Management, genetics and customer focus the Trigger for success
Andrew and Mandi Bouffler of Trigger Vale Sheep Studs pictured on their property in southern NSW.
As football codes around the country gear up for their end-of-season grand finals, plenty of coaches would envy the ‘free kicks’ Andrew Bouffler gained from taking a different approach to the management of his family’s Trigger Vale Sheep Studs in southern New South Wales.
Andrew and his wife Mandi run their Poll Merino dual-purpose and White Suffolk seedstock operation near Lockhart, with the Trigger Vale Stud established in 1952 and White Suffolks introduced in 1998.
The fork in Andrew’s farming career that provided the first free kick was winning a Nuffield Farming Scholarship in 2006. At the time Australia’s national sheep flock was at its lowest level in 80 years, and Andrew’s goal was to investigate how to rapidly improve the country’s maternal ewe flock to restore valuable meat and wool markets.
He stepped away from the day-to-day running of the farm and gained a helicopter view of the world, visiting South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Falkland Islands, Holland, the USA and Canada.
Consumers’ perceptions ‘became a reality’ in 2006
“Those trips showed me that our customers were getting a lot fussier in what they did,” Mr Bouffler said.
“They were a lot more environmentally aware of what was going on around them and their choices as consumers.
“During our visit to California, Chuck Dias told me, ‘In modern agriculture, consumers’ perceptions have become reality’. I realised that consumers were not only demanding more of our sheep products, but they were also willing to pay for that.
“I also realised that if I wanted to farm, and hopefully my children and grandchildren to farm in the future, then we really needed to listen to what the customers wanted, as opposed to telling them what they needed.”
The scholarship reinforced Mr Bouffler’s breeding priorities to produce a dual-purpose, high-growth, highly fertile, polled and mules-free sheep that could put quality product into both wool and meat markets.
Emphasis on early growth leads to double benefit
One of the big free kicks to come out of changing his approach to management and genetics was growth.
“That was a wish from our clients,” he said.
“When we put emphasis on early growth, our clients found their wether lambs were turned off at eight-to-nine months at the latest, which was two or three months earlier at the same or heavier weights.
“The free kick from breeding for early growth was that the female lambs also benefitted, and at the age the wethers were turned off, they were hitting maturity.
“In terms of whole-farm productivity gains, if you get one more lambing experience out of a five-year-old ewe, that’s 20 per cent right there in one big jump.”
No mulesing leads to less flystrike, premium for wool
The next step was to offer a non-mulesed product.
“We took away the breech wrinkle but the free kick associated with that has been ongoing – the sheep are so much easier-care,” he said.
“The breech strike isn’t zero, but it’s dropped tenfold. And it is what I thought: customers are willing to pay, because we’ve had up to 300¢/kg premium in the market place when we’ve sold our wool mules-free with all the other Responsible Wool Standards (RWS) benefits.
“So I guess it’s a nice tie-in to what I saw 20 or 30 years ago in consumer sentiments in New York, that consumers are aware and they do want to pay and they will pay a premium.”
The Boufflers were already maximising genetic gain and client profitability by performance testing using MLA's LAMBPLAN and MERINOSELECT genetic evaluation technologies, and signed up to the RWS market assurance program 18 months ago.
Responsible Wool Standards program brings whole-farm benefits
“RWS assessment and protocols are really based around the whole farm approach, full pain relief, animal welfare, it’s about your ground cover, it’s about your vegetation, your tree lines, how you manage your land for sustainability,” he said.
“The other concept that I’ve really enjoyed is the social interaction and your social part in the industry. The component of labour, having good conditions for your shearers, and knowing and complying with OH&S.
“The most important thing surely has to be getting everyone home to their families safely.”
Another concept that dovetailed into the RWS program was what Mr Bouffler called “a drastic change in mindset”, to create a production system that was nimble in responding to changes in weather patterns.
It involved implementing two strategies – utilising rain by ensuring ground cover and having the ability to put sheep into containment.
He said the flow-on benefits have been “nothing short of extraordinary”.
Agile response to changing weather patterns is key
“I had a pretty straightforward start to farming - Dad told me, you get long, hot, dry summers, wait for the autumn break, then you’ll get a long, wet, cold winter so you lamb in spring when you have oodles of food then go into summer with dry feed,” he said.
“But our weather pattern now is a lot more summer rain, so I threw that on its head. We had to have a system in place so that when it rains, we turn it into dry matter in the form of grass or grain, and I turn that into money.
“I either sell the grain, put it through the sheep if there’s a value-add there, or utilise the grass to grow wool, meat and lambs. Our production systems have fundamentally changed from fitting things into the season to being really nimble in response.”
Protecting ground cover was integral to the system.
“It’s not just the amount of rain you get, it’s utilising it,” he said.
“If we get a summer storm of 40mm but we don’t have ground cover, the evaporation and 40-degree temperatures mean it’s gone in a week.
“But if we’ve got the ground cover and mulch there, then you fully utilise the bulk of that rain. To ensure that, you’ve got to get sheep off the paddock, which is where containment came in.
“Of all the management things those two – utilising rain and having the ability to put sheep into containment – have changed our model most.”
It’s clear to see the Boufflers will continue kicking goals in ensuring the sustainability of their Trigger Vale studs well into the future.