The Peters Family championing the modern Merino
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The Peters Family championing the modern Merino

Category Client Stories

Malcolm Peters Rabobank

South Australia’s Malcolm Peters doesn’t romanticise about the Australian wool industry’s rich pastoral history – he believes the best is yet to come.

An early adopter of non-mulesing, with electronic ear tags already implemented across his flock, Malcolm has embraced some of the industry’s most fiercely debated innovations, often well before the debate even began.

Malcolm’s concerns surrounding mulesing – a technique to cut away the wrinkly skin around a lamb’s backside to avoid flystrike – were realised over 15 years ago after growing global unrest.

It was an initiative the Eyre Peninsula producer adopted swiftly after “reading the room”.

 “We use Glendemar Multipurpose Merino bloodlines and it was stud principal Ken Duxson who first suggested it was time to stop mulesing – they’d stopped seven years prior, so I was able to quiz he and his son Ben, the current stud principal, on their techniques and reasoning, and it really made sense.”

“I could see the writing on the wall with the increasing animal liberation group protests – they can prove a powerful tool in influencing consumer decision making, so we really have to be ten steps ahead, that’s the world we live in.”

The decision to stop mulesing was also a feel good one.

“No one likes to see an animal in distress, and we all know that a cut still hurts well after pain relief has worn off, so we’re proud to be avoiding that process.”

This will be the 14th year the Peters family haven’t mulesed - their strict breeding program leveraging Glendemar’s non-mulesed rams producing a plainer, thin skinned merino naturally resilient against flystrike.

“The question I get asked more than any is ‘how do you stop mulesing a merino?’ and the process of breeding a sheep that doesn’t need to be mulesed is the easy part.”

“It took us about eight years to breed our flock of non-mulesed merinos – the merino is a magnificent animal, and will continuously improve if you’re willing to think outside the box and give it the chance to be better.”

“A large barrier to change is mental, we’ve been doing this for 15 years now, and it’s a no brainer – it’s a practice I didn’t need, life is easier for the shearers, I earn a premium for my wool and sheep don’t have to endure unnecessary pain.”

Malcolm describes his flock as consisting of a true plain bodied animal, with a thin skin and no wrinkles, which contributes significantly to ease of shearing.

While South Australian merinos are renowned for their size, his sheep are a medium size, again making them easier to be shorn and handled.

“A sheep doesn’t have to be huge, it just needs to be productive, and we’ve got the data to validate that our sheep are meeting, and exceeding, all our production and fertility objectives whilst being a non-traditional merino.”

The value of electronic identification (eID)

Their confidence is backed by data, with Malcolm having implemented electronic identification (eID) across his operation ten years ago.

Rather than a regulatory headache, he regards eID as an opportunity – a powerful tool that’s already helped drive increased fleece weight, body weight, fleece length, condition score and pregnancy status across his operation.

“Through eID I can measure fleece length measurements and skin measurements, and we’re able to grow 90mm of fleece off a ewe in just six months, and that ewe will still produce a lamb or two,” he explained.

Malcolm has been able to precisely customise the feed necessary for this production measurement, and for the past two years has narrowed it down to a fine art.

Now, he’s starting to work on producing 90mm of fleece in just four months.

“I’m starting to get a few ewes and hoggets in this range, and am confident I’ll eventually be able to shear a 90mm fleece of wool every four months – people say I’m mad but I’m pretty sure I can prove them wrong.”

“I’m 50 now, so hopefully I have a good 20 years in me to achieve this goal,” he laughs.    

Shearing occurs every six months, by eight months the fleece is 100mm long – too long for easy shearing – and Malcolm said a 90mm clip each shear would increase production significantly.

Lambing percentages are also healthy at 117 percent, which is the 20 year average, and this year, with over 2,000 ewes mated, Malcolm marked lambs at 129 percent.

“At the end of the day, this type of sheep just wants to have babies and grow wool.”

While the eID debate is a topical one, Malcolm believes electronic ear tags are an inevitable progression.

“Everything is electronic, and at the end of the day you usually have to spend money to make money and our ability to store data and traceability on each animal is of huge value.”

“Will it help in an outbreak of an exotic disease? I’m not sure, but there are plenty of benefits of eID beyond biosecurity.”

Sharing knowledge to help inspire change

While changing practices and adopting new technology may seem overwhelming for some, Malcolm is hoping to ease transitions by generously sharing his knowledge.

On-farm field days, workshops and videos help provide reference points for other producers on the journey, particularly when it comes to becoming accredited to sell non-mulesed wool.

“Authentico and Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) are the two companies which provide a quality assurance program that wool is mulesed-free and grown responsibly, and they both require a standard that farmers are required to meet before they will buy their wool.”

Malcolm explains that for full transparency, these companies regularly audit accredited farms for a range of criteria, including welfare standards, farming practices, farm infrastructure, chemical usage and best practice – to name just a few.

This data keeps operators accountable, and also enables the marketing of wool with full transparency, and these companies are now looking to develop QR Codes on each woollen item to share its provenance story with confidence. 

Thorough record keeping also supports this accreditation, and Malcolm uses Agriwebb to store all his on-farm data online.

Malcolm admits the transition to a web-based management system has been a gamechanger.

“We used to have a whiteboard in the office, with magnets signifying paddocks and flocks. We’d map them out every night, ready for the next day, but now we can do it all on the app – staff all have access and the data is synchronised so when we move a mob, everyone can see that move online.”

Their early adoption of eID also plays perfectly into this technology.

“At shearing time we can scan the individual electronic ear tag number of a sheep back to the computer, then when the shed hand picks up that fleece they can scan that number and enter the fleece weight – adding to the wealth of data on that sheep.”

He said the use of barcodes was 1990s technology, and that eID presented enormous opportunity to meet consumers’ growing demand for traceable fibre.

Sheep meat marbling potential on the horizon

Malcolm is currently looking at leveraging the intermuscular fat of sheep meat, and how marbling could open up new markets and business opportunities.

“The beef industry has been marketing marbled beef successfully for years, and this could really open up an extra premium market for our wethers,” he said.

“If we can look at improving the genetic potential of our intermuscular fat score through the Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) then I think it could be a great opportunity for the industry.”

Improving welfare standards, in and out of the paddock

Whilst mulesing presented one of the industry’s most obvious welfare debates, Malcolm said there were plenty of other issues he was addressing across his operation.

“From shelter, to feed, fences, and vermin and bug free silo systems that hold feed grain – it’s about being responsible.”

“The days of just putting a mob of sheep in a paddock under a lone tree are over – the goal posts are going to keep shifting and as an industry, we need to be prepared to pivot.”

Likewise, he believed challenges surrounding sourcing shearers could also be eased through a more modern approach.

“If you look at some of the infrastructure on farms across Australia it can be mind-boggling, sheds that haven’t been upgraded since the 1940s, working conditions that are archaic – our shearers need to be provided with good sheds, yards and modern facilities such as lunchrooms and toilets, and then we may be able to attract a few more back to the industry.”

Excited for the future

Malcolm, Karen and their four boys Claye, 23, who is the eldest and works on farm with Malcolm, 21-year-old Nathan who is working on a farm in a nearby district, plus Mitchell, 14 and Charlie 12 – both still at school – have grown an impressive enterprise, which also consists of 2,000 hectares of cropping across their 4,600 hectares in the Cleve and Kimba districts.

But Malcolm admits it’s the sheep that have his heart.

“I enjoy cropping, but sitting on an implement all day is no match for being out and about in the paddock, breathing in the fresh air and seeing your livestock healthy and happy.”

Laying the foundations for a modern sheep breeding operation for his sons, if they choose, he believes the next 30 years will be an exciting era for the industry.

“A multipurpose animal will encompass meat, skin, wool, easy care and welfare standards, and with data and innovation we have the capability to breed the perfect merino.”

“I don’t think we’re there yet, but the results tell the story, and they’re getting better and better by the year.”  

Rabobank supporting their journey

With the Port Lincoln branch recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, Malcolm said he’s grateful for Rabobank’s support, season after season.

“We’ve had a few lean years, and last year got us on track with exceptional yields, but regardless of the season we’ve always felt supported.”

“Rabo is a bit like these industry QR Codes being developed – customers are going to know what they get with each woollen item, and with Rabo, we know exactly what we’re going to get with each phone call or catch up.”

“They are fully transparent and have a strong, consistent team which means we don’t have to waste time explaining ourselves every time we make a phone call, and they’ve always been on call, happy to talk over concerns or questions we have.”

Malcolm said he was also grateful for Rabobank’s local footprint in the community.

“I would really hate to have our business managed by someone out of Sydney – our branch is 150km away but it always feels local, and it’s reassuring to see the team members in the community and know that they’ve got our back.”