​Breeding the perfect Australian sheep: "You can recognize the elite ones right away"

In the paddocks of the CSIRO Research Station in Armidale, New South Wales, a slow experiment is taking place. Generations of Merino ewes are reared, monitored and re-bred to reduce the percentage of lamb loss.

The head of the project is Dr. Sabina Schmolzl.

"The standard of care is high," she says. "Genetics have come a long way, but so have management and new technologies that give farmers more information about their animals."

These improvements have allowed researchers to minimize the "trade-offs" between a sheep that can produce fine wool and a sheep that can successfully rear a lamb. Merinos make up 40% of Australia's sheep flock and are notoriously forgetful mothers. Long and painful births can force mothers to return to the flock, resulting in lambs being abandoned. Facilitating childbirth has both animal welfare and economic incentives.

"We have to admit that a quick return to the herd after lambing is innate to merinos," says Schmelzl.

“A productive ewe is one that is healthy and can handle the demands of lambing quite successfully. Particularly fine wool is known to have negative effects on performance, but this is not the case with modern Merino.”

Loss of wool quality is also a consideration when breeding Merinos, which do not need to be boarded on mules to prevent fly attacks. But farmers no longer have to juggle choosing which traits to use in the herd — which is also a good thing, Schmelzl says, because it's a trade-off farmers increasingly don't want to make.

"The people who are most passionate about animals also run very productive businesses," she says. "It's the thoroughness and attention to detail that goes into every single decision that helps every aspect of agriculture."

Schmelzl says that ambitious breeding goals can be quite realistic if farmers are well informed about the bloodlines and clearly understand what they are breeding for.

“With more access to precision livestock management tools, producers have better information to better manage their animals, which is better for the profitability and sustainability of their enterprise,” she says. "Healthy sheep produce the best, their well-being depends on it."

In Victoria's dry north-west, merino nephew Kevin Crook strives for perfection, hoping to strike the right balance between meat and wool production for his dual-purpose sheep.

"You have to feed people before you can clothe them, so we decided not to be entirely meat-based," he says. "We'd like to think it's a 50-50 balance. It's a bit of a juggling act."

His next challenge is to increase the lambing frequency of the flock by selecting the best ewes to raise the next generation of award-winning ewes. Crook says he has raised the bar since the early days of his venture in the 2000s, when a ewe that produced just one lamb was considered a success.

140% lambs, or an average of 1.4 lambs born for every breeding ewe per season, is the magic number for Crook. On a smaller farm with a flock of about 1,500 sheep, such decisions are somewhat easier to make.

"We pretty much know every sheep's name and you recognize the elite sheep straight away," he says.

“It's about being with the sheep. A spreadsheet can't tell you if she's produced a lamb or not…we're just looking at the sheep and if she hasn't produced a lamb, we'll identify them and cull them.”

Sheep prices in some parts of Australia have more than doubled, opening up a much better outlook for farmers, says Tim Jackson, global supply analyst at Meat Livestock Australia.

"Prospects for producers have improved given the recent rains, while demand for lamb in Australia and around the world is strong and growing," he says.

"Good rain on the east coast has given producers confidence, increasing the amount of feed available and making it easier for lambs to gain weight."

For Crook, good sales mean more chances to improve his flock and perfect the art of the award-winning Merino, but he won't begrudge his fellow farmers their own way of approaching their pursuit of excellence.

"Merinos live in a variety of climates across Australia, resulting in a large variation in sheep types," he says. “Your territory dominates what you can produce. I don't think there's a right or wrong, it's what works for your business."