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October 25, 2022

Jamie Heinrich is driving up to the top of a hill to get a better patch of phone reception when I call him midweek for a chat about his sheep production business, Ella Matta, onSouth Australia’s Kangaroo Island.

For a family that confess to being “relentlessly innovative”, unreliable communications services must be more than a bugbear.

Atop the hill, near Parndana in the middle of the Island, Jamie looks out on a landscape that still bears the scars of the horrific 2019/20 bushfires that engulfed almost half of the 440,500- hectare island.

The Heinrich family lost250 sheep, 50 cattle, sheds, 30kms of fence line, infrastructure and Jamie’s own house was severely damaged in the massive blaze but miraculously; no stud stock were lost.

“We’ve had a lot of fires on Kangaroo Island, we usually have a couple a year but most of them are pretty small. This fire was fairly unique... I’ve heard a few people sum it up well:we had six weeks of successfully fighting fires but it all came down to three bad days – and those three days were absolutely horrendous. We had never lost a house to a bushfire on KI, but we lost over 80 in those three days,” says Jamie.

“I was able to pack a bag, and I started to move some sheep but the visibility just went to nothing.Where we thought we had perhaps a day or two to get things ready, it turned out to be an hour or two...”

But the Heinrich’s say they’re still the lucky ones to avoid a large loss of livestock. Sheep producers on Kangaroo Island lost around 60,000 head of livestock in the fires, in a massive blow to the island’s agriculture sector – it’s largest industry, ahead of tourism.

With one third of the island made up of national park, and the remainder being farmland, private scrub and forestry, Jamie says lessons have been learned from the fires and how to manage land more strategically into the future.

“We plant a lot of trees on our farm because it’s good for the environment and good for sheep production and health to have that shelter. We used to link them all up to create nature corridors but that actually worked as a wick for fires.

“We found we could control fires in grassland, so now we split plantings up and create more firebreaks,” he explains.

“Spraying fence lines is also a big one; wherever we had sprayed fence lines we didn’t lose a fence.”

He says it’s also hard to overstate the importance of clearing up around the house yard, having enough fire units ready to go and reliable, accessible marked water points.

Through the generations

Jamie is a 7th generation farmer in his family.

The Heinrich family first started out in the mid 1800’s in the Barossa Valley, followed by a few generations near Bute on the Yorke Peninsula, before Jamie’s father bought a farm and moved to the Island as an 18-year old.

Today, Jamie and his parents Andrew and Tracie run 1300 stud White Suffolk, Poll Merino and maternal composite ewes, along with a 4000-head commercial Poll Merino flock.

But while the family’s history is steeped in tradition, Jamie says they’re constantly seeking to innovate and improve the business and sheep they run.

"We like to push”

“We probably push too hard sometimes, but we like to lead and innovate,” he says.

“We run a high stocking rate and we really try to get the most out of our property and our sheep. We record absolutely everything we can; if you want to improve something you have to record it.”

Seedstock and stud operations form the foundation of the business, while the commercial Poll Merino flock runs parallel.

“On both fronts, we have focused on breeding values and performance recording, and in recent years we’ve brought in DNA testing and electronic tags which has really enhanced our capabilities and consistency in these areas,” explains Jamie, who says he’s energised by the promise and results of genetics.

“Pushing our genetic gain as fast as we can is really exciting for me, and playing with the different genetic traits – we really believe in breeding a balanced animal; you can be a world leader in one trait but the pay-off often means you can screw up a lot of other things. So we really enjoy using all the tools we have so that we can breed an animal that is not only as productive as it can be but also an animal that happily looks after itself out in the paddock.”

“My dad likes to say “we want animals that work for us, not the other way around” and for merinos that means we want a profitable animal that can happily look after itself in commercial conditions.”

Fleece weight and micron are a focus for the fine wool poll merinos: “we run about a 17/18 micron flock and combined with non-mules and accompanying sustainability certifications, we’re getting a really good premium now in the marketplace. So premium wool cut is a big part of our business.”

“We also want an animal that can look after itself; we’ve stopped mulesing our whole flock, we don’t want flystrike, we are also improving fat, muscle, and worm egg count so we don’t drench as much,” he says.

“It’s a combination of what makes money, and what keeps the sheep healthier and happier.”

Jamie says there’s no special treatment for stud stock in the operation.

“We often go for six to seven months without meaningful rain here and they can do it pretty tough. This year we had a really late start so going into lambing with no feed, we need ewes that can actually handle that...and then we ended up with our wettest July on record and they were standing in water, so they need to be able to handle both of those situations so having good feet, and that bit of fat and muscle on them really sets them up well.”

