Taking lamb from paddock to plate
WITH their main objective being to deliver premium quality prime lamb direct to customers, the Barkla family has diversified from their traditional sheep production to incorporate a new Paddock to Plate enterprise at Clifton.
Pru and Stuart Barkla bought their 162 hectare property, Mt Molar Park, at Clifton just over 12 months ago while still owning and operating a 15,000h Cunnamulla breeding property, Rosscoe, in the heart of what is known as the "salad bowl".
"The salad bowl is renowned for its abundance of herbages, native grasses, legumes and salt bush varieties and this environment, with its nutritious feed source, is where our prime lambs are born and raised," Stuart said.
"We purchased the Clifton property as a drought back-stop but also due to the poor road conditions out at our western property," Stuart said.
"If we have rain at the wrong time at Cunnamulla, we can't get our stock out. We have had eight decks of lambs ready for market and couldn't get them off the place due to the wet. That has happened to us for three years straight in recent times," he said.
"At the moment though, it is very dry out there, so it has been wonderful to be able to bring our lambs in to Clifton."
The Barklas' plan to breed second-cross lambs on their Darling Downs property, keeping their surplus ewes on the place running with either Charollais or White Suffolk rams.
"We want to increase our breeding flock by 800-900 ewes, and this just gives us more flexibility," Stuart said.
The Barklas have history in the sheep industry, with Stuart's father, Charles Ashton, a Rat of Tobruk, drawing a block after the war in 1947. That block is Rosscoe, 150km south-east of Cunnamulla.
"We bought the place off my parents in 1976 and have run sheep and cattle but have been predominantly sheep for the past 30 years," Stuart said.
"We currently run about 8000 sheep at any one time, consisting of 4000 breeding ewes which are prime South African Meat Merinos (SAMM)," he said.
"We were all Merinos once and did dabble in Border Leicester about 20 years ago but we liked the look of the SAMM and thought they would suit our country.
It is a return for us and also allows our customers to enjoy top-quality lamb at an affordable price. By taking out the middle man, we can sell it cheaper than the supermarkets.
"They are a beautiful meat sheep and produce 22-23 micron wool, which is selling well at the moment."
Their main objective is to wean lambs off their mothers earlier on their Cunnamulla place and transport them to Clifton to finish them with grain-assisted grazing.
"It will allow the ewes more time to rest and result in higher conception rates," Stuart said.
"We are hoping to increase from 4000 to 5000 breeding ewes in an average season," he said.
Pru and Stuart have also established a thriving Paddock to Plate lamb enterprise, Rosscoe Salad Bowl Country Meats.
"We worked out the best way to offer a premium quality product that is traceable for the consumer and commercially viable for the producer, was to simply deal direct," Pru said.
"We are marketing the heavier lambs direct to the public and currently have around 140 clients on our books," she said.
"We have a good client base of private individuals in Brisbane and Toowoomba and mainly advertise through word of mouth."
The Barklas sell either half or full lambs, which are killed at either Yangan or Millmerran abattoirs and packaged at Carey's butchers in Warwick and Millmerran Butcher Shop.
"Most of our lamb goes to families and it is surprisingly the blokes who go looking for the good meat," Stuart said.
Pru said it would ideally be fantastic if all their lambs were marketed through her Paddock to Plate enterprise.
"It is a return for us and also allows our customers to enjoy top-quality lamb at an affordable price. By taking out the middle man, we can sell it cheaper than the supermarkets," she said.
"It breaks our hearts to hear city people say they can't afford to buy lamb which sells in the supermarkets and butchers for around $18/kg and upwards, when we only receive $3.60-$4.80/kg for our lambs."
When talk turns to organic lamb loin chops selling for $48/kg in the cities, Stuart shakes his head.
"There is no premium for farmers to produce a top-quality article and that is not sustainable," Stuart said.
In addition to their Paddock to Plate operation, the Barklas sell lambs "over the book" to processors, Thomas Foods, at Wallangarra and Tamworth, with plans to sell 3000 lambs into that market this year.
With control of feral animals one of their main priorities, the committed prime lamb producers are winning their war against wild dogs, pigs and foxes on both properties. As a result they have lifted their lambing percentages from 40-50%, five years ago, to now achieving 120%.
"We were getting disastrous lambing results as Rosscoe and I used to ride through the ewes in lamb and that's how I discovered it," Stuart said.
"The pigs were living in among the ewes and just slaughtering the newborn lambs - it was horrendous," he said.
"We now inject baits to pig strength with 1080, pack it into paper bags, rolled in molasses powder and drop them by air," Stuart said.
"We can drop 450kg in an hour, and it controls the lot - pigs, dogs and foxes - and it doesn't hurt the environment but rather targets the specific introduced species," he said.
"It has kept them at bay out on our Cunnamulla property, which has been found to be a very healthy environment."
They have also built a marsupial and dog-proof netted fence around their entire farm at Clifton, costing time and money which has been well spent, Stuart said.
"Before we baited here, we had dingoes walking past the house when we first got here, but not now. We have initiated our own baiting program, as well as taking part in three or four in the district," he said.