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January 2004

Sheep Performance in Drought

1. The Sherana Rainfall Scale

Those educated and very correct people at the Australian Broadcasting Commission measure rainfall in funny little French things called mm. My friend Ron, who lives in a place where it rains, measures his in wheelbarrows (he can't afford a rain gauge, so he rings up and says "We got half a barrow of rain last night, Viv, how did you do?")

We used to measure rain in inches but then came El Nino and we started measuring in points. Then came the Millennium Drought, and we now measure in spits. When Ron rings up I can report "got three spits last night, but it all evaporated when the sun came up." So for those who like things tidy and well defined, here is the official Sherana Rainfall Scale:

  • 100 spits = 1 point
  • 100 points = 1 inch
  • 12 inches = 1 barrow
  • 2 barrows = a damfull

And for those who meter their rain in French:

  • 400 spits = 1 mm

2. Dorper Woos (and Wows) Mother-of-All-Things

Mother-of-all-Things does not like Dorpers - she has been spoiled on Damaras. The other day, after a long quiet ruminating walk behind the flock she said ''I have decided that the difference between a damara and a dorper is like the difference between a gazelle and a hippopotamus".

But a few months back, Mrs Fat (a friend of Mrs Piggy, our most gross dorper ewe), produced twin lambs but decided she only wanted to rear one. So, "Mille" became the first Dorper pet.

What an adorable little bundle she was, with snow white body and jet black head. And how MOAT got hooked.

First, "Mille is lonely - she needs a friend". So against his better judgement, Rouseabout was conned into stealing another twin F2 damara lamb off its loving mother. So Mille got a bottle-buddy, "Jill".

Then, "I want to take Mille and Jill to the Ekka, but they have nothing pretty to wear". So, Rouseabout visited the big smoke and got bright blue collar for Jill and a bright red one for Mille.

Next "That naughty Jill has got pretty Mille all dirty, so they need a wash before the Ekka".

Fixit, always ready with helpful suggestions, says "The Gernie pressure spray will clean them up in a jiffy". Naturally, he got sent outside with Sheba and Rouseabout was left with the job. "We need a bit of dishwashing detergent", he observed. No chance - it had to be the best quality baby shampoo. After a half day of shampooing, rinsing and drying on our best fluffy towels Mille and Jill were ready for the big trip to the Ekka.

The aim of the Ekka trip was to sell Damaras to silly city folk, but who was the star of the show? Mille the Dorper of course, trotting around behind MOAT in her crimson collar, black velvet top and fluffy white body suit (Mille, that is, not MOAT). Grandmas Ooohed and Aaahed, Japanese tour groups blocked all traffic while every one got a digital picture of them with Mille, and everyone wanted to touch Mille. One lady asked what Dorpers were used for "They are meat sheep", Rouseabout explained helpfully. "Oh, you can't eat Mille", the shocked lady replied.

One Kiwi came up and wanted to stroke Mille. "We Kiwis have a special relationship with sheep, you know", he explained. Fixit told him to push off.

Some people wanted to know when Mille would get fed again, so they could come back for the event. And they did, saying "Hello Mille". MOAT and Mille got free coffees in the nearby coffee shop; "It attracts the customers". The serving ladies would sing out "Good morning Mille".

Jill and Rouseabout looked on disgusted.

MOAT now has one good thing to say about Dorpers "They make wonderful pets".

(PS for those interested in more useful things, Mille the Dorper and Jill the Damino were born on the same day, and both bottle fed. When they were weaned, Mille looked far heavier, but they weighed almost the same - Mille's stomach was half a kilo heavier. Jill looked lighter but she was far taller.)

3. Why Do We keep Whinging about "THE MILLENNIUM DROUGHT"?

Our city friends and family now try to avoid mentioning "The Weather". Once they just muttered "Typical Farmer - always whinging about the weather". Now they say it to our face.

Even Fixit wondered if it was all that unusual (he's only been here a couple of years, both droughts, so that IS normal to him).

So, to avoid fixing fences in the heat, Rouseabout connected the Abacus and looked at the rainfall records. This is what he found in the annual rainfall records for Rosevale going back to 1897.

First, the worst year on record was the notorious 1926, with just 357 mm of rain at Rosevale. The next worst year ever was 2002, with 383 mm, so last year's whinging was justified. The 4th worst year in the last 107 years was 1994. The year 2000 came in 6th, and 1993 came in 11th. Apart from 1957 (no 3), the 11 driest years fell either in the 1920's drought, or in our very own Millennium Drought, which started here 10 years ago in 1993.

Taking a longer term perspective, the three driest consecutive years recorded were the three years ending in 2002. And the four driest consecutive years in the period 1897-2003 were those four ending last night, 31 Dec 2003.

So the Millennium Drought is the worst short term drought ever recorded here. However, it is scary to contemplate that the 1926 drought dragged on from 1909 to 1926, a dreary 17 years. And, the average rainfall graphs are all now pointing to the floor. Hopefully our coal burning power stations will have produced enough plant-sustaining carbon dioxide and water vapour to encourage plant growth and rain, instead of destitution, dust storms and drought.

