Eechungga Mohair

john smith

Our angora venture first started with the purchase of 6 cross-bred angora does in September 1976. A year later a buck and 3 purebred does were added with a view to owning my own farm one day and also wanting an alternative to running sheep. Buying angoras at that time was expensive so numbers increased slowly. Originally I ran these goats on my parents’ 19 acre poultry farm and hatchery at Echunga in South Australia (rainfall 810mm) where I grew up and worked for my first 30 years.

Goats Grazing Veldt Grass 2
Goats Grazing Veldt Grass.

In 1979 I bought a 75 acre (30ha) block of land a few kilometres away to run an increasing size mob of angoras on. This land had been used by the previous owners for wattle bark stripping, used by early settlers for its tanning properties in the tanning of leather.

With the help of my father we developed the hobby farm over the next few years. During this time I purchased 200 bush does to cross with angora bucks, hoping to build up numbers quickly. This was easier said than done. They had come from a dry hot climate in the Flinders Ranges to our cold wet winter in the Adelaide Hills, to which they weren’t immediately suited to. However, numbers increased. Shearing was done in an old dairy on a property adjacent to the poultry farm. We erected shelter sheds in most paddocks on the hobby farm to give protection for the goats against the elements in winter. But wet ground for prolonged periods was a continuing problem for the goat’s feet, which needed to be trimmed frequently. Eventually working out that if the goats were shifted to fresh pasture more often the foot problems lessened.

Goats Off Shears
Goats Off Shears

In 1983 I married Marilyn. In1985 Angelene was born, my father retired and sold the poultry farm and I sold the 30 hectare hobby farm at Echunga. With the proceeds from that we bought a 1930 ha farm at Parrakie with cash to spare. We named the farm ‘Eechungga’ after the aboriginal spelling of Echunga and started our new business, Eechungga Mohair.

We started off living in a 6 square house (I think that also included the lean to garage), poor fencing and a partially developed farm. Fortunately we did have some established perennial veldt grass pastures.

Although our postal address is Parrakie (22kms north) the local area is called Garra Lands. The rainfall has averaged 384mm for the last 32 years and ranged between 250 & 600mm. The soils are generally infertile deep grey sand or sand over clay with about 60ha of better, heavier soil. The farm includes 600 ha of native bush of mostly Banksia, melaleuca and stringy bark trees, which is home to emus, kangaroos and numerous species of birds, including mallee fowl.

Goats Grazing Veldt Grass
Goats Grazing Veldt Grass

We removed the old fences and fenced a 40ha paddock with a 7 line ringlock fence. Because of the cost of fencing materials and the need to replace the old fences quickly we decided to fence the farm with electric fences. This allowed us to increase our goat numbers to about 1000 with bought in wethers and our increasing number of does.

The goats have done better in the warm and drier climate at Parrakie. Our best quality mohair was produced in the milder winters, but a lower value dusty and dry fleece in the summer. The opposite was true at Echunga, but with a short webby fleece in winter there.

At one stage we acquired some does from one of the best quality herds in South Australia at that time. These came from a colder climate where they had a better pasture and the goats looked good. But at the first summer shearing the mohair had become very dry, frizzy looking and low yielding. The summer shearing produced fleeces of little value. If pasture was over grazed a lot annual silver grass germinated in winter and the dry seeds in got fleeces and eyes of the goats. Fleeces that showed high lustre seemed to manage the hot dry summers better, but often these fleeces had a stronger micron. What we needed was a finer fibre that maintained that lustre through our harsh summers as well a more open fleece that would grow good length in winter. We built a shed for the goats to kid in at first but when 1080 fox baits became available we started kidding them out in the paddocks.

Around this time (1990s) there was talk of importing angoras from South Africa, which were believed to be the best quality goats available, so I signed up to get some. Initially there was an improvement in quality and weight of mohair produced, however this was becoming economically unsustainable with increasing micron of mohair, up to 30mic for first shearing and also combined with the low prices for mohair during the 1990’s. So, when farmers were selling off or shooting sheep and wool prices were low as well as getting low rainfall, we decided to sell off the angora wethers and make a change to merino sheep and bought some ewes at the local sheep sale for $2 each.

Our angora numbers decreased to about 30 breeding does by 1999, but I still wanted to run angoras. Over the years I tried various bloodlines but never found the type of angora needed to run in this area. In the mid 1980s I first heard about Jim Watts’ SRS (Soft Rolling Skin) breeding system. At first I tried buying SRS type merino rams, but later realized I needed to buy from true SRS studs endorsed by Jim. The SRS breeding techniques were based on scientific fact and I could see a plan for sustained improvement in my merino and angora breeding.

