Turkey Lane Merinos seeing benefits of post-fire push

SA bushfires: Turkey Lane Merinos seeing benefits of post-fire push on KI

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The fruits of very hard labour at bushfire-affected Turkey Lane Merino stud on KI are starting to pay off.

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IT HAS been a long, hard slog for many Kangaroo Island sheep producers over the past nine months since the devastating summer bushfires.

But the fruits of very hard labour at Turkey Lane Merino stud, north-west of Parndana, have paid off, with lambs dropping onto thick, green pastures since early August.

It is a sight that stud principal John Symons and daughter Hannah Robins couldn't have dreamed of eight months ago, when an unprecedented firestorm wreaked havoc across their property on January 3.

The Robins' recently-finished house miraculously survived the fire, but the rest of the 600-hectare property did not.

Mr Symons and wife Jo lost their house of 50 years, sheds (including their shearing shed), hay, all 45 kilometres of fencing on-farm and decades of valuable genetics when 2500 of their sheep perished.

He was also very close to losing his life trying to escape the fire, becoming disoriented in the thick smoke.

His farm vehicle caught alight so he escaped into a nearby burnt-out paddock after the fire passed over.

He said in his 50-plus years as a Country Fire Service volunteer, he had never seen a fire like it.

They managed to save about 3000 sheep, but 1100 of them made up a "hospital flock" that required round-the-clock care for more than two months.

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With Turkey Lane stud being a closed flock, those surviving sheep were vital in rebuilding the business, which has been operating since the 1950s.

"Our ewes got hit hard, we lost two-thirds of the nucleus flock," Mr Symons said.

"We only have 1300 ewes now, when normally we would be lambing 1800.

"We had about 140 ram lambs survive, but all bar 50 weaners didn't. We lost nearly a whole generation.

"We also lost all of our mature rams, so we had to get the remaining ram lambs ready for joining quickly.

"Luckily we had barley in storage that survived the fires, which we fed out daily with bought and donated hay until the break of the season in early April.

"We maybe only lost 250 from the hospital flock, but the effort was worthwhile as the remaining sheep have come through really well."

John said joining was about three weeks late because of the fires.

A team of ram lambs were selected on Australian Sheep Breeding Values, visual assessment and condition, then put out from early March for eight weeks.

Initial scanning results were 88pc pregnant for the first 4/5 weeks of lambing. Most of the ewe were in the hospital mob. Photo: Turkey Lane Merinos

Initial scanning results were 88pc pregnant for the first 4/5 weeks of lambing. Most of the ewe were in the hospital mob. Photo: Turkey Lane Merinos

Mr Symons was extremely surprised at the start of July that they returned a 96 per cent scanning rate.

"They were also young ram lambs, so we weren't sure how they would perform," he said.

"Plus half the ewes were from the hospital flock."

Shearing was also meant to go ahead 10 days after the fires, but had to be postponed a month.

"Only the yards were left standing, which also needed repair work," Mr Symons said.

"Plus we had to figure out how to shear without a shed.

"We ended up shearing 3000 sheep on a crutching trailer in early February. The yields weren't great."

Season helps to limit expenditure

John said sheep maintenance had kept them "flat strap" for the past six months, along with replacing fencing and even getting a crop in - the first in many years.

"We wanted to try and save some cash, so we went in with 40 hectares of barley and a 40ha hay mix," he said.

"So far the season has been fantastic, with about 370 millimetres received for the year.

"Feed is one thing we don't have to worry about now."

It has meant that the house and shearing shed rebuild has only just got under way.

Mr Symons was quite excited though, as they have plans for a four-stand Australian Wool Innovation-endorsed best-practice raised board design.

"Not only does the design consider the health and safety of the workers, but also aims to reduce the stress on the sheep," he said.

Mr Symons said building the new shearing shed would be bittersweet, as they had only just finished upgrading the old shed before the fires came through.

The house slab is also down, with Mr Symons hoping to be moved in by Christmas.

They also plan to conduct their usual ram sale on November 9.

"The ram lambs are looking really good after the treatment they had prior to mating," he said.

But it is expected it will take many years for the Turkey Lane flock and property to get back to where it was before the fires.

"We will be flat out for the rest of this year trying to get our assets back," he said.

"And while we are excited about having all this new stuff, we haven't got production - we will be out of pocket for the next four to five years.

"This has cost KI producers big time."

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