Success Stories

The person responsible for the famed catch phrase of the Riverina Merino – Fibre, Frame, Fertility – is just as adamant of its relevance today as it was back when it was created.

Michael Elmes from Narrandera, NSW, is a renowned sheep classer and works alongside Alistair and Natasha Wells in the One Oak Poll stud flock.

When he was field day president back in the early 2000s, he came up with those three key words of fibre, frame, and fertility – which all had to be in balance to make a profitable sheep.

And while he said some studs chased trends, he had clear consistent advice to the Wells across the two decades he has been working with them.

“I say that the first thing they have to do is breed a sheep that they will know will do well for them in their country,” Mr Elmes said.

“If they can’t make money from those sheep, then no one else will be able to.”

It’s this commercial reality that been over-arching factor for the breeding goals for One Oak Poll, with Mr Elmes working to provide extra input to the flock.

While it’s possible to tinker around with different traits, he said there were two things that were non-negotiable.

A sheep had to be able to survive and thrive, and it had to be able to produce – wool and meat – and reproduce.

“Once you have the chassis right, you can hang what you like off it, whether that is fleece or red meat,” Mr Elmes said.

But a sheep also had to have constitution and conformation, which were critical and went back to his first point of being able to survive and thrive in their environment.

“Breeding a sheep is about balance,” Mr Elmes said.

“It is like a three-legged chair – you put too much emphasis on one trait and its like making one chair leg longer and the whole thing is out of balance, and it tips over.”

There are horses for courses and rams for environments, and Mr Elmes said the constitution and conformation of the One Oak Poll sheep meant they were able to survive and thrive almost anywhere but especially where conditions were not necessarily easy.

That, he said, was demonstrated in the domination of the One Oak Poll bloodline in the central western areas of NSW like West Wyalong and Lake Cargelligo, where 75 per cent of placegetters in ewe competitions over a number of years were One Oak Poll blood.

“With One Oak Poll, their clients’ sheep do the talking,” Mr Elmes said.

“Clearly the wool is excellent to win these competitions or be placed, but you also don’t win a ewe competition with a sheep with a poor growth rate so they have the meat side covered too.”

Mr Elmes said One Oak Poll was established when horned Merinos were mainstream and poll sheep were considered a novelty, and their ability to produce high volumes of wool was thought to be impossible.

Now, with the industry swing to polled sheep, he said the stud was coming into its own as it had 40 years of breeding sheep with big wool cuts and nourishment.

“They really have put to bed the fact that Poll Merino sheep do not cut as much wool as horned Merinos,” he said.

Then there is the easy-care nature of the bloodline, and while they cut a lot of wool and have frame and scale, they were still sheep that were easy to run.

“Labour and the availability of people would have to be one of the biggest issues facing the wool industry at the moment, especially when getting shearers,” Mr Elmes said.

“Big, heavy wool cutters don’t mean they are hard to look after, and if the lock structure and the staple length and the drape of the fleece is right, then they comb well and are easier to shear.

“Above all, sheep have to be commercially viable, and it comes back to the Wells knowing first hand their sheep are making them money, and then the rest flows on from that.”

It’s the ability to target the meat and wool markets that has kept Kikoira sheep producer Philip Hill loyal to One Oak Poll bloodlines for more than three decades.

Philip and Vicki and their sons Ryan and Andrew run about 2000 Merino ewes on about 2440 hectares of mixed farming country with a 425-millimetre average rainfall.

He has always known his sheep have dual purpose characteristics, but the operation has proof that this is more than just talk.

Philip has a stake in the meat industry .and has their White Suffolk-Merino lambs processed in an abattoir in Cowra, with the lambs then butchered and sold direct to consumers.

While the White Suffolks play their terminal role, Philip said “half the genetics still come from the ewe” which makes it essential that his breeders carry strong meat traits.

“I’ve seen what One Oak Poll has done with their sheep and while they had good sheep to start with, they have improved the hindquarters even more,” Philip said.

“You have to pay tribute to Alastair and Natasha, and Alastair’s father Graham, and their classer Michael Elmes who really do the hard work in giving us genetics that we need.

