WITH flock numbers at a level they are happy with, Adelaide Hills graziers Chris and Tarlee Atkinson plan to stop breeding crossbred lambs next year to focus on wool quality.
The couple farm with Chris' parents Peter and Sue Atkinson on 1000 hectares at Harrogate, including Mount Beevor Springs, plus a secondary 900ha property called Wallaby Run near Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island.
The Atkinson Livestock operation runs 2000 breeding ewes, all Leahcim and Kelvale-blood Merinos. About 400 are presently being mated to crossbred rams on KI to produce prime lambs.
But next year, the crossbreds will be gone.
"It will be easier to manage, instead of flying back and forth between the two properties all the time, particularly for lambing," Chris said. "We plan to do all the breeding at Harrogate and then run wethers (up to 5000 head) on KI."
The best 400-500 Merino ewe lambs will be classed in for keeping and mated as 1.5-year-olds in June, while the rest are sold on AuctionsPlus as future breeders.
The couple use technology where possible to find improvements, including electronic eartags, data analysis and DNA testing.
"We have DNA tested our lambs for the past two years, mainly for ram selection," Chris said.
Data collection includes wool style visual score, measured wool length, fleece weight, visual dag score, and average daily weight gain post-weaning.
"We are now in the top 5 per cent for low early breech wrinkle, which helps a lot in being non-mulesed," Chris said. "We are also in the top 10pc for yearling weight and top 15pc for yearling staple length.
"We haven't mulesed since 2008, and in response, we saw increased growth rates after marking and overall health in our lambs.
Our goal is to treat our animals the best we can in order to get the best return from them.
"This year we also began using Numnuts to provide pain relief to lambs during docking and castrating.
"Our goal is to treat our animals the best we can in order to get the best return from them."
Tarlee said they were keen to use all types of technology to "see how far we can improve our sheep".
"We say - if you do what you've always done, you'll always be where you've always been," she said.
"Even from when I first started here 10 years ago, there's been a complete change in our breeding and the way our animals look."
Chris said when the started, they were producing 21 micron to 22M wool, and "shearing once a year to get the right length - the old-style creamy looking wool".
"Now we are a lot whiter. But for us, it's really about producing free-growing wool that can open up and dry out, especially on KI," he said.
"Between 15-20M is our range, averaging 17-18M, growing 80 millimetres to 90mm in that eight months, that's the length we really want, with good tensile strength."
This year, the Atkinsons have also switched from a May/June lambing to November/December in an attempt to eradicate an ongoing dermatitis problem.
"The dermatitis clumps the wool and it's harder to process," Chris said.
"We did some research and found the wetter weather exacerbated the problem, so we decided to change our lambing time.
"We were also using teaser wethers for mating in December so changing out mating to June means the ewes will be almost at peak ovulation and hopefully increase our lambing percentage."
Chris said results of lambing so far were looking very good, with a number of multiples.
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The season has been ideal, after a rough start with the 2019 summer bushfires.
The Atkinsons lost 23 kilometres of fencing, 110 bales of hay and farm infrastructure in the fires, but thankfully no livestock.
Shearing was in August/September, which Chris said was luckily before the labour shortage.
"It is a shame about the wool price at the moment though," he said.
"But it appears to be holding on, which gives us some optimism that it won't take long to go back up. We just need Italy and America to come back into the market."
The Atkinsons have 250 bales from the past two shearings sitting in Adelaide, waiting.
"We have only been able to hold because stock prices have been so good," he said.
"We last sold wool in October 2019 at its peak, when we made up to $22/kg clean, averaging $18/kg greasy."
The business has been trying to find some markets privately, using their Wallaby Run unmulesed wool brand.
They are accredited with integrity scheme Authentico and are in the process of trying to get accredited with Fox & Lillie Rural's Genesys RWS group to attract bigger premiums for their product.
"We place a lot of emphasis on good animal welfare and care for the environment at our properties, which some customers are willing to pay more for," Chris said.
More than 300ha of the two properties is left ungrazed as native bushland.
"We could run a lot more sheep, but we are focused on sustainability," Chris said.
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