by Cameron McMaster
Napier, South Africa

In a paper presented by Kopke, Kingwell and Young at the 49th Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society and summarised in Ovine Observer of May 2005, the authors concluded that:

Based on long term average fibre diameter premiums, Merinos are more likely to return higher mean profit than Dohnes and SAMMs, but are more likely to experience a greater variance in profit (lower in bad years and higher in exceptional years). With low fibre diameter premiums, mean profit and variance of profit are the same for each breed, indicating there is little economic merit for disinvesting in one breed to fully switch to another."

While in no way questioning the validity of the MIDAS model they used, I must question the validity of the data they used to arrive at their conclusions. Had an accurate set of production relationships for Dohne sheep at current production levels in the defined environment been used, they would probably have arrived at very different conclusions.

I will confine my comments to Dohne sheep. I regard SAMMs in the same category as other terminal sire breeds used for crossbred lamb production - like White Suffolks or Polled Dorsets. I do not believe SAMMs have a place in a Merino breeding programme where high quality fine wool is an essential component.

The data used to determine the relative profitability of the three breeds was based on a small number of South African research programmes carried out many years ago. (Steinhagen and Wet (1986), Cloete (1992), Cloete et al (1999), Fourie and Cloete (1993), Fourie and Heydenrcyh (1983), Karberg et al (1985), Greeff (1990), Basson et al (1969)). I am familiar with this research and I am acquainted with the researchers concerned. Most of the work was done with small numbers of Dohnes that were not representative of the breed at the time and in fact, as acknowledged by some of the researchers to whom I submitted the paper, were of inferior quality. Much of the work quoted was done a long time ago and bears no relationship to the production levels currently being achieved by Dohnes. Many of the references used refer to research done with sheep running in the very harsh pastoral areas of the Eastern Cape where the Dohne was developed (an environment for which the Dohne was especially developed because Merinos could not survive there), and those production levels are quite different to the levels of the breed in good environments today.

Conservative production levels for Dohnes that would have been appropriate for the South Coast version of MIDAS (SC-MIDAS) would be:

Lambs weaned / Ewe joined 120% and better
Growth rate to weaning 400gms / day
Mature Ewe Body Weight 70 kg
Clean Fleece Weight 3.5 kg (6 kg Greasy)
Fibre Diameter 20 microns

Wool Quality Traits do not differ in any respect from Merinos

The conclusions were based on comparatively lower stocking rates (7.3 (DSE/ winter grazed ha. for Dohnes, compared to 8.3 for Merinos). In reality HIGHER stocking densities are possible with Dohnes because of their non-selective grazing habits and inherent hardiness. No account is taken of the easy-care features of the Dohne that lower production costs. In South Africa we have accurate comparative financial results in various flocks in an area very similar to the Great Southern Region of WA, demonstrating that whereas Dohnes might have slightly lower wool production per head than Merinos, they can be stocked at up to two head more per hectare, which in many cases results in higher volumes of wool per hectare with Dohne flocks. Even at these stocking rates, which are higher than 8 DSE per hectare, weaning percentages in excess of 130% are the norm so the lamb turnoff per hectare is very high.

Academic comparisons based on theoretical models are far removed from practical situations where the suitability and adaptability of the sheep for a particular environment and production system is the crucial issue. Comparisons based on data from small unrepresentative flocks in a research station environment do not relate to practical on-farm situations. When considering a production system in which both prime lamb and fine wool production is combined in a self-replacing flock, an important consideration is the early marketability of the Dohne lambs - most of which can be marketed to slaughter by 150 days of age. The early finishing and marketability of Dohne lambs means they leave the property sooner, releasing stocking capacity for a higher relative number of breeding ewes. More ewes mean more lambs are born and ultimately sold, resulting in higher gross margins per hectare. This level of prime lamb production can be achieved with no reduction in the quantity and quality of wool from the enterprise.

Introducing Dohnes into Merino Flocks should not be seen as a "shift" to another breed. There are no changeover costs and no risks, as maintained by the authors of the original paper. Apart from using fewer rams to produce higher lambing percentages and significantly heavier and faster growing lambs, wool production will be fully maintained and the quality perhaps improved. In my very long experience, gained from actual financial results on sheep farms, I have yet to find a case of a move to Dohnes that did not result in substantial improvement in profitability within a short period - often in the doubling of the profitability of the enterprise within a decade or less. Evidence emerging in Australia right now fully confirms this.

In conclusion, the authors of the paper offered the following advice:

Existing Merino producers contemplating a shift into alternative breeds are advised to consider alternative ways of improving the profitability of their Merino enterprise, such as increasing stocking rates or altering their flock structure to include more profitable enterprises such as first cross prime lambs."

The low wool prices and escalating meat prices over the last few years have plunged the Merino industry into a crisis, which has resulted in an unprecedented decline in Merino ewe numbers as more and more flocks are being mated to meat sires as a survival strategy. This is a dire threat to the future of the wool industry in Australia and elsewhere and the Dohne can be the "alternative way to improve the profitability" through enhanced meat production, and so maintain the viability of Merino flocks.

Woolgrowers who introduce Dohne genetics into their flocks are fully committed to the wool industry and are reluctant to embark on the short term negative programme of indiscriminate crossbreeding with meat sires. They should be encouraged to pursue the Dohne option rather than the first cross prime lamb route, which in the long run cannot compare with self-replacing dual-purpose flocks producing both quality fine wool and prime lambs in properly structured long-term breed improvement programmes designed to enhance reproductive rate, growth rate, wool quality and ultimate profit.