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INSIDE: Building a family dorper operation

PASSIONATE BREEDER: David Curtis of Bellevue Dorper stud at Millmerran in Queensland.
PASSIONATE BREEDER: David Curtis of Bellevue Dorper stud at Millmerran in Queensland. JAMES WAGSTAFF

DAVID Curtis runs his dorper sheep flock like a well-managed hotel - by restricting the number of non-paying guests.

"If you've got a merino ewe and she's not producing a lamb, at least you can shear her," David says.

"With dorpers it's like having an empty hotel room - they don't pay.

"We don't muck around. We provide a good environment for the sheep to do their job. We do our job and they need to do theirs successfully - get out there and breed."

David, his wife Robbie and their daughter Sophie run the Bellevue Dorper stud at Millmerran on the western edge of south-east Queensland's fertile Darling Downs region.

Traditional wool growers, the Curtis family made the switch to dorpers in the early 2000s.

"We'd always had merinos. I used to shear when I was young. I grew up with them - loved them, loved the product," David said.

"In 1985, before the wool market crashed, we were cutting $50 a head. We had 5000 wethers and we got a cheque for $250,000 which, back then, was a fair bit of money, you could do something with it.

"After the crash we were back to $15-$20 a head, so for the wethers we were running, basically we weren't even generating a wage."

The family now runs 2000 commercial dorper ewes and 1000 stud ewes on about 2225ha, which also grows 405ha of winter crop and 405ha of summer crop as well as fodder.

In just 15 years they have grown their stud to sell more than 300 rams across Queensland and New South Wales.

GENERATION NEXT

DAVID grew up around Millmerran and returned home after attending boarding school in Brisbane and furthering his studies at the Longreach Pastoral College.

He started off with 688ha and has added bought and leased land over the years.

"It is all pretty intensive and fairly integrated," David said.

"The sheep go over the cropping country, so everything overlaps and we have the ability to be able to rotate the country."

The Curtis country varies from cracking black soil on the creeks to generally shallow topsoil on the plains, meaning "we've got to work harder and think harder about how we farm it".

"You've got to be more innovative on this country to make it pay," David said.

"You can't run stock on that black soil because of the cracks and it doesn't grow good grass, whereas this country is really handy for sheep.

"It was never considered breeding country. When we used to run merino wethers, we'd always go out to the breeding country and bring them back. It wasn't until we got into dorpers that we discovered that we could breed successfully."

The Curtis family got into dorpers in 2002 and run both dorpers and white dorpers.

David said there wasn't much difference between the breeds, saying a "well-bred, well-managed, well-selected dorper or white dorper will do the right thing".

EASY DOES IT

DAVID said his ideal dorper was easy doing with good body fat. He adheres to a South African visual selection criteria for head, balance, structure, feet, colour and cover. With the ewes he pays close attention to birthing ease. David also makes good use of Lambplan, enabling him to accurately measure his flock.

"To me it's like a rain gauge, when we get rain I want to go out and measure whether I've got 10mm or 50mm, and I need to know the difference to know how I can manage my cropping land," he said.

"It is the same with Lambplan data, knowing the birth weight, weaning weight, post-weaning weight, fat, eye muscle, all the maternal things from the ewes."

But he cautioned over selecting for traits such as high growth and "not checking that the animal has length and width and depth and balance".

Sheep are joined usually at a rate of three rams to 100 ewes. In the stud, with single-sire matings, it can be one ram to 120 ewes.

Ewes are run hard and lamb twice a year, in August and again in February, in tight periods of about six weeks.

"It is an intensive system with the two lambings but when you do the numbers on reducing your ewe flock - in a Dorper industry they are a core cost - it adds up," David said.

"But you've got to look after them. A lot of people think Dorpers are great, you can stick them out the back and forget about them, don't feed them or don't worm them. But your management has to be in line with what your expectations are of the ewe.

"We've got some ewes that have had two sets of twins - so four lambs - in the past 12 months."

TAG TEAM

DAVID has high expectations of lambing percentages of more than 120%.

All lambs receive a tag at birth.

David said this was to counter what sometimes could be a six-week age and 400-500g a day weight difference when comparing lambs at weaning or post-weaning.

Lambs are normally weaned at three months "to give the ewes a break".

David said he tended to overfeed his stock and if they weren't "fat and shiny" he wasn't satisfied.

"I like to have stock in good nick - and nutritionally sound as well," he said.

"We are chucking apple cider vinegar in our waters and making our own dry licks, to make sure there is nothing lacking that may hold them back."

Sometimes they will put a grain bin out in the pasture "if we are trying to push lambs along to get them to market quicker". The first lambs are usually ready to be marketed at four months of age.

David tries to get them to a minimum 42kg liveweight, which produces a 21kg carcass dressing at 52-53 per cent. The bulk go through the Warwick saleyards.

Bellevue sold about 300 rams last year.

An on-property sale is conducted annually in September - this year's is slated for September 15 - and the Curtis family are thinking of holding another in autumn.

Last year's auction cleared about 120 rams for a whopping average of about $2400. Clients are spread as far as Cunnamulla and Longreach in western Queensland and Ivanhoe in NSW.

"In the early days we did it tough - we were selling probably 60%- the industry was shrinking because of the wild dog situation in Queensland, but now there is this new lease of life and people are discovering the benefits of exclusion fencing," David said.


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