4. More Water Woes.

Weather and water dominates all thinking here in the Rosevale desert. All dams dried up years ago. Bores slowly failed, one by one, until we were down to three sources - Grasstree Bore and the Connection Wells for the cattle and Nobby's well for the sheep. Then within a fortnight, the Connection Wells could not keep up with the thirsty cattle and the tank on Nobby's Well started to lose ground to the thirsty sheep. The Sherana Water Company was kicked into action, and a kind neighbour invited us to fill up from his prolific alluvial bores down near the Bremer River. For the first time in a long life, we were carting water for stock. (Relatives in the 1926 drought carted water in horse drawn drays to keep homestead and stock horses supplied, so we are lucky).

Rouseabout calculated that, to supply all stock with water he would have to haul 4-5 truckloads of water per day at 1.5 hours per load. Alarm bells rang and the magic water wands were put to use searching for new underground water. Two sites were chosen, "Newjack" and "Hayshed".

Eventually the overworked drillers arrived. They assessed Newjack as a likely site but, were very sceptical about the Hayshed site. The chief driller whispered to Judy "This site looks hopeless - I think Rouseabout's rods have got twisted this time".

So, we drilled Newjack first. Got water in about the quantity and depth we had expected, about 240 gph at 95 feet. "Are you sure you want to drill this one?" the drillers asked about the Hayshed Site. "Yes, please". After checking our bank account, they went ahead.

Both Rouseabout and Fixit had checked this site. "Water at about 100 feet" we decided independently. There was a bit of water at 35 feet, and at 95 feet the flow increased considerably. In the interval 95 - 105 ft we got 1,300 gph - a veritable gusher by Sherana standards. Within a week, a new air pump was surging water into the stock water tank at the turn of an air tap.

All of a sudden the outlook looked quite different, at least for sheep.

But still the cattle were drinking faster than the Connection Wells could produce. Fixit urged us to pull up the idle Dazzler Bore to see whether it was lack of water or pump failure. It was a pump problem that took only 5 sweaty days to fix, and once again the mighty Dazzler Bore was supplying the cattle.

Then we got 200 points of rain, (which all ran down the cracks). Grass appeared overnight, the air got humid, the Monsoon arrived, Cooee birds started forecasting rain and all the young things started doing what the old things had been doing all winter.

But after just three weeks, the pumping rate at Dazzler declined slowly to 438 gpd with the cattle drinking 1,020 gpd on a cool day. On New Year's Day we calculated we had 4 days left on that bore, and retreat of the cattle to Grasstree Bore was imminent. As the New Year broke the new grass wilted, that damn "High in the Bight" reappeared - drought was still with us. Rouseabout started shooting those false prophets, the Cooee Birds.

Still, things could be worse - in the 1902 drought, 276,244 sheep died on Bowen Downs. (They were obviously merinos. In the Barcaldine district in this drought, merino and damara cross ewes were run on the same property. As the drought got worse, the merino ewes ceased having lambs and then 90% of them died. 5% of the damara ewes died but the rest produced lambs - the only lambs this property got in three years.)

5. Damaras & Hippos win the "All Breeds" Competition

A Queensland trial testing the performance of meat sheep sires crossed with merino ewes has revealed that Damara and Dorper were the best performers.

The trial, conducted by Dr David Falepau in open rangeland conditions, compared progeny from six sires with merino ewes - Damara, Dorper, Merino, South African Meat Merino, Rambouillet and Poll Dorset.

Seasonal conditions were "tough" in the third year of the trial, and lambs were removed as they fell below a certain level of condition.

Dr Falepau reports "In the first draft we removed most of the merino progeny and quite a large percentage of the Rambouillet. Two weeks later we removed most of the Poll Dorsets, and two weeks after that, the majority of the South African meat Merino. Six to eight weeks later we were left with just damara and dorper cross progeny". The test ended there (MOAT says that was to avoid embarrassing the dorpers).

This trial supports our contention that Damara and Dorper are the best sheep breeds for meat production under harsh Australian conditions. Animal breeders interested in profitable operations should have as their first selection criteria, a breed that evolved to thrive or at least survive without supplements or chemicals in that environment. Cattle and sheep bred in soft English or European conditions are not suited to the heat, drought and flies of Australia. (Reported in the Genelink Newsletter).

6. Damaras Win the Lambing Race

Our sheep flock has now increased to 400, and we keep good records, so Rouseabout discovered another reason to stay inside. He got busy on the Abacus, calculating lambing performances (number of live lambs per hundred ewes per year). Figures were calculated monthly, both on ewe numbers for the month, and on ewe numbers 5 months previously. The results were revealing:

  Highest Lowest Average
Damaras 186% 126% 153% (2 years)
Daminos 149% 90% 127% (3 years)
Dorpers    110% (1 year)

Damaras are definitely not seasonal breeders (one lamb per year). Average figures calculated for a total of 96 damara ewes over up to 4 years showed:

Age at first lamb (mth) 21 12 14.9
Lambing Interval (mth) 12 6 8.8

This shows that, on average, our damara ewes had their first lamb by the time they are 14.8 months old, and then have a lamb every 8.8 months. Unlike many sheep breeds that have a maximum of one lamb per year, damaras are not seasonal breeders.

