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September 17, 2022

Monica Ley laughs as she recalls a recent public speaking gig with Australian Good Meat, helping consumers understand and learn about eating lamb.

“It was completely ironic…because here I am the spokesperson; a South Australian lamb producer in a room full of people eating lamb and I’m not tasting the product!”

It’s because for the livestock manager at the helm of one of the country’s oldest and most esteemed Poll Merino studs, she’s allergic to lamb.

And wheat….and often grass; which also provokes a wry laugh.

But overcoming and persevering against daily challenges is something to which the fifth-generation farmer has not only become accustomed, but to which she credits much of her impressive career trajectory.

I had so many lecturers tell me to take time off, to repeat subjects…but I kept going.

“I’m not just trying to prove to myself what I can do…I’m also proving it to so many people who’ve told me over the years that I can’t do it.”

“And now I can say to myself; have a look at all those who said I couldn’t do it, I would never do it, or that it would be really, really hard for me even if I do get there – so it’s like a little series of self-wins…and it makes me push for the next step,” she explains.

But being honest, she says the “constant hustle” of the last few years since university, taking on an extension role with NSW’s agriculture department, running a Riverina cattle station and two years ago; a move to the top job at Canowie Poll Merinos in Coonalpyn, SouthEast South Australia, has caused “a bit of burnout”.

“But at least I recognised I had burnout, and I addressed it – and I can recognise it. I think a lot of young farmers don’t recognise or acknowledge it until often it’s too late.”

“Coming through a really big few years has really shown me where my limit is, and I think I’m a lot better at realising when I am approaching that limit and backing off a bit,” she says.

Young sheep industry leader Monica Ley leads a team at Canowie Poll Merinos, Coonalpyn, Upper Sout East SA.

On being a young industry leader

Monica was just 24 when she was approached to manage a drought-ravaged cattle station in the Riverina, after working in agricultural extension in the area after completing her ag science studies atCharles Sturt University.

“Everyone was quite blown away that I got that role at such a young age, and being a female,” she explains.

“But I think it’s an ability to build rapport with people, and not just having ‘book smarts’ but being able to apply it in a way that you can teach others, make it practical to everyone, be evidence based and get the whole team on board.”

Today, as livestock manager of a large-scale Merino, cropping and cattle breeding operation, Monica says it’s leadership “through an ability to talk and work with everyone” as well as evidence-based decision making that is proving a sound combination for success.

It’s also seen her take on industry advocacy roles, and become a leader for other young people – especially women –pursuing careers in agriculture.

Regarding educating the consumer, she says the challenge is unique but it’s a space that farmers should engage in, in order to build consumer confidence and appreciation for products like lamb.

“I think it’s the challenge of taking what we do on farm and helping people with no connection to farming, understand what we do and the many different ways in which we do it,” she says.

“When I run farm workshops, farmers get it– the know the language. But for the average consumer, we can’t expect them to know, trust and understand, if we don’t put it in ways that help them relate to and learn about the products we produce.”

Monica says the use of social media has“endless possibilities” for building consumer connections.

And with over 1800 followers on Twitter,Monica is actively using online platforms to build those connections, imagery and continue her own learning, including from within her industry.

Making the move to Merinos

Canowie is home to one of the oldest poll Merino studs in the country, established in 1914 originally in South Australia’s Mid North around Hallet and Kulpara, before being moved to Coonalpyn in the 1970’s chasing soil type and rainfall.

The operation comprises 3400ha of mixed livestock and cropping, including 6500-head commercial and stud flocks and 250Angus cows.

Canowie polls are large frame “true SouthAustralian type” merinos, with a base weight of 60 kilograms bare shorn, with a“super plain” breech and body.

Rams are not shedded and are run under fully commercial conditions.

Wools are “weatherproof” and free from staining, fleece rot and without much dust penetration.

But while the operation is steeped in history, it’s an outward-looking drive for continual improvement that Monica believes is setting it apart from some traditional operations.

“We are always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder…and to keep building our reputation as leaders in the Poll Merino industry,” she says.

And there’s a few items on the Christmas wishlist, including infrastructure to help her and her young, female farm hand handling large numbers of ewes and lambs.

“I want a sheep handler that tips, with an auto drafter and scales.”

“A lot of people over the years have told me that I won’t succeed in my role because I can’t lift what a 35 year old man can….and that’s true….but maybe he shouldn’t be thrashing his body to do that either. I think we all need to use tools that make the job more efficient, and easier on us physically – and there’s some really exciting gear out there to help us all do just that,” she adds.

The operation introduced eID to all 2020stud and keeper lambs, and have done so again this year, in a bid to improve management and data collection.

“It’s also helpful because I have two people I work with who are colour blind, and one is also dyslexic; so colours of tags can be tricky and numbers can get muddled up, so eID, whilst not mandatory in SA, is just so much easier in terms of moving and managing stock, and keeping records.”

Furthermore, she says it’s helped identify which sire groups are performing well, and aided decision-making during classing.

Six-month shearing is a game-changer

Canowie moved to six-month shearings for its entire sheep program around in the 2000’s, after being penalised for over-length wools and chasing a more productive sheep enterprise

All stock on property are shorn in February, and all sheep over 12 months age are shorn in August and March-April drop lambs are shorn at the end of September (and again in February) with an average staple length of 63mm and fleece weight of 5 kilograms every six months.

Joining and lambing is all undertaken off-shears in a bid to enhance animal welfare.

The operation invested in new shearers quarters and a large roof over the sheepyards around three years ago, which has had a big impact on its ability to get full shearing teams when required.

“We run a really strict calendar here; after shearing in February, we have two days before calving starts, and then on the fourth week of calving lambing starts, so then we have calf marking during lambing…then lamb marking and while all this is happening we’re also seeding crops…and then in June/July it’s ram selling season…so it’s a very busy operation but we think we’ve got a format that works well.”

That being said, Monica says early decision making is important in the sandy-soiled country.

Monica says the operation will continue building on its solid foundations and continue pushing on fleece weight and fibre length fronts, through the retention of wool tested hoggets.

“I’m still learning about pasture growth rate curves in this area, but we have good lines of communication in the event that the rain doesn’t arrive or doesn’t arrive at certain points in the year.”

Looking ahead, Monica says the operation will continue building on its solid foundations and continue pushing on fleece weight and fibre length fronts, through the retention of wool tested hoggets.

Weaning and birth weights are also in focus, with lambs weaned between 8 and 16 weeks weighing  between 24 and 38 kilograms and birthweights aimed at 3.5 kilograms for singles and 2.8 for multiples for lamb survival.

“We are very happy with the course we’re on and continuing to look at ways to enhance the good foundations that have been built here,” she says.

Liz Rymill
Article by:
Liz Rymill

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