep were in the paddocks.
One of the biggest pluses for investing heavily in 65km of high wire is the pronounced pasture improvement obtained by others who’ve already fenced their operation in.
“Despite running sheep, they’ve got more pasture than us,” John said.
“We are looking forward to total grazing management.
“Three kangaroos eat as much as two dry sheep equivalents, and I estimate we have 10,000 kangaroos, conservatively, so that’s $300,000 worth of wool production I would be losing.”
Barriers to entry
Getting rid of the wild dogs caught on the inside of the newly constructed fence will be one challenge they’ll need to surmount, but the main barrier to entry will be the availability of sheep, and in quality lines.
“As far as the price goes, the way wool is at the moment, I can write a budget that covers that,” John said.
But all the properties they used to source wethers from – Lorne and Tarbarah south of Blackall, and the Athol sheep sale conducted by Sir William Allan in the same district – have since converted to fully cattle operations themselves, or to meat sheep enterprises.
According to Morgan, innovative conglomerates with investors are emerging as many central western producers consider the same issue.
“A producer may not have the money, especially after a heavy investment in fencing, but they could sub-let or lease their country, and take a split,” he said. “Anecdotally, what I’m hearing from banks is that they see things like this as essential for the next tranche of money coming through.”
John was not as concerned as some by workforce shortages, saying the three properties, Kyneton, Clover Hills and Gregory Park, were close enough to Barcaldine to be attractive to the local shearing team.
“We will have to see how difficult it is to keep dogs out but if this works, we’ll be reorganising our internal fencing next.
“Paddocks have traditionally been square but we’ll do it in such a way to avoid breaches in security.”
The Chandlers had always run sheep in their desert/gidyea country at Kyneton but the ease of operating on downs country was a real eye-opener when they purchased Clover Hills in 1998.
Using a plane as part of their mustering team, they could “muster five paddocks before lunch and have them all in lanes, ready for crutching, shearing, whatever”.
It’s this they’re looking forward to doing again.
“Sheep are so good for kids,” John said. “Cattle are big, fast and hard. We’re heading for 10 grandchildren and it would be great to involve them all in the work.”
Before selling their flock in 2011, they had a self-replacing Merino flock based on Lansdowne bloodlines, shearing about 12,000 sheep at Clover Hills, and 5000 to 6000 wethers at Kyneton.
“Once upon a time there were magnificent sheep properties all they way down the bitumen from here to Morven,” John recalled.
It’s looking increasingly likely this scenario is ready to become reality again.