WHEN Mike Pratt looks at his 14,000 Merinos, all he can see is growth. Growth of flock numbers, growth in genetic advances, physical growth of meat and wool, growth in his local community and growth of the entire Merino industry across Queensland and Australia.
It’s only positive news in his view, an advantageous position that the industry stalwart has welcomed with open arms.
This is despite the fact that Mike and wife Sue farm 150 kilometres south west of Longreach, where drought and dogs have wreaked havoc on sheep and goat populations in recent years.
Between 2002-2018, their local government area has been free from official drought declaration for only three years.
Coupled with the devastating effect wild dogs have had on sheep flocks across the state, they were challenging reasons to question running livestock at all.
But the Pratt’s faith in their Merinos never faltered and they only ever wanted to grow quality wool, and produce a large framed sheep for the mutton market.
In the last 23 years they have agisted all or some of their Brahman breeders many times to better pastures, compared to only one instance of agisting their Merino ewes to NSW in 2015/16.
Having lost 200 freshly shorn ewes to wild dogs over a two week period between shearing and trucking to agistment, Mike made the decision that the sheep would not return home until a 60km exclusion fence was built.
“The fence really put us back in the driver’s seat of being able to protect our sheep, eradicate predators, manage total grazing pressure and rest pastures,” Mike said.
“It was 2010 when the first influx of wild dogs started to have a massive effect on sheep numbers in our area, and we knew then that we had to build a fence if we were going to run a viable Merino enterprise.
“All I can see is growth from here, because the ability to control predators has injected a huge amount of optimism.”
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In 2017 the Pratts decided to destock their cattle herd completely, to focus on their Merino flock.
Mike said it was a relief to finally remove cattle from their operation and the extra management and feed requirements that came along with it, instead choosing to grow and refine their Merino flock.
They purchased 1800 weaner nanny goats in April last year to provide a sustainable and more profitable alternative to the cattle, and control gidyea thickening and encroachment.
“This country is better suited to Merinos and commercial goats, and when the market peaked for cattle in March last year, we decided it was time to sell,” he said.
“We were sick and tired of chasing grass trying to keep condition on them and keep our numbers up.
“When the money was good we thought, why not sell the cattle and reinvest back into the property to make it more viable for Merinos and commercial goats.”
Mike said he had the ideal Merino in mind and just kept working towards it.
“When you open up the wool on a top performing Merino, it’s like opening up a present, it’s a genuine gift.”
In an average year, the Pratt’s Merino wethers traditionally cut between a 6.5/7kg average, with the ewes producing a 5.5kg average, with a 65-70 per cent yield and 100mm staple length.
With the Eastern Market Indicator hovering around 2000c/kg clean and mutton prices currently at $4.80 per kilogram, by Mike’s calculations a Merino ewe can produce an annual gross margin of $170 or $110 per hectare.
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Mike has begun production feeding, in addition to the wild dog exclusion fencing, which has increased his lambing percentage from 65pc to 90pc.
He estimates the cost of supplementation to be approximately $800 per 100 ewes over the 11 weeks prior to and during joining, resulting in an extra 25pc lambs.
Shearing gets underway in early March just prior to lambing to enable the scanned empty and cast for age ewes and wethers to be shorn, fattened and then sold shortly after to capitalise on the usually strong autumn mutton and restocker markets.
If things continue to improve and the seasons start to stabilise, Mike said they looks forward to marking over 100pc lambs one year, increasing their wool production and continue to improve the quality of their Merino sheep.
This case study is part of the Breed More Merino Ewes campaign.