Our first SRS sheep classing done was painful to watch, with many sheep classed into the cull mob. The few keepers had noticeably softer and finer fleeces with long fibre bundles of wool. Other sheep had tighter flat or wrinkly skin with shorter blocky type fibre. These wrinklier sheep also produced fewer lambs. I learnt this type of breeding could be done with any fibre producing animal and a good SRS animal would do well in most areas. This is what I needed to improve my angoras.

In 2000 I found that Keith Cowen at Yarran Park Angora Stud, had been breeding SRS angora goats for a number of years. I started buying bucks from Keith and have done so ever since.

Keith classes all of our goats most years. The quality, quantity and fineness improved rapidly. We class the whole flock every year so I could increase the quality as fast as possible. Fleeces produced were much more able to cope with the environment and the extremes of the weather and mohair started to become more profitable.

Mohair Fleece
Mohair Fleece

We bought in more does and built up our numbers again and are now running over 400 breeding does. Since 2000 the average micron of the flock has dropped about 8 micron to average 28 micron and fleece weights improved to about 6 kg/year. First shearing fleeces were now down to 20 micron or less. 30 years later we are replacing the electric fences with new 7/90/30 cyclone type fences.

I stuck with the angoras because I believed they always had the potential to be more profitable than merinos. Goat meat is the most consumed meat in the world and low in fat. Mohair has a higher tensile strength and is a soft and lustres animal fibre. Now, generally mohair income is double what I get for merino wool. In the past meat values have been poor and total income came out similar to our merinos. But, now meat prices have increased dramatically.

I think angoras still have a lot of potential for improvement with finer mohair and better carcase traits as we are seeing with our new SRS poll angoras from Yarran Park. I would like to see a flock average of 20 micron mohair and a carcase size similar to my SRS merinos of 70kgs as hoggets in the future.

Our mohair is now sent direct to South Africa to be auctioned. This has reduced the labour required at shearing time as the classing is done in South Africa. Also, selling charges are a lot less.

Improving productivity on our impoverished soils has always been difficult, because of the high input costs of chemical fertilizers etc. while renewing pastures on most of the farm and also not being able to run enough stock to produce a good income. Cover cropping with barley was done while renovating pastures, but at best this was only a break even exercise. Having a cover crop was a necessity to limit wind erosion. Over the years we’ve tried different fertilizers, but it always was a matter of not being able to justify the cost of applying the amount needed to grow good pastures or crops.

Experimental Grazing Plot - new seedlings 6mths after grazing.
Experimental Grazing Plot – new seedlings 6mths after grazing.

By 2012 most of our pasture renovation done, but around this time chemical fertilizer prices went through the roof. I decided it was time to pursue a cheaper alternative, like natural fertilizers and soil conditioners to improve pasture production. Although better for soil health this proved to be similar in cost and our rainfall too low to get the best out of it.

I also did a soil biology & microscope course at the Southern Cross University. This gave me an understanding of why the biology in the soil is so important. The multitude of microorganisms in the soil is vital in producing healthy and productive plant life. All the nutrients plants need are made available by a healthy population of microorganisms which need carbon in the soil to feed on. Chemical fertilizers and sprays, fungicides, any soil disturbance, bare soil, compaction caused by machinery and inappropriate grazing methods reduce the amount of biology in the soil. Applying compost, compost teas and worm castings are all good for improving the biology in the soil, but are not practical for large farms.

 

 

Regenerative Grazing

 

This has led me to try regenerative grazing techniques. This involves intensive grazing in smaller paddocks for short periods of time and then allowing pasture to rest and fully recover for 3-12 months depending on the time of the year and what you are trying to achieve. This encourages perennial pastures to thicken or establish from native perennial seed in the soil or from introduced species if necessary.

Experimental Plot(1_4ha) - Veldt Grass 12months rest
Experimental Plot(1_4ha) – Veldt Grass 12months rest

Intense grazing will break up the soil surface with their hooves and allow new perennial seedlings to germinate and establish. Livestock are moved on when pasture is 1/3 grazed and 1/3 trampled. This allows pasture to thicken up and recover quickly. Trampled plant matter, manure and urine fertilize the soil and feed the microbes in the soil. This makes the pasture grow and photosynthesize carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, increasing carbon in the soil which improves the water holding capacity of the soil and lessens the effects of droughts.

Having too few livestock in a paddock for a long period of time leads to nutritious perennial plants being eaten out, this encourages annuals such as silver grass and barley grass to multiply. This can cause severe stress to the animal from seed contamination in fleeces and damage to the carcase and eyes. Soil erosion is also caused by livestock continually camping on the highest points in our paddocks.

Experimental Plot -12hrs later after grazing with 500 ewes. Excellent ground cover.
Experimental Plot -12hrs later after grazing with 500 ewes. Excellent ground cover.

With regenerative grazing we are dramatically decreasing our input costs while improving our pastures. We are currently fencing to make more paddocks, using cyclone type fences and later will be using portable electric fencing to further intensify grazing and pasture improvement.

 

 

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