Lifetime Ewe Management in tough seasons

Thomas Pengilly, with his parents Bruce and Trudy, at their property 100km north west of Esperance in WA.

27-year-old Thomas Pengilly and his father Bruce, of Penrose Poll Merino near Esperance in WA, completed a Lifetime Ewe Management course in 2018 and have since seen productivity benefits in their family run business, despite having to cope with recent dry seasons. The most beneficial parts of the course for them were learning about feed allocation following pregnancy scanning, the benefits of maintaining condition score 3, and dry feed budgeting.

Thomas Pengilly, with his parents Bruce and Trudy, farm nearly 4000 hectares at Cascades, 100km north west of Esperance. They run a mixed-enterprise farming operation which has been in the family since 1979.

Their property has 1800ha of wheat and barley, 600ha of vetch, with the remainder being pasture on which they run 1800-2000 breeding ewes, 700-900 replacement ewe hoggets, 300 rams from which they select a sale team, and 1600-2000 lambs dependant on the season. Their Merinos have 17-20 micron wool from young to old ewes, cutting an average of 5kg of wool every eight months.

Thomas and Bruce completed a Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) in 2018. Thomas says they believed that they were progressive in regard to animal health practices and wished to do the course to validate their abilities.

“If we managed to improve our skills and learn something new in the process, that would be an added benefit,” he said.

ABOUT LIFETIME EWE MANAGEMENT

The LTEM course, supported by AWI and delivered by Rural Industries Skill Training (RIST), aims to increase producers’ understanding of the influence of ewe nutrition and management on overall reproduction rates and lamb and ewe survival. Producers develop the skills to manage their ewes to achieve condition score targets and explore the economics of supplementary feeding and pasture management to review stocking rates.

LTEM groups, typically comprising 5-7 producers, meet six times in the annual sheep calendar during a period of 12 months. The course is very hands-on, being based in the sheep yards, shearing sheds and paddocks of participating woolgrowers, which enables participants to share and learn from one another.

“As for most farmers, seeing is believing for us, and being able to experience the management practices being implemented by fellow farmers made the adjustment to change easier for us. Small groups allowed for a more intimate experience with both the facilitator and the other farmers,” Thomas said.

LTEM was developed using research outcomes of the AWI-funded Lifetime Wool project (lifetimewool.com.au), which ran from 2001 to 2008, and involved growers and researchers in WA, Vic, NSW, and SA.

The LTEM course is a great example of where investment in initial research, its further development and an effective extension model has paid off handsomely for the woolgrowers for which AWI works, and it will continue to generate benefits for many years to come.

Nationally, almost 4000 producers have taken part in LTEM courses, resulting in 30% of the national ewe flock having been influenced (12 million ewes). On average, LTEM participants have increased their whole-farm stocking rate by 9.3% from 8.5 to 9.3 DSE/ha, increased lamb-marking percentage by 7% from 97.3 to 104.3% and reduced ewe mortality from 4.1 to 3.0%.

BATTLING POOR SEASONS

Since completing the LTEM course in 2018, seasonal conditions have been very tough at Penrose. The 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons were both dry, requiring the Pengillys to supplementary feed their ewes over summer.

“Due to the dry conditions, our recent focus has been on containment feeding to maintain ewe condition score through pregnancy over summer, whilst resting pasture for the next autumn,” Thomas said.

The Pengillys have been monitoring their lambing percentages and weaning rates more carefully since the LTEM course.

“Drought factors aside, our lamb marking percentage and wool cut has increased since completing the course,” Thomas said.

In 2018, the year that they completed the LTEM program, they achieved 96% lambs marked to ewes joined (1,821 ewes) and 94% lambs weaned to ewes joined. Unfortunately, the dry 2018 season meant they didn’t have the ability to store feed for what turned out to be a dry 2018-19 summer and hence they had a poor 2019 drop: 83% lambs marked to ewes joined (1,930 ewes) and 81% lambs weaned to ewes joined.

