Old-school recipe for success

Rob Fraser inspects a fleece from his sheep.CLUNES first cross ewe breeder Rob Fraser is a farmer doing what generations before him have also done with distinction.

With the support of his wife Frances, he has continued on breeding quality first cross prime lamb mothers since his father Joe retired in the 1960s.

Last January, their top draft of 227 first cross ewes sold at Ballarat through Crawford Dowling auctioneer Barclay Dowling to Ballan Southdown breeder Graeme Dehnert for a new national record price of $316, up $131 on the 2010 price. The June/July 2009-drop October shorn ewes were vaccinated against Ovine Johne’s Disease and mulesed. Another 200 Fraser ewes made $310 at the January sale.

The 2011 record was a continuation of a Fraser family tradition that extends well back into the last century. Mr Fraser recalled a photograph in the former Ballarat Stock Journal from the early 1920s showing his grandfather selling mixed sex shorn Border Leicester cross lambs weighing 43 pounds to the freezing works for a record price of 32 schillings and sixpence.

“It was a lot of money back in those days.”

He recalled his father selling Hereford bullocks for a record price of 51 pounds two schillings and sixpence in 1951, but high prices haven’t always been the norm. In 1972 the Fraser Bros sold 1100 first cross ewes for $8 and the 1973 draft made $11, while prices recovered to $31 for the 1974 ewes, when a new four wheel drive ute was worth just $7000.

“In the 1970s we sold 20 bullocks and bought a brand new Landcruiser ute.

“How many have you got to sell today to buy a brand new Landcruiser?”

But none of the hard times were enough to sway the Frasers from their mixed farming business model of wool, first cross ewes, beef and some cropping.

“You can’t follow fashion,” Mr Fraser said.

For Robert Fraser, breeding a good first cross ewe is not about joining a large framed Border Leicester ram with just any big Merino ewe. The ram and ewe need frame for wool and meat production, but there was also wool quality to consider, he said.

“You like to see style in the wool when you are selling it.

“You like to see character in the stronger Merino wool and handle is a great thing – you’ve got to have handle.”

He looked for a Border Leicester ram with a good style fleece with a wool count of 44-46s or 32-34 micron. His two-tooth first cross ewes generally cut around four kilograms of 27-29 micron wool that sells for 400-500 cents a kilogram.

“I just like to see a ram with good style wool, with the curls on him….showing a bit of character on the tip and when you open it up, the wool is carrying it down to the skin.”

Evidence of the consistent wool quality on the Fraser sheep over the years is found in their long history of success at fleece competitions. A Fraser Merino fleece was judged the champion exhibit at the 2010 Clunes and District Agricultural Show went on to become the grand champion district fleece at the 2011 Royal Melbourne Show.

It wasn’t the first time a Fraser Bros. fleece had won at Clunes and then at Melbourne. In 2006 the Fraser Bros champion exhibit from the Clunes show was judged grand champion district fleece at the Royal Melbourne Show. In the 1970s a first cross fleece from their Clunes show entries won the Australasian Lambswool Championship in Melbourne.

Mr Fraser said he entered his fleeces to support the local show, not win ribbons.

“I’m not there wanting to win a ribbon, but when you send them down to Melbourne and you compete near the best of them you know you are not far away.

“You use that as a gauge,” he said.

“It is a bit like this if you have a sheepdog, you like to have a good dog.

“Those sheep (the $316 ewes) sold well, but you get satisfaction knowing you are up there near the mark.”

Robert Fraser said he has been very fortunate to have good people around him like his Border Leicester ram suppliers Murray and Heather Stoney of the Ellingerrin stud at Inverleigh and Mark Cain from the Rod Vale stud at Carisbrook. The Fraser Poll Hereford herd has mostly used Allendale genetics with the help of former principal Graham Day.

“There is a terrific old wool man Don Grant who is retired now .. you get those fellows around you and they are just a great help.

“I give more credit to them and to my old man, what he has handed down to us,” Mr Fraser said.

Any replacement Merino ewes needed for the first cross operation have been bought mainly from Jock McRae’s Eilan Donan flock at Elphinstone for the past 30 years.

“I buy my Merino rams off the Bruce Coates and his family at Traynors Lagoon.”

The 20-22 micron Coates’ poll rams breed a bigger framed Merino out of the 18 micron Eilan Donan ewes, Mr Fraser said. The Merino wethers from this cross are kept on as wool cutters for three years.

At the January sale in Ballarat Crawford Dowling auctioneer Barclay Dowling said the $316 Fraser ewes were “only grass-fed and not pumped up” and Mr Fraser said his ewes were raised on native pastures.

“We don’t wet nurse them; when they are turned out they know how to get a feed,” he said.

Graeme Dehnert said he marked 120 per cent Fernhill Southdown cross lambs from the Fraser ewes this year. He appreciated being able to buy quality first cross ewes that were also OJD vaccinated.

“We had no problems with the ewes at all.”

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