A focus on breeding Merinos with a balance of meat and wool traits and grain assisting their lambs from a young age has paid off for Mundulla producers Anthony and Sarah Lowe and Anthony's parents David and Marg.
Early last month they were the first entrants in the local prime lamb competition's 13-year history to win with a pen of Merinos.
Their 10 wether lambs, which were 53.7 kilograms curfewed liveweight at eight months of age with 37.7-millimetre eye muscle depth and 5.5mm fat depth, placed third on-hoof at the Mundulla Show.
But it was on-hook, when the lambs were processed at JBS's Bordertown abattoir, that they were elevated to the top spot. An exceptional dual energy x-ray absorptiometry score helped them come out on top from 19 other Merino and crossbred entries with 408.8 points out of a possible 470.
Anthony says they like to support the competition each year, knowing the hard work the organisers put in, but also see it as a chance to receive feedback on their breeding and management.
The Lowes run a Kelvale-blood Merino flock and this year have mated 3400 ewes and ewe lambs for a July lambing.
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About half of these ewes are mated to Merinos and the remainder to White Suffolks from Days Whiteface stud and Suffolks from Allendale stud.
Anthony says the most notable difference in the management of their 2020-drop Merino lambs was giving them ad-lib access to grain in Advantage Feeders from birth right through their lives.
This is a practice they have undertaken for several years with their crossbred lambs with the goal to turn them off at a younger age.
The ration, which was formulated by nutritionist Jess Revell from Rumenate Livestock Services, included wheat grown on-farm and Compass Feeds' Lamb Grow pellets.
"Ewes and lambs have access to the grain first so the lambs learn from watching the ewes before the feeder is then altered to just allowing the lambs to feed," Anthony said. "In those early days they didn't use much but slowly built up to 150 to 200 grams a head per day."
As the paddock feed quality dropped off in late spring, they trail fed some beans in the paddock, which got the lambs accustomed to bean stubbles, which they ran on from December last year until sale.
The lambs were shorn in late November, delivering $8/head in profit after shearing costs.
There may be a little less wool cut but we have better lambing percentages, plainer bodies and we get two shearings a year.
Anthony estimates the first draft that was sold in mid-January consumed about $9 a head of wheat, working on wheat costing $300 a tonne.
But he believes it was money well spent, with the 249 lambs achieving a 23.5kg carcaseweight at just 6.5 months of age, making $180 a head.
The competition lambs were selected from the second draft of 450 with the help of the Lowes' livestock agent, Spence Dix & Co's Kym Lovelock. They had consumed about $12/head of grain.
"In the last 150 or so that came through we marked out 20 and the day before the show I drafted them off and tried to pick out an even group," Anthony said.
The others in the draft made $202 on-hooks at JBS. They averaged 23.3kgcwt.
It is not just feeding that is the focus of the Lowes' sheep operation, with equal importance placed on genetics.
They have been buying rams from Stephen and Peta Kellock's Kelvale stud, Keith, for the past five years and prior to that bought many ewes from the stud and its commercial clients.
They say these bloodlines have given them a fertile, easy-care flock, and enabled them to cease mulesing in 2020.
"I can't see that my son Will would ever want to put a set of shears in his hand and do what I used to do - it's not that pleasant a job," Anthony, who was once a mulesing contractor, said.
"There may be a little less wool cut but we have better lambing percentages, plainer bodies and we get two shearings a year."
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David says the competition win reaffirms their decision to select rams with a balance of positive fat and high eye muscle figures, as well as good wool traits.
"I was happy enough to come third on-hoof but when I found out we had won I thought, wow," he said.
"From what I bred 50 years ago they are totally different sheep - I love the way they are nice and round (bodied) and easy to look after."
The sisters of the Lowes' wethers have been mated as ewe lambs for the first time, with Anthony looking forward to the results.
He says it could be a "potential game-changer" if high conception rates can be achieved.
These lambs were all 40kg-plus when the rams were put out in early February for three breeding cycles.
"Along with quality wool and a reasonable wool cut, we see the profit drivers as high lambing percentages and being able to get good weight gains to sell stock off earlier," Anthony said.
Elders southern livestock manager Laryn Gogel judged the on-hoof section of the Mundulla Prime Lamb Competition with Trevor James, Coolawang stud, Mundulla.
Mr Gogel congratulated the entrants on being able to put together pens "in the back end" of the season.
"Some of the lambs were a bit underdone and a bit mixed and others were more consistent because obviously the grower had more to choose from," he said.
Mr Gogel said they judged the lambs as if they were walking through a saleyard and looking at how they appealed for presentation, market suitability, skin length and crutching.
Points were also allocated on the accuracy of the accompanying paperwork - National Vendor Declaration and Sheep Health Statements.
Another pen of Merinos belonging to David and Brody Lock, Lock-Haven, Mundulla, was second overall in the competition, just four points behind the Lowes' pen.
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