The family also run maternals, with an emphasis on high lambing percentages, good muscle and growth, fat at the right level and smaller sized mature ewes.

“We’re slowly decreasing adult size whilst pushing those key production traits – it’s not easy to do, but we see a lot of upside to it”

“As an industry observation Maternals did get a bit too big, so we do want to continue to bring the size down, and in terms of lambing, we scanned over 200% with our maternals this year and to me that’s almost too much; we had some pretty horrible weather come through this year and with lots of triplets and twins, we handled it well but if we keep pushing it and have too many triplets that could be too much so we want to keep that fertility up there but now our focus is more on ewe rearing ability.”

On farm, efforts to understand and measure the ewe’s ability to raise lambs through to weaning, and lamb survival overall, is leading to increased data collection right from birth.

“We record every lamb at birth across all three breeds,” he explains.

“We go out every morning and every afternoon and when it’s flat out, we’re doing over 100 a day out in the paddock.”

“We match up every lamb to its mother, whether it’s born alive or dead and get the birth weight, whether it’s born as a single, twin or triplet and on the rare occasion if they need assistance. We also do a maternal score on those ewes –whether they’re a good or a bad mother. Essentially we are aiming for lambs that are born without assistance, that then not only survive, but have every chance to grow up healthy, happy and productive.”

“We did over 1700 lambs out in the paddock, which is a lot of work but the data is irreplaceable when selecting for high maternal and lambing ease standards, and that makes a lot of sense for our business in a production and genetic sense.”

Ella Matta was registered as flock number 1, the first registered White Suffolk stud in the world.

“We’re the oldest and the first registered White Suffolk stud in the world. But just because we’re the oldest, we also like to be the most innovative. We’ve always pushed growth, muscle, worm egg count and good birthweight in our White Suffolks.”

Jamie says he’s particularly excited about the move toward rewarding and building eating quality in the lamb industry.

“In recent years we’ve begun DNA testing and we’ve really pushed IMF (marbling) and lean meat yield and we find it really great to see Gundagai Meats come out with a grid that rewards IMF and lean meat yield. I’m looking forward to seeing the major processors taking it on in the future.”

“I think that’s the nextstep that the industry’s going towards; recognising and rewarding the quality of our meat, and that’s going to keep customers happy if they’re getting quality every time they eat lamb then they’ll pay for that premium eating experience.”

Off farm, Jamie is a recognised face and voice in the sheep industry.

“I love the industry andI want to spend the rest of my life in the industry, so for me the future of the industry is in the young people...and I want to do my part to represent the young innovators in the sheep industry at the policy, decision making and investment level,” he says.

“For me, I really love talking to young and excited clients who are passionate about genetics and innovation and spreading that message in the industry more broadly.”

Jamie has held board positions with Sheep Producers Australia, Livestock SA, the SheepSustainability Framework and Agriculture KI.

He says the upside to Covid is the increased flexibility in industry representation from regional locations.

“During Covid, everyone’s got a lot better at using Zoom and online meetings. I’m on a number of boards and committees that I used to have to travel to Canberra and Sydney for which took a lot of time during the year and while I enjoyed doing that, being able to do that from my home office now is really convenient.”

“I’m hoping going forward we can get a good mix of online and in-person meetings; it’s still really valuable to meet in person, because that’s when you grow connections and ideas, but to also be able to reduce travel does open it up for more people to be able to do it.”

The old saying goes if you want something done, ask a busy person.

And since he returned to the farm just over seven years ago, Jamie has been busy.

He’s even managed to fit in a Nuffield scholarship, where he researched attracting and retaining young people in the sheep industry.

But while his diary on farm and off has been filled since his return to the farm, Jamie says he’s taken stock since the fires.

“The fires actually gave me a lot of perspective; I was doing too much before the fires, so I stepped off one board right after the fires when my term was up, and I was lucky in a weird sense that Covid came along right after the fires which meant a lot of my industry work went online – because if I had to travel then I don’t think I would have been able to continue on with all of the commitments. So that didactually help me to get the balance right – you don’t want to over commit, but you do have to do your bit too if you want to see the industry move forward in the right direction.”

When we finish our chat, Jamie is heading into town for an Agriculture KI meeting, where he’ll be elected Chair.

“I’m still not good at saying no, but I think I’m getting better.” he says.

And true to the Ella Matta ethos, he’ll continue pushing for the good of the industry.

I love the industry and I want to spend the rest of my life in the industry, so for me, the future of the industry is in the young people...and I want to do my part to represent the young innovators in the sheep industry.

Liz Rymill
Article by:
Liz Rymill

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