Sheep Industry Business Innovation

Attention to detail drives Sears’ increased lambing percentages

A SIBI Case Study

Property: Wakeford Farm, Marchagee

Owner: Harley Sears

Property size: 3520 hectares (1820ha arable) plus some additional agisted hectares

Average annual rainfall: 350 millimetres

Stock: 2400 sheep (1754 mated ewes in 2016)

Crop: 500ha share crop cereal-lupins (50/50) program plus 270ha of lupins in seven smaller paddocks specifically for fattening lambs once weaned (October/November). These smaller paddocks are not harvested

photo of Harley Sears
Harley Sears, Marchagee

Entrepreneur Harley Sears has brought his business acumen to his Midlands sheep enterprise, achieving commendable marking results in a remarkably short time.

His success was recognised in 2012, when he was an inaugural inductee into the Department of Agriculture and Food’s 100%+ Club and has been a member ever since.

The Club acknowledges producers achieving a whole-farm average marking percentage of more than 100 per cent.

In 2016, Harley’s overall flock scanned an average of 165pc lambs (155pc in the maidens). He scanned up to 177pc in the crossbreds and marked 142pc over the whole flock.

Harley bought his 3 200 hectare Marchagee property in 1994 and immediately set about turning it into a profitable patch.

His long-time business dealings in the mining, turf farming and rural investment sectors give him a unique view of his sheep farming enterprise.

With his main income provided off-farm, Harley likes to micro-manage his prime lamb enterprise. In doing so, he has achieved high lambing percentages, especially for Merinos.

Following a stint of share farming in the mid-90s, Harley took back full control of his farm in 2002 and introduced Merinos for wool production.

In 2006, he began to breed out the historically traditional Merino type in favour of a plain-bodied sheep, also known as a Multi Purpose Merino (MPM).  

Now with his sights firmly set on the prime lamb market, Harley generally runs blue, red and yellow tag MPM ewes, with about 60pc of which are joined to Poll Dorset rams and 40pc to MPM rams for replacements.

Joining occurs in a six to seven week period from mid-January, with lambing from mid-June.

Following weaning, lambs are trucked off the farm in late January in groups of 400-450 to WAMMCO who accept Harley’s heavier type lambs, at an ideal 26kg carcass weight.

A newborn Poll Dorset-Merino cross lamb at Harley Sears' Marchagee farm.
A newborn Poll Dorset-Merino cross lamb at Harley Sears' Marchagee farm.

The setup

When Harley first bought the block and began to travel to and from his home in Perth, he invested more than $500 000 in fencing, roadways, tree planting and water supplies on the property.

Plentiful ground water has seen a system of five large tanks installed at the highest points on the property, supplied by one small bore. These tanks gravity feed water to many concrete troughs around the farm.

More than 60 000 rivergums were also planted around the perimeter of each paddock and laneways installed, creating shade and shelter belts for stock.

In his quest to produce quality prime lamb for the market, and on the advice of a number of other farm contacts, Harley recognised the need to introduce quality genetics.

He sourced MPM rams from Hill Padua MPM Stud at Three Springs (Anthony Thomas) and Poll Dorset rams from Fearnley Poll Dorset stud at Dandaragan (Bruce Cook).

Rams are purchased on the basis of their fat and growth ASBV’s, with wool also becoming more valuable to the operation with an average of 20 micron over the flock.

An example of one of the farm's MPM ewes with its Poll Dorset-Merino cross lambs.
An example of one of the farm's MPM ewes with its Poll Dorset-Merino cross lambs.

Hands on management

Harley commutes every week to the farm from his Perth base for two or three days. He also employs an on-site husband and wife manager team who check the sheep very regularly, sometimes twice daily during lambing, with the property never left un-manned, no matter what time of the year it is.

Ewes are pregnancy scanned after 90 days, split into single and twin-bearing mobs for individual management come lambing, wet and dried following lambing and returned back into larger mobs in the lead-up to joining.

Harley’s flock is maintained at a condition score of three plus throughout the year.

“Running sheep for the prime lamb market has slowly become more intense on my farm,” he said.

“We never have a bother with ewes walking away from lambs when trail feeding lupins. They are so used to us and our quiet management style – they’re like pets. We don’t have any dogs either, just 11 alpacas that are fantastic guards during lambing.”

Shearing happens six-monthly at Wakeford Farm. The entire flock is ‘put over the board’ in late October and then again in late April to produce 50-60 millimetre fleeces.

The fact that the Watheroo National Park borders Harley’s property on two sides, also means a concentrated effort is made to keep ferals at bay. Alpacas are found in every mob of sheep alongside an annual fox baiting program.

photo of Harley Sears
Since 1992, Harley Sears, Marchagee, has planted more than 60 000 river gums around the perimeter of his paddocks to provide shelter and shade for his sheep.

Feed: the value of lupins

Lambs are weaned and shorn in early October, and put onto 270ha of standing lupin crops (seven paddocks) with a vitamin E supplement every eight weeks, following some deficiency deaths a few years ago.

The farm’s sandplain soil structure helps the lupin crops to thrive alongside natural ryegrass pastures which are encouraged to grow through the lupin crops and provide extra fodder.

During the season, following the lupin crop rotation such paddocks tend to grass-up very well and provide prime feed for lambing ewes the following two seasons.

