Market rewards ultrafine woolgrowers | AG 2018

Special publication

St Helens woolgrowers David and Susan Rowbottom admit they accidentally fell into Merino sheep, and despite many ups and downs, have never looked back.

A FINE FLEECE: St Helens woolgrowers Sue and David Rowbottom from Rowensville Ultrafine Merino stud, at the Melbourne woolstores with some of their wool. Photos by Laura Ferguson.

A FINE FLEECE: St Helens woolgrowers Sue and David Rowbottom from Rowensville Ultrafine Merino stud, at the Melbourne woolstores with some of their wool. Photos by Laura Ferguson.

The Rowbottoms started with no land, and purchased their first property at Broadwater in 1972. This was the first of six they purchased in the region, all within eight kilometres of each other, now running 4000 adult sheep on 550 hectares, including their own Rowensville Ultrafine Merino stud.

Mr Rowbottom, who was previously a shearer, said his father ran a fat lamb operation, so on their first property, they ran fat lambs. This was until they “accidentally” bought their first Merino sheep, at a time where they were being sold “dirt cheap”.

“We leased some land and there were Merinos on that,” Mr Rowbottom said. “Superfine wool was extremely low-priced at the time, so we bought them cheap, with no intention of keeping them on, but I liked the wool on some of them so we decided it would be good to have our own flock.”

Since then, they have been striving to “build up the best superfine Merino flock we could”, slowly fining up their wool. Originally their flock’s feece averaged 19.2 micron, now it averages 14.2 micron. This was done through trial and error, and is something they’re continuously working on. “All the rams we use we breed ourselves, except for the odd stud ram,” he said. “We always breed our rams from our very top ewes and stud sires, continually selecting to improve the average. “At the moment we don’t see an end to that, we still believe that we can get it better than what it currently is.”

He said their attention to detail was recognised at many trips to the woolstores. “Our wool stood out as whiter and better than most, a fact noticed by other woolgrowers who started chasing us for rams,” he said. “So we started to sell rams and then registered as a stud in 1995.”

They went through a phase where they sold up to 70 rams a year, but things have now slowed down dramatically to only four or five a year. “The trend has been for people to breed stronger, heavy cutting types, so the type we were breeding has kind of gone out of fashion,” he said. “Other wool has been booming in the last few years, and ultrafine hasn’t, only in the last few months has it started to pick up.”

The Rowbottoms held onto their fat lamb operation after getting involved in Merinos, and as a backup, still today run half and half. “It hasn’t been easy building up land. There’s always a risk, so I found if one enterprise went bad, you’ve still got the other enterprise to fall back on,” he said.

Mr Rowbottom said with the wool market in a positive state, they planned to increase their Merino flock. “We’ve been through this situation before, when we bought the sheep originally, no one wanted them, then the prices improved and finer wool was the ‘in thing’, and lots more people started breeding them,” he said. “Then there came an oversupply of superfine and ultrafine wool, and prices fell considerably, so people got out of them in a hurry. “Now there’s not many left so the prices are heading upwards.” He said this cycle was all a part of the industry, with risks in any agricultural enterprise. “If you love the job, all of the ups and downs are worthwhile. The only thing you can do is keep going until it comes good.”

This story is from the new edition of AG 2018 magazine. You can read the entire magazine online here.