Fine time to stick with sheep
IT IS more than tradition that keeps Gordon Smith growing fine wool when so many of his neighbours have exited the industry.
The Stanthorpe grazier and his wife Cathy have faith in future demand for the fibre and also believe sheep - merinos in particular - are the perfect fit in the Traprock landscape.
Yet, like the few fine wool growers left in southern Queensland, they admit times are challenging.
But at the heart of their 3440ha operation on Alum Rock, west of Stanthorpe, is a steely determination to survive.
"Prices for the finer wools have been very subdued since the Global Financial Crisis," Mr Smith said.
"There are not big margins, because of increasing on-farm costs, so yes, it's a challenge.
"But we stick at it because we believe in wool as a product and fine wool kicked a little at the opening season sale last week so we're optimistic about prices."
The Bush Tele caught up with the Smiths as they started shearing last week.
They are third generation custodians of the Traprock country and their property, Alum Rock, was named after the mineral deposits found across the holding.
Originally Alum Rock was just a paddock of the vast Pikedale Station.
"My great-grandfather originated from Tenterfield and bought the country here before the turn of the century and it has been in the family ever since," Mr Smith explained.
Today the homestead sits on the banks of Pikes Creek and buildings like the shearers' quarters remain in good order, despite in most cases having being commandeered for alternative uses.
"It is just Cathy and I most of the time," Mr Smith explained.
"We certainly don't have the staff and help they used to have on properties around here.
"If we can entice our kids home to give us a hand it's great but they have their own careers now so we do most of the work ourselves."
Shearing, too, is structured around the fact the couple do all the mustering themselves.
This season they have two shearers on the floor and an English couple, who have taken up the challenge of rouseabouting as a chance to experience rural life in Australia first hand.
"We stagger our shearing over about four weeks so Cathy and I can keep up with the mustering," Mr Smith explained.
"At the moment we are shearing 700 hoggets, which are part of a 4500 head flock we run here.
"Currently we do have some breeders but we run predominately wethers and we still buy in the greatest percentage of them."
At shearing time he describes himself as the wool presser-cum-yard hand and jack-of-all-trades.
"If the shearers run out of sheep, it's definitely my fault," he laughed.
"Cathy does the wool classing. She did her owner classers training through Warwick TAFE a few years ago and, yes, things like that are really about us being as economical as possible."
In terms of the season this year, it has been kind with a milder than usual winter and regular rain but the increased body of feed comes with a catch for the fine wool growers.
"We had late autumn rain and that meant the blue grass and spear grass grew so we are now seeing an increase in grass seed in the hoggets' fleeces," Mr Smith said.
"We will be penalised for the increase in vegetable matter at auction time. Last year we had about 1% VM this year it's more likely to be 3%, but that's the way it is.
"The younger animals don't do as well, because of the grass seed, but the older Merinos cope okay.
"In many ways semi-drought conditions are better for wool growing."
In average terms, 50% of the Smiths' flock cuts 16-18 micron wool, while the other half tends to come in between 18-20 microns.
This year the couple will shear 4500 head, about a 1000 head less than usual.
The fall in numbers is a result of a market spike for young wethers last season, which deterred them from buying, coupled with the increasing impact of wild dogs.
"Up until the past two or three years we really hadn't had a wild dog problem at all," Mr Smith said.
"But after shearing finished last year we lost 20 head in one night to a pack of dogs and then, over the following month, we lost another 80.
"The dogs always seem to pick on the sheep you bought in for $90 a head."
The attacks prompted him to learn more about dog trapping and, after some tips from experienced local experts, Mr Smith managed to catch two dogs in one week on his property.
"I think it was beginner's luck," he joked.
"Seriously though, it is hard to relax when you know dogs are eating your sheep.
"Baiting doesn't seem to be all that effective with older, wise dogs so you really have to trap them."
Wild dogs and subdued wool prices aside, the couple still love the rural sector but they are unsure if they want their children to follow in their footsteps and take over the family holding.
"I don't know if I want them to come home.
"It's a great lifestyle but living here and working here are two different things.
"I came home because that was what the oldest son did and I have loved it but it's not always easy making a living out here."
- Is a 3440ha traprock property
- Currently carrying 4500 head of fine wool Merinos
50% of their flock cut 16-18 micron while the reminder comes in generally at 18-20 micron