From its humble beginnings back in 2011, the South Australian Schools' Merino Wethers Competition has gone from strength to strength and this year will be the feature event in the sheep section of the Royal Adelaide Show.
The brainchild of then-Merino SA president Francis Andrews, who was also chairman of the Schools Committee at the time, the Schools' Merino Wethers Competition has established itself as one of the most popular events at the Royal Adelaide Show, and has become a model for similar events across the country.
"The Schools' Merino Wethers Competition is not only good for the agricultural industry as a whole, but also for the Adelaide Show Society with an extra (estimated) thousand people through the gates on that particular day because of this one event," Mr Andrews said.
He has been heartened to see the event encouraging young people to be involved in the agricultural industry which, he said, was "very important in SA, being a state based around agriculture".
It encourages young people to be involved, to consider a career on the land and have an optimistic outlook for the future of agriculture.
In an effort to encourage young people to become interested in the Merino industry, the competition provides an opportunity for students to have a practical, hands-on role, covering an extensive range of sheep husbandry and wool production skills and has proved to be a natural progression to the Schools' Led Steer Competition, on which it was initially modelled.
Competition coordinator Steven Kellock, Keith, said this year's contest was lining up to be the biggest yet, with about 40 schools involved and record entries.
"Being the feature sheep event for the 2019 show, the schools' wether competition will have a presence for the duration of the show, so all the schools will be involved with a display of their sheep which they will manage between them," Mr Kellock said.
In its inaugural year, the competition attracted 22 entries, with schools then able to enter up to three teams each. This year, more than 50 entries are expected, with an entry limit of two teams per school.
The increase in entries has been partly attributed to the availability of a once-off scholarship program, coordinated by the Show Society Education Foundation, for rural or remote schools, enabling them to get a start in the competition and encouraging schools that had not yet entered the competition to take up the opportunity to participate.
Seven awards will be up for grabs this year, with a handler's class in the program for the first time, as well as the coveted best professional team award, where students are questioned on their knowledge of the industry as well as being judged on the presentation of their wethers.
Preparation for the competition started in March, when the schools' selected wethers were regulation shorn, verified to have no more than 12 millimetres of wool, and tagged by scrutineers. For the next six months, right up until the competition in September, the students care for the show team in all aspects of sheep husbandry, including management of the essential nutritional requirements.
On arrival at the show, each team of three wethers is judged on evenness and presentation, then weighed and muscle scanned for a meat yield figure, which is converted to a carcasevalue using abattoir grid pricing.
The wethers are then shorn at the showground, which attracts a huge crowd of spectators. Each fleeced is then weighed, micron tested and valued, before the points are totalled for each sheep and added on to the carcase results and the winners announced.
Related reading:Keith Area School secures win in massive wether class
Awards for the teams with the highest meat value and the highest fleece score, along with an overall winner of both meat value and fleece score combined, are presented and hotly-contested among the student teams.
Mr Kellock was full of praise for the event.
"It helps promote teamwork as well as being educational for the students who have to commit to looking after the sheep right from March until the show in early September, getting the nutrition right to achieve good growth rates and working hard behind the scenes to achieve the best results,'' he said.
The competition provides an opportunity for students to have contact with many aspects of the Merino sheep industry, from stud and commercial breeders, stock agents and wool buyers, right through to processors and the end of the chain.
"The students get value in looking after these animals, and it raises awareness of opportunities in all facets of livestock management and where our meat and fibre come from," Mr Andrews said
"The main thing is it encourages young people to be involved, to consider a career on the land and have an optimistic outlook for the future of agriculture."
Students hop into competition prep
KANGAROO Inn Area School's success showing goats and led steers in the schools' program at the Royal Adelaide Show inspired then-Agricultural Studies teacher Deb Hunt to look for something to fill a gap in her school's Adelaide show livestock program.
"The lower secondary and senior secondary agriculture students were covered, showing goats and cattle, but there was a gap for our middle secondary level ag students (years 9 and 10), so after doing some research, I discovered the Schools' Merino Wether Competition, which I thought would suit Kangaroo Inn Area School down to the ground, because of the large sheep presence in our area," Ms Hunt said.
She applied for funding with an application to the Show Society Education Foundation, which provided a one-off scholarship to the school to buy sheep and for yard alterations to house the wethers.
Incoming Agricultural Studies teacher Ebony Haebich has been managing and developing the wether program since Ms Hunt stepped back and has seen the program evolve, with the support of Kangaroo Inn's Design/Technology teacher and ex woolclasser Eric Prelc.
The school's shearing shed is located off site, so Mr Prelc saw an opportunity to involve his Design/Tech students in the alterations to a shed at the school's ag block, to convert it to a sheep shed.
Preparing the wethers for the show will introduce the students to the nutritional requirements for showing the sheep.
"We turned this into a Design/Tech unit and each student was charged with using their class time to construct a removable one-metre by 1m pallet grating, to drop into the floor of the sheep shed, and as an ongoing part of our sustainable and regenerative agriculture program, we're able to remove the gratings and collect the manure, which will be used in the school's garden in a holistic approach," Mr Prelc said.
Local grazier Bob Ballantyne donated the five Merino wethers for the school's program, which allowed the grant money to be directed into the redesign of the sheep shed.
Mr Prelc used his past woolclasser's knowledge to help Ms Haebich select five wethers from the Ballantyne flock. Starting with 1000 wethers at the outset, they gradually went through a process of elimination until they were left with their final five wethers.
They were then shorn and on arrival at the school at the end of August 2018, were weighed, tagged and micron tested in compliance with the Royal Adelaide Show's competition guidelines.
Mr Preic said he has been "blown away" with the quality and genetics of the "big-framed Ballantyne sheep", their weight gains and wool quality - the best weighing 70 kilograms and measuring 21 micron.
Related reading:SE students get eye in for judging livestock
Ms Haebich said there were 12 year 9 students in the compulsory Kangaroo Inn Area School Agricultural Studies program, and "each of the students have some understanding as to what is required of them for the wether program, after showing goats in earlier years".
"Preparing the wethers for the show will introduce the students to the nutritional requirements for showing the sheep, as opposed to growing them in a purely grazing, pasture environment," she said.
"The weekly routine of weighing, feeding and halter training the wethers, being involved and engaged at every step, will culminate in all of the year 9 Agricultural Studies students heading to Adelaide for the show in September to be involved in the final stage of competition".
Although they are uncertain how they will go in their Schools' Merino wether Competition debut, Ms Haebich said the school had high hopes of making an impact, with their wethers measuring 10 millimetres of wool in March and with a very noticeable weight gain already.
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