However, for the 2019-20 season, the Pengillys had managed to store enough feed to be able to supplementary feed their breeding ewes over the dry summer and autumn.

“Better feed management and the droughtlot helped us to manage our risk in a dry 2020, which resulted in an increased lamb marking percentage of 100% to ewes joined and 99% weaning rate – and we are expecting an increase of approximately 200-500g of wool per head.

“We are currently running 300 more breeding ewes than we otherwise would have if we had chosen to destock. The value of supplementary feeding in the current livestock market has easily paid for itself. However, under a less favourable livestock environment, and if you had to buy in feed, the cost would very quickly eat through any additional lambing or increase in wool cut.”

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Recent dry seasons at Penrose have highlighted the importance of good feed management.

BETTER MANAGEMENT

“Ewe health and lamb survival are the greatest profit drivers of our livestock business. It is simple, a healthy ewe weans more lambs and cuts more wool.”

– Thomas Pengilly

The Pengillys have pregnancy scanned for multiples since completing the LTEM course.

“Pregnancy scanning enables us to split multiple- from single-bearing ewes and manage their feed requirement over summer and lambing accordingly. Multiple-bearing ewes obviously require greater management and feed to maintain their condition score over their pregnancy and lactation,” Thomas said.

“Splitting the ewes allows for better efficiency of feed budgeting, so we are not overfeeding singles and underfeeding twins, like we might be in a non-separated mob. It also allows us to give multiple-bearing ewes more available shelter and pasture to increase lamb survival.”

Thomas says they monitor condition score whenever they handle the ewes through the yards and manage feed allocations accordingly.

“Throughout the pregnancy, we try to maintain condition score 3 where possible. We have found that if we look after mum and set her up to the best of our ability, it places her in the best position to look after her lamb to the best of her ability.

“Monitoring condition score also allows us to keep an eye on those with genetics that handle varying feed environments best.”

To optimise lamb survival, the Pengillys also provide tree shelter where possible and stubble cover or standing cover if the season if favourable towards using them. They also try to minimise sheep movement and handling in the last month of pregnancy.

ADOPTING NEW PRACTICES

Thomas completed AWI’s Breeding Leadership course in 2014. He is now on the committee of the ASHEEP grower group based in Esperance, so is well placed to comment on adoption of new management practices.

“Change can feel scary, so it’s important to have good extension methods to increase adoption of new management styles that will mitigate risk and keep farmers profitable,” he said.

“For many of the challenges currently facing our industry, there are already solutions. But education on how these solutions can be used in individual management practices is where focus needs to be placed to help industry prosper.

“Recent dry spells, low sheep numbers and the current global economic conditions are challenging for the industry. But it is also an exciting time, where technology and modern management styles can be improved to grow the industry towards new heights.

“There’s an old saying about the importance of working smarter not harder. For example, with the use of technology we can significantly change the production levels of our stock with greater classing power. Traceability of ewe production of wool weight, micron and meat weaned allows breeders to select for the most cost-effective animals from which to breed.

“This traceability is best achieved through DNA pedigree which is outside the price range of most commercial and even stud enterprises. Getting this cost down could greatly increase industry production.”

Thomas’s father, Bruce, is on the committee of the Esperance Biosecurity Group. Penrose has been impacted directly by wild dogs in the past two years, losing the Pengillys valuable breeding ewes and genetic potential. “But it’s the immeasurable stress as well as the loss in productivity that the attacks on livestock cause,” Thomas added.

BENEFITS OF MERINOS

According to Thomas, modern Merinos and in particular Poll Merinos have many management benefits that have simplified the Pengillys ability to run livestock.

“Increased conception traits and growth potential have given the Merino the ability to raise and wean more kilograms of meat per breeding ewe, opening different markets for the lamb outside of purely running wethers,” he said.

“No horns and a plain skin are creating an easily managed animal in regard to flystrike and an industry focus on fleece traits has helped produce a unique fibre capable of being worn next to the skin. The modern Merino is a natural business diversification, gaining the best of both meat and wool when run correctly.”

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