“I reckon we do the easy bit as we just use those genetics, and they are the ones who are making a huge effort.”

The meat business has been a lucrative offshoot of the main Merino line of sheep run on the Hill’s property Pynvue, selected by his grandparents in the early 1900s.

The overall joining comprises 1200 Merino ewes joined to the One Oak Poll Merino rams, and then 800 Merino ewes joined to White Suffolk rams.

Those joined to the terminal sire were originally those classed out from the main Merino line, but Philip said it was becoming increasingly difficult to find sheep that needed to be taken out.

“I think we are seeing the results of the work down in the One Oak Poll flock, and how that is flowing through to our sheep which are always getting better,” he said.

When it comes to buying rams, Philip said they had a budget that they stuck to, and often the ones that had the double ticks next to them in the catalogue went beyond their price range.

While it is reassuring to know that he likes the same rams that others do, Philip said it was still possible to pick sires that had what he was looking for – great hindquarters, excellent constitutions, the ability to survive in tough conditions and good wool. They must be easy care sheep which he said the One Oak Poll sheep were, and it’s seen in the lack of body strike in adult sheep.

Michael Elmes helps with the ram selection, picking sires that will suit the dual-purpose nature of the flock.

“We tend to select rams around the 19-20-micron mark, and our adult sheep are cutting eight kilograms of 20-micron wool and our lambs are finer,” Philip said.

“This is a medium wool operation that also has an emphasis on meat, and the rams we buy allow us to do that.”

The success of the livestock operation has the Hills moving more of their country into livestock and less into cropping, believing it is a safer bet than outlaying money to grow wheat and canola.

Years of careful selection of One Oak Poll genetics have resulted in a lamb wool clip that has ticked all the boxes for the Hoskinson family.

Mark and Helen Hoskinson run a flock of about 1000 Merino ewes in country at Kikoira, near West Wyalong, where their goal is to run a true flock of dual-purpose sheep, not one that just claims to be.

The performance of their lambs this year has been stellar and shows the selection of plain bodied rams without compromising on wool quality has been on point.

Their wether lambs, born in May/June 2021, were first shorn at six to seven months, and cut 2.5-3 kilograms of 16.4-17-micron wool.

They were then shorn again in July and while the micron was slightly higher at 17-18 micron, the wool cut was also up at 3.5-4 kilograms.

“We are so happy with how those wether lambs have performed, cutting two clips of quality wool within their first year of life, and both of these clips met the 65mm length standard,” Mark said.

“They have earned their wool value from six kilograms of wool before they are a year old, and then could be sold into the prime lamb market.

“While we have chosen not to sell most of them in winter due to the dip in returns, the early sales in March where we sold them in the Griffith saleyards saw them make $191.

“You can talk about dual-purpose, but these sheep truly are that.”

The bonus of running Merinos, Mark said, was that when prime lamb rates dropped, there was the option to hold onto them rather than be forced to sell.

In contrast, those with first or second-cross lambs were almost forced to meet the market given the big discounts made when lambs cut their teeth.

The wether lambs they retained are still growing in value, producing more wool, earning more income and can be sold as hoggets or as wethers to someone wanting to produce wool.

Mark said they had not been afraid of spending to select the genetics to fit their breeding goal and focused on staple length as well as a high comfort factor in their sire selection.

Their flock is classed by Alison Rutledge from Woodstock, NSW, and she has guided their operation to maximising returns from both wool and meat, without comprising on either.

“We don’t want the biggest sheep – it creates issues with shearers – we want dual purpose sheep with white wool that the buyers want.”

Their latest clip of lamb’s wool was keenly sought, and half was bought by Italian buyers and the other by the Chinese.

Knowing their clip, which is sold under Sustainawool accreditation, is attracting European interest is another vote of confidence in what they are doing.

“We love our wool and want to produce the best we can, with style and brightness and a high comfort factor, but the fact we can also target the prime lamb market with our wethers is a result of choosing specific genetics from One Oak Poll,” Mark said.