Tim and Tam Mulholland’s modern merino enterprise
In the Murray River country north of Swan Hill – Tim and Tam Mulholland are the last ones standing.
While they’ve endured water allocation cuts and periods of zero allocation “completely decimating” other local livestock operations, it’s been their application of genetic and trait selection in their merino flock that’s kept them on a forward trajectory.
“The challenge of farming in the Southern Riverina in extended dry times, along with the loss of critical irrigation supply prompted a complete rethink of breeding objectives for the type of sheep we needed,” says Tim.
“The merino flock we run today is completely different to the traditional heavy cutting sheep we used to run. If we still had that type of sheep here, we would have been gone so long ago it wouldn’t have been funny,” he explains.
“With the water costs and charges – everyone’s gone away from livestock and yet we’ve been able to survive,”
“One megalitre of water grows us a tonne of dry matter and it’s high performing, high lambing sheep with fast growth rates that’s kept us in business – with a focus on kilograms of lambs and wool per hectare.”
But while the couple continue to fine tune their flock, it’s been three decades of decision making and “throwing out a lot of traditional practices” in a quest to take the emotion out of the operation, and remain open minded.
“We’ve looked a lot to other industries like the cattle, pork and poultry industries, in turning our operation around,” says Tim.
Tim and Tam Mulholland moved permanently to Australia in 2000, after a decade back in Tim’s home country, New Zealand.
A shearer by trade, Tim worked the Western Australia, New Zealand and European circuit before heading to Australia’s eastern states and ultimately meeting wife Tamra – whose family farmed near Swan Hill.
Working with her family, the couple ran a vealer cow operation and 2000-head traditional, heavy cutting Wonga-blood merino enterprise.
“It was a period where I learned a lot and those lessons ultimately shaped the foundations of where we have arrived at today,” says Tim.
“Tam’s father was big on cross breeding; he used to buy Euro bulls and would regularly top the market – but back on farm he also had a lot of trouble calving...so he introduced the Saler breed into the operation which was noted for its calving ease, so it was quite interesting to see the impact that it had; most notably the effect of genetics and hybrid vigour and how to top the markets without causing problems back on farm.”
Parallel to their farming, the duo bought a mobile crutching trailer and were one of the first in the Riverina to work the trailer across large-scale merino operations.
Following the wool market crash, the couple moved to New Zealand in 1991 to farm for a decade.
“When we got set up in NZ, we ran Rissington Cattle Company bloodlines, who were aiming for a moderate framed cow of around 500 kilograms to wean a 300 kilogram calf. The frame score for that cow was a 5.5-6 frame score, and yet it was bred to be low birth and high growth rate, with the other benefits of hybrid vigour and high yielding carcass – so it ticked a lot of boxes for on-farm efficiency and the whole ethos was around kilograms of calf weaned per kilogram of cow exposed, and ultimately this was the most profitable animal.”
Tim says the principles from the composite cattle shaped their thinking when it came to the merino.
“When we were breeding the Stabiliser, we collected data until it came out of our ears, and realised a certain phenotype came out. I knew exactly what I was looking for, to get that curve bending type shape.”
“And having seen the effects on the cattle front, it gave us that confidence to manipulate genes in the sheep job,” he explains.
“The whole goal then was to move a traditional, heavy cutting merino flock into one that lambed as ewe lambs, had high fertility, and still retained the merino fleece.”
Tim says at the time (early 2000’s) there was only a small group of merino breeders using trait selection, so he tapped into research from the SRS Group and Glendamar.
“I saw them as having a lot of components that they did right, but some of their execution I didn’t really agree with.”
Our flock was based on Wonga and later Charinga lines, so we had density and wool cut covered but what we needed was more staple length and more fertility.
So we took the approach of using bloodline differences to bring in multiple traits at once and keep them in balance, and we started to see the gains within 4 to 5 years.
“So what we developed was an initial four way cross, with the Wonga’s and Charinga’s - we had fibre density and wool cut covered – then we went to the SRS Keri Keri Merinos, and created a first cross, then we went to the Australian Meat Merino,” he explains.
“The Australian Meat Merino gave us early maturity, over the Charinga base to cover wool density and length, fat and eye muscle. All of those progeny, we joined as ewe lambs and bred our rams from them.”
Tim says it’s “all about finding that sweet spot, when it comes to genetics and breeding”
Our long-term goal (which remains so) is all about kilograms of lamb weaned per hectare.
“With breeding it’s a bit like driving a car, and driving a car at the optimum when you put your foot on the accelerator and it all goes well, but if you keep your foot on the accelerator and push harder then you burn a lot more fuel and performance is not there.”
“And that’s where the issue is for a lot of people at the moment; they’re going for a really high growth rate rams and they’re going past the optimum – and it comes back to production per head, versus production per hectare.”
When I first got involved with Mark Ferguson and neXtgen in 2016, we did so with the common goal of using multiple traits to find that sweet spot, backed up with data, and the end consumer in mind.”
“So we have focused on a low adult body weight, high growth rate, moderate frame and a low cost maternal – with an emphasis on fat, which is what a lot of the traditional merinos lack but what we believe is necessary for fertility, survivability and raising lambs.”
Tim says “one of the big green lights” since working with neXtgen stemmed from a discussion around the key traits of post weaning weight and yearling weight – and balancing figures with animals that were “more deep-set and nuggety.”
“It’s what we’ve really focused on in the last five years with our genetic selection and bringing home rams that fit that balance and figures.”
Today the couple run their livestock across multiple blocks. The home farm at Moulamein incorporates 800ac of irrigation.
“Back in the 90’s, water allocations were at full entitlement, but today, Tim says they have between 20 and 50 percent of allocation.”
“We’ve also had periods of five years and two years where we’ve had zero allocation – so our whole farming enterprise has been ripped apart.”
But despite the challenges, the gains have kept coming. Previously, traditional heavy cutting merinos produced around 6- 6.5 kilograms and lambed at about 80 percent to ewes joined.
“Now we’ve still got 3000 head, including 2000 mature age breeding ewes at our home block and we join around 900 ewe lambs.”
Lamb weaning percentages sit at 135% and higher and the ewe lambs average 85 percent conception rates when joined at eight months. All ewes must have produced twins by their third joining, otherwise, they are put in the commercial flock whereupon they are sold as four-year-olds unless the operation is in a period of flock rebuilding.
Looking ahead, Tim says the operation will continue to breed moderate framed animals (AWT -8) with consideration around shearing ease and handling.
The Mulholland’s sheep also need to be resilient and efficient in dry times, and fast recovery in good years.
“Wool cut needs to be no more than 10% of adult body weight (7 kilograms on a 70kg ewe), and fleece weight needs to come from the right balance of length and density with the least amount of wool on the head and legs as possible. Skins need to be detached and loose, and ideally showing crimp definition right to the tip with adequate nourishment,” explains Tim.
With the addition of out-blocks in South East South Australia and one on the Hay Plains, the couple say they hope to give the next generation an opportunity to be involved in agriculture.
“We have great admiration for the dairy farming industry and the way they provide pathways for young people wanting to enter the industry via share farming and milking-herd ownership – if similar opportunities were to be pursued in the sheep industry, it would need to be with animals that were able to produce high quality fleece that meets market expectations and demands, and forms part of a branded value chain. The lamb has to grow quickly, have high ewe lamb reproduction rates, be worm, fly and footrot resistant and provide a quality eating experience – and the exciting thing is, this can all be achieved through genetics,” says Tim.