A sheep-filled afternoon with JBS

The second set of afternoons sessions at the JBS Southern Producer Forums involved insightful, short and sharp twenty minute small-group rotations through a range of topics — from grass seed management to genetic selection.

Hamish Chandler, Manager at Sheep Genetics, has extensive genetics knowledge and also runs a superfine Merino flock in Armidale. Chandler reminded us that there are things we see on Ram sale day that won’t impact the performance of the lambs they sire — i.e. they are a result of environmental factors, not genetic. These factors include age (which can provide a marked difference in size and weight of a ram on sale day), whether he was born a single or a twin, the age of his dam, and the amount of feed he has been on pre-sale.

Chandler reminded us to concentrate on the ram's heritable  traits — the portion of his traits we see/or don't see that are a result of his genetic makeup because of his genes. ASBCs provide a genetic benchmarking tool whereby we can judge a ram against the industry average. They enable us to rank the ram for the genes he is carrying, rather than how fat, heavy and glossy he looks on sale day.

To use ASBVs effectively, Chandler noted that we need to understand the traits that drive our income, and we must choose to take home rams that carry the traits we want to change or improve, which can directly influence our net profitability.

Chandler suggested the key profit drivers in a terminal sire are: growth rates, moderate birth rate, more muscle to match higher growth rates, and matching fat breeding values to the amount of finish you want on your lambs (i.e. merino ewes might need more fatter rams, however if you are marketing a heavier export lamb, you might want leaner figures).

There is no point busting ourselves to produce more lamb if the consumer doesn’t want it, Chandler reminded. Until now, we haven’t had a way of assessing what our changes on farm are doing for the consumer opinion of the lamb we produce. But now, we have the capacity to look directly at lean meat yield and dressing percentage, sheer force and intramuscular fat through RBVs. Chandler noted that a lot of this information is predetermined when we are buying rams and we now have the capacity to select for these values at the point of sale.

Patrick Hutchinson, from Blue Sky Agriculture, delivered a practical session on “Winning Against Seeds”. He opened by reminding us that grass-seeds are not just a carcass issue, but can have severe animal health and welfare issues, as well as production and processing losses and inefficiencies.

Hutchinson stated that those producers than win against grass seeds are the ones that know when and where it occurs, obtain feedback from processors and review and change their management procedures as a result.

A number of options are available to combat seeds, including genetic selection, strategic grazing, targeted marketing (producers selling at a restocker level if they think there will be an impact of seeds if they graze further), feedlotting, and shearing prior to seed set.

Time of shearing is perhaps the most widely used management option, but it is not the “be all – end all”, stated Hutchinson. Agronomic options, including winter cleaning of pastures, spray topping/grazing, pasture improvement, fodder crops and conservation, can also be reviewed.

I have had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Jason Trompf, from JT Agri-Source, speak before, and it was wonderful to hear him deliver his mini “More Lambs, More Profit” session. Jason admitted it was nice to have a day focused at looking at the end product, but noted that getting our eye back on the main game at the farm-level was incredibly important — and to play the game well, a lot of attention to detail was required. 

Jason shared that the farms making more profit are consistently running higher stocking rates, resulting in 15-20% higher lamb production per hectare.

Jason ran us through the five key elements of successful lamb production — “Lambs Alive, do the 5”. This system included:

  1. Measure to Manage (scanning and feed allocation are driving the best marking rates)
  2. Fed Well (measuring fuel gauge on ewe and proactively manage ewe to next condition score)
  3. Adapt Well (managing the volatility and variability in our pasture by setting up more flexible strategies)
  4. Bred Well (getting on the genetics express!)
  5. Lamb Well (protecting “the nursery”, i.e. not ploughing through the paddock in the ute in the morning as it takes 6hrs for a lamb and mother to bond).

The formal part of the day finished up and now it is time to grab a quick drink before the evening function tonight. I quickly asked Dad about the beef sessions run this afternoon and it appears the sheep side of things was the right choice!

Thanks to JBS for an insightful day and I look forward to catching up with some people tonight to hear about the morning session.

A little word from our processors: The JBS Southern Producer Forum

We crossed the border last night, heading south to attend the JBS Southern Producer Forum held today in Melbourne.

After being caught up in meetings and missing the morning program, it was time to wander down Southbank Promenade to Crown to attend the afternoon sessions. Attendees broke up into beef and lamb streams, with my Dad and I separating into the two. As sheep is front and centre for me at the moment, I knew which way I was headed. 

First to the podium was Richard Apps, Adoption Manager for Sheep at MLA, to speak about what is coming down the pipeline in the industry from an R&D perspective.

So, what is the Sheep CRC up to? Apps informed that with their 5-year funding extension (4 of which are left), are focused on three core programs: 1) remote systems around animal wellbeing and productivity 2) improving yield, eating quality and working across the supply chain, and (3) advanced genetic improvement technologies (testing of animals at a DNA level to estimate their genetic potential).

Apps stated that from an MLA perspective, there will be continued effort around reproduction, concentration on condition score (focused on more effective management in crossbred, maternal and composite ewes), ewe lamb mating (and getting them back in lamb next year), targeted nutrition at joining, embryo morality and anti-leptin vaccination investigation.

In addition, there is ongoing effort on driving labour efficiencies. Apps reminded us that $0.22 in the dollar spent on farm is on labour — and can run up to $0.50 when oncosts are included. MLA is working on developing a program so we can assess our individual business and how efficient they are, as well as where we can improve and which investments can drive efficiencies in labour.

There is work in the area of innovative technology and data capture by MLA, however “it is a little way off”, Apps mentioned. Remote monitoring of phenotypes to predict condition or wrinkle scores, objective data measurement about the relative value of different pastures, as well as using technology to quickly measure weights of ewes between paddocks were used as key examples. Apps showed the audience a video of the latter technology from the NZ, which showed a weighing system that could run 477 ewes in just 4 minutes! 

Apps’ closing message to the audience was focused on innovation and financial awareness. He pushed home that there is opportunity out there being captured by producers who are “joining the dots” together. Apps asked how many in the room know their cost of production per lamb? Maybe we are just a shy lot, but there was only one person in the room that put their hand up. Understanding the financial drivers in your business is key, Apps reminded.  

He left us with a challenge — keep current with research, identify what is applicable to your business, adopt early and implement the change well.  And, as always, “don’t fall into the trap of doing what you’ve always done”

Graham Treffone, Innovation Manager at JBS Australia, and Dr. Graham Gardner, from Murdoch University were up next to speak about innovative technology in lamb processing.  Treffone introduced us to the technology at the Bordertown plant in SA, where they use single image x-ray to determine the skeletal characteristics of individual lamb carcasses. Video clips showed how the software directs the cutting robot towers to the dissection points on the carcass. He noted that they are currently running 10 lambs per minute at constant speed and the new system is safer, has less risk and has greater precision.

 Dr. Gardner spoke of the need to move to an individual carcass system and the need to further develop MSA for lamb. Working through the antagonism between lean meat yield and eating quality was one of the most important next steps. He noted we have a reasonably precise measurement of lean meat yield, but eating quality is still being worked at. Getting this second measurement is so pivotal and there will be continued focus on getting this right, Gardner stated. 

The session ended with a vision — and perhaps a promise to producers — that we are entering a new paradigm of value-based trading in the lamb industry.

Off to afternoon tea and will be back for the afternoon sessions soon!