The Kinghorn family’s Saxon Merino sheep run on tradition

Nicola Bell, The Weekly Times
March 27, 2019 12:00am

Profitability per hectare is the key driver for the Kinghorn family’s Merino sheep and Hereford cattle operation in Victoria’s Western District.

Plan of attack: Will Kinghorn on his family’s farm at Byaduk in the Western District, where they run Saxon Merino and stud and commercial Hereford cattle enterprises. Picture: Andy Rogers

Plan of attack: Will Kinghorn on his family’s farm at Byaduk in the Western District, where they run Saxon Merino and stud and commercial Hereford cattle enterprises. Picture: Andy Rogers

And to maximise this, they are mixing traditional breeding principles with modern and intensive management.

Production has almost doubled in the 10 years since fourth-generation farmer Will Kinghorn returned home to his family’s 608ha property at Byaduk to work alongside his parents, Barry and Dianne.

The Kinghorns now run about 6500 superfine Saxon-type Merino sheep and 400 stud and commercial Hereford cattle.

Their family has been on the farm since 1885, and while it was home to a dairy operation until 1977 — Barry was a full-time shearer while running the farm — Merinos were introduced in the early 1970s.

While producing Saxon-style Merinos is steeped in tradition, the Kinghorns have continued to run the sheep for more than just convention.

Will, 29, said in addition to being profitable, the Saxon-style Merinos suited their country, which is predominantly made up of clay-loam soil.

The Kinghorns’ aim is to run self-replacing sheep and cattle and a self-sufficient farm, while producing “as much wool and beef per hectare as we possibly can”.

Team effort: Will Kinghorne with parents Barry and Dianne on their Byaduk property. Picture: Andy Rogers

Team effort: Will Kinghorne with parents Barry and Dianne on their Byaduk property. Picture: Andy Rogers

Grow for it

Will said the family had been able to “ramp up production” since he returned home with the help of a “lot of inputs” and a significant pasture renovation program, which he believes has added to the self-sufficient model.

“In the past 10 years we have ploughed almost every paddock and then sown them down to a three-year rotation of summer crops and annual pasture,” he said.

The summer crops are usually millet, rape or turnip with ryegrass or clover the pastures of choice.

“It means we can graze stock as needed and grow enough fodder to cut hay and silage to store so we can handle periods of dry like we are experiencing at the moment,” he said.

Will said the family had been hand feeding stock since the end of January.

The property receives an average of about 650mm of rain annually, but Will conceded the timing of the falls was more important than the volume.

“We’ve had good years on 450-500mm,” he said.

“We’ve been lucky compared to the rest of the country. We had a good spring so we got some good fodder.”

Will said the property’s stocking rate was high, at about 16 dry sheep equivalents/hectare, which was made possible thanks to the pasture renovation.

“Saxon Merino sheep are also pretty easy to run, they don’t cost as much to feed as crossbreds do — we can normally run about three Merino ewes to one crossbred,” he said.

Stock take

Will said they generally had a set stocking rate and grazed stock on the mix of annual pastures and summer crops, with hay fed out in winter for roughage as needed.

The Merino flock has always been based on Sierra Park bloodlines and they buy rams from the stud at Victoria Valley each year.

Between 3000 and 3500 Merino ewes are joined annually, with lambing in mid-May.

“We lamb early as it can get too wet in June and July, which isn’t good for lamb survivability, so that bit earlier when the weather is more pleasant works better,” Will said.

He said the key was to use tools such as urea to get as much growth out of the feed before winter set in.

The family aims to breed “traditional” Saxon-style wool and sheep with good “doing ability” and constitution.

“We don’t expect to get 160 per cent lambing rates like crossbred breeders, it’s more about the wool growth,” Will said.

The flock averages 4kg of 16-micron skirted wool with a lamb weaning rate of 90 per cent.

“We have worked on survivability of lambs, by planting trees and shelter belts and also making sure there is good feed availability for the ewes,” Will said. 

Kinghorn sheep.jpg

Shear delight

Shearing takes place in December, which means sheep are not carrying long wool over summer.

The Kinghorns are members of the Vitale Barberis Canonico Wool Excellence Club and as part of that are accredited under the SustainaWOOL Integrity Scheme managed by New England Wool.

The scheme promotes ethical, environmental and high-quality wool production, with VBC Wool Excellence Club members benefiting from purchase contracts at premiums to the physical wool market.

Will said they were asked to join the club about five years ago as their wool suited its criteria.

Will has classed their flock’s wool for the past 10 years and while they used to micron-test every fleece and class in to half-micron lots now they were part of VBC, micron was not the driver and they opted more for style, yield and strength.

“The challenge is getting consistent tensile strength, above 40 newtons per kilotex. It’s hard to do but its about trying to keep the sheep on a balanced level of nutrition throughout the year,” he said.

Pay day

Will said through their involvement with VBC they received a premium of about 400c/kg on the normal market.

With the wool market at historical highs, Will said prices were better than they were for the fine end, but it “doesn’t balance out when you compare it with what crossbred wool is making”.

“We’ve had 20 years of downturn and just surviving, so we need the market to stay where it is or keep improving,” he said.

While the flock is mulesed, Will said he was starting to see “more beneficial” premiums to produce “ceased-mulesing” wool.

“I don’t think we will be able to completely stop mulesing, but mulesing alternatives like liquid nitrogen could be our best option,” he said.

The wethers are kept for wool production until they are five years old, then sold direct to processors.

“We have wound down our wether numbers so we have more breeders, but you can get a consistent fleece off the wethers and they grow more than a ewe who has to put energy into her lamb as well,” Will said. 

High steaks

When it comes to the beef herd, the Kinghorns calve about 200 cows each year and mostly breed bulls for their own use, although they do sell a few to clients.

This year, they have moved to two calvings, with most calving in autumn and about 40 joined to calve in spring.

Will said they targeted the grown steer market, selling to feedlots or backgrounders through key store markets.

“We might look to start selling them as weaners, so then we can carry more breeders,” Will said.

He said they mostly used artificial insemination or embryo transfer for cattle, to improve their own herd genetics.

“The Hereford perform well for us and are easy doing.”

The Kinghorns have been experimenting with containment feeding cattle in an attempt to rest paddocks. Will also said he would try sorghum as a summer crop to build the summer feed gap.

It could provide this innovative livestock business with even more food for thought.