Lupins are rotated through these paddocks every three years.

“Standing lupin crops have worked wonders for our big lambs just off shears. At this stage it’s a trial and I’m trying to get a proof of concept going here,” Harley said.

Lupins are trail fed to lambing ewes from late autumn until late July in some cases, depending on the season.

Rams are prepped with lupins for six weeks prior to joining and the ewes two weeks prior to, and one week into joining.

However this year (2016), Harley decided to continue supplementing feed with lupins twice a week, at 1kg/hd/feed, throughout the joining period. This could explain the 10pc improved scanning rate compared with previous years (165pc) and the best lamb marking rate so far at 142pc.

Harley’s flock also benefits from agistment on stubbles (cereals and lupins) on a neighbouring farm during summer.

A flourishing pasture off the back of one of last season's 1.8 tonne a hectare lupin crops.
A flourishing pasture off the back of one of last season's 1.8 tonne a hectare lupin crops.

Weaner loss and dystocia

Harley said less than one per cent weaner losses occur at Wakeford Farm.

He lost 14 weaners to a vitamin E deficiency last year and thanks to early drenching with vitamin E only lost five or six in 2016.

Harley has also worked hard to eliminate dystocia from his paddocks.

In 2013 and 2014 the number of ewe deaths during lambing was about 70. In 2015 and 2016 it was down to approximately 50 with most of this number occurring in the Poll Dorset/Merino flocks and very few in the in the MPM flock.

Harley’s focus is to work at reducing this number each year.

Profit drivers

Wakeford Farm’s 2015 lamb marking percentage of 129pc was a step up of 4pc on the 2013 and 2014 season figures, with a greater increase during the 2016 season to 142pc.

In his quest to “just do better than the year before”, Harley has pinpointed a number of contributing factors to his success in keeping lambs on the ground.

Quite simply, he puts it down to the time of shearing every six months, the flocks’ genetic background (MPM Hill Padua) and the use of lupins as a prime feed source in smaller type paddocks, with alpacas, and excellent shade as protection from the elements.

“Although this is a small sheep enterprise you could double or triple our ewe numbers and with the right management still achieve these overall production figures”, Harley said.

Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia development officer Katherine Davies said genetics and nutrition were definitely a big part of Harley’s overall lambing success.

Separate management of single and twin bearing ewes, as well as small mob sizes in small paddocks with plenty of shelter go a long way to increasing overall lamb survival.

“The MPM and Poll Dorset breeds are renowned for their vigour,” she said.

“The combination of Harley’s attention to detail and close management of ewe condition score throughout the reproductive cycle, including supplementation with lupins, has ensured that ewes are in optimum condition during pregnancy and lactation, giving lambs a good chance to survive and thrive.

“Harley’s intent focus on the business’ breeding objectives, benchmarking and close tracking of his flock’s every move also undoubtedly contributes to his overall lambing outcomes.”

For further information about the 100%+ Club visit and search for ‘100%+ Club’.

Harley Sears' pasture
Plentiful pastures guarantee profitable production at Marchagee.

Some figures

2014 scanning figures
Head per mob Dry Single Twins %
297 (MPM) 10 132 155 148
300 (MPM maiden) 10 117 173 154
79 (PD-MPM cross) 4 75 Not scanned ---
405 (PD-MPM cross) 26 193 186 140
326 (PD-MPM cross) 11 122 193 156
199 (PD-MPM cross) 6 69 124 159
210 (PD-MPM cross) 9 80 121 153
TOTAL 1 816        
2014 lamb marking numbers
Mob %
MPM 135
MPM maiden 124 (96 single, 150 twins)
PD-MPM cross 122
Overall 125
2015 scanning figures
Head per mob Dry Single Twins %
313 (MPM) 2 77 234 174
303 (MPM maiden) 13 158 132 139
849 (PD-MPM cross) 34 298 517 157
302 (PD-MPM cross) 27 99 176 149
TOTAL 1 767        
2015 lamb marking numbers
Mob %
MPM 144
MPM maiden 114
PD-MPM cross 129
Overall 129
2016 scanning figures
Head per mob Dry Single Twins %
277 (PD-MPM cross) 5 81 191 167
285 (PD-MPM cross) 4 107 174 159
231 (PD-MPM cross) 2 48 181 177
383 (PD-MPM cross) 5 96 282 172
327 (MPM maiden) 9 130 188 155
251 (PD-MPM cross) 10 77 164 161
TOTAL 1 754        

The 231-strong mob were a mix of yellow, purple and green tag ewes with only 0.86pc dry. The 327-strong mob of maidens scanned 2.75pc dry. The dry rate for 1754 joined ewes was two per cent and the scanning rate was 165pc.

2016 lamb marking numbers
Mob %
XB 144
MPM maiden 133
Overall 142

There were a total of 2 485 lambs from 1 754 ewes joined. We re-mate dry ewes immediately after scanning and usually get 4 to 5 wet ewes from 70-odd dries, however this year we had 18 wet ewes from the total of 35 dries producing 24 lambs, thus reducing our overall dry rate to only 17 ewes from 1754 mated (<1%).

sheep flock in paddock
Mixed age MPM ewes and their Poll Dorset-Merino cross lambs at Wakeford Farm, Marchagee.