7. Homing Sheep

One of the problems of selling breeding stock is - not enough repeat business. We go to great trouble to market our sheep. We listen patiently to callers, answer innumerable questions, conduct field inspections, and eventually sell a ram and a few ewes. Then the damn ewes start having lambs and our customers don't need us any more.

But after a lot of thinking and scheming, Rouseabout has found an answer - secretly, over in the Badlands where-Mother-of-all-things does not venture, he is breeding Homing Sheep. We sold the first ewe recently to a lady in Rosevale, about 10 km away. Every day Rouseabout secretly checked the flock, and after 5 days, that ewe came home, all ready to sell again. (This poor young ewe had crossed a bitumen highway, a creek, about a dozen fences and turned up in the back paddock.) Rouseabout was ecstatic about the success of his plan until MOAT announced "That is the ewe we sold last week, I'll have to ring that lady". And she did!! The very happy lady came and picked the ewe up again. She said the little ewe had been frightened away by dogs. Rouseabout nodded sympathetically.

Rouseabout is now working on another top secret program to breed a special line of ewes that don't produce lambs until they are five years old (the secret - a high proportion of Hippo blood plus a dash of merino).

8. Sheep Pruning improves Orchard

Quite a few people have bought or are considering using damaras to clean up orchards. Philip & Denise have a citrus orchard, and tried 6 sheep in a small patch of trees with the idea of keeping grass and weeds down. The trees were struggling at the time and when the sheep proceeded to prune the trees, Philip thought he would be faced with replanting the area soon.

But, instead of the drop in production he expected, that patch of trees produced the heaviest yield on the property, a phenomenon he is still struggling to understand. (Reported in "Acres Australia").

9. Customer Discounts

Talking of repeat business, we have decided to offer benefits to customers who have already bought sheep from us. If you have ever bought sheep from us, we will offer a discount of 20% on current prices for any repeat business. We believe our prices and service are the best around, but this will ensure repeat customers get a good deal. And we have a new crop of lambs from our new Ram "Leopard". He is a majestic black ram with white spots, and seems to be producing a high proportion of very pretty black and brown lambs with white spots. He is very fertile and active - his flock produced two sets of twins and two single lambs, all born on the one day.

10. Why Buy Sherana Sheep?

We try to provide the best value when you buy damara or dorper genetics from us. How?

  • We have a large range of genetics - 11 unrelated ram lines and at least 7 unrelated ewe lines. So, when your old ram reaches his use-by date, you can find a new line with us. We change our breeding ram regularly.
  • We do not sell cull animals for genetics. Cull ewes and rams either get eaten by us or our friends, or go to butchers, or are sold at the Gatton sheep auction.
  • We have a strict culling policy. Rams are culled if they are highly strung, poor doers, or with poor coats or confirmation. Ewes are culled if the have any sort of lambing problems, take too long to have the first lamb, miss a lambing, refuse to raise the lamb for no apparent reason, or have a dead lamb. (Very few damara ewes do these things.)
  • In future, all cull rams will be neutered before sale to ensure they do not enter the gene pool, or weaken the market for good rams.
  • Our record keeping and breeder management is good, so we know who are the parents of every stud sheep. We welcome visitors and will explain our systems and our records.
  • If any of our sheep are defective, or not what we promised, we will replace them.
  • We watch the market and try to ensure our prices are competitive.
  • We will negotiate package deals.
  • If you wish, all sheep will be drenched for worms as they leave our property.
  • We will consider transporting sheep, if the numbers are sufficient. (We recently took a ute load of sheep to Oakey for three customers at Blackall and Barcaldine.)

11. Cattle & Sheep.

We run cattle and sheep, and are breeding good environmentally suited cattle. If you would like to see "The Sherana Cattle Report" (another irregular publication), please let us know.

12. Coping with Drought.

After surviving the Millennium Drought (so far) we have learnt some things. There are seven things to do:

  1. Select animals that are adapted to your expected environment. You could raise Texel sheep & Friesian cows at Cloncurry and Longreach (at great cost), but you would be better off with Damara sheep and Brahman cattle.
  2. Keep every bit of water that falls on your land. Store every bit in tanks, in dams, in your soil and pasture, or in underground reservoirs. Don't let a precious bit run off your land. (More on this later).
  3. Maximise pasture production with spelling, rotation grazing, soil loosening and aeration, improved pastures and focussed re-mineralisation of soils.
  4. Assume the worst and whatever happens will be a pleasant surprise.
  5. Develop drought proof water supplies - very deep dams or underground supplies. Small farm dams all go dry when you need them most. (Experience talks).
  6. Don't expect anything from governments except words, paperwork, counsellors and more taxes, fees and levies to pay for them.
  7. Buy feed supplements when they are cheap - you are sure to need them.

Best Wishes for 2004

From Mother-of-All-Things, the Rouseabout, the White Wolf, 300 Delightful Damaras and 15 Dopey Dorpers.

Viv & Judy Forbes.

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