6 February 2024

Hilltops Merino studs prove they're dynamos among national chart-toppers

| Edwina Mason
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a pair of merino rams in yards

Steve and Liz Phillips’ Yarrawonga Merino Stud, near Harden, is the second most successful stud breeding operation in Australia. Image: Yarrawonga Merino.

The Hilltops region seems to have plonked right back into the velvety sweet grassy-scented crimped fleeces of the Merino variety of sheep with three studs ranking among the top 10 in Australia in an annual listing published nationally in agricultural bibles The Land Newspaper, Farm Weekly, Queensland Country Life and Stock Journal.

In a far cry from the legacy heavyweights of yesteryear, these three dynamos located at Harden, Reids Flat and Quandialla proved this region is back riding on the sheep’s back with their stud average sale prices placing them among the elite of the nation.

Sitting at number two behind South Australia’s Glenlea Park with its average of $4065 is Steve and Liz Phillips’ Yarrawonga Merino Stud at Harden which recorded an average of $3849.

A stud founded on the Monaro in 1971 by Steve’s parents – Don and Thea Phillips – the Yarrawonga operation runs across eight properties in NSW, with Steve and Liz based at ‘Cunningham Plain’ near Harden.

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Theirs has been a growth and expansion made possible through the profitability of their merino flock, one that conforms to good breeding values, including DNA testing of all lambs according Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBV) which allow stud principals to compare the genetic differences between rams.

The Yarrawonga sheep, the Phillips’ maintain, have the unique ability to increase fleece weights while decreasing micron, proved through countless wether trials over the past 30 years.

Uniquely able to produce good waterproof fine testing wools capable of handling high rainfalls, coupled with the heavy fleece weights, high fertility and strong carcass weights alongside conformation, good feet and square bodies have augured well for a repeat client base, which Steve said was tremendously fulfilling.

“The averages were down a bit on the dizzy heights of 2022,” he said, “but that was to be expected.”

Steve Philips said the three studs from the Hilltops area were all progressive forward-thinking operations which people tend to be attracted to for improvement moving forward.

family with a small mob of merino rams

Jane and Michael Corkhill of Grassy Creek, Reids Flat, near Boorowa with their two sons in 2016. Image: Grassy Creek Merino Stud.

From a sheep producing family, Michael Corkhill, of Reids Flat near Boorowa, always had an interest in Merinos, particularly ram breeding which he started exploring at the tender age of 16 with 20 ewes in an artificial insemination program.

Thirty years on, Grassy Creek, the stud he and his wife Jane operate, registered at number four among the top 10 studs in Australia with an average ram sale price of $2672, which surprised even Michael who said despite 12 years of average price increases, last year he held off offering more rams due, like everyone, to the expected downward industry predictions.

“Conscious of higher averages, each year I always raise the number of rams on offer except last year,” he said, “but we were fortunate to have a corporate come on board and reached a few guys who share a couple of places and they’ve prioritised us which was awesome.

“But the big thing I think that got us over the line is the last few years we’ve had considerable success in wether trials with our sheep,” Michael said.

“Last year, we had 10 teams of wethers in trials, and they all finished in the top for either wool and meat or both,” he said.

Wether trials are designed to assist commercial breeders compare their productivity against that of other flocks, removing most of the effects of management and environment, leaving a better comparison of the genetic merit of the sheep.

This feat extended to sire evaluations – which measures breeding performance of ram progeny relative to the progeny of other sires.

Moving from 16th position in 2023, Michael said placing fourth was gratifying, especially, he said, to sit among such well established operations.

farmer leaning on ute

Trevor Ryan of Richmond Merinos near Quandialla. Image: Trevor Ryan.

Steeped in history dating back to the early days of settlement on the excellent grazing country known as The Bland, “Richmond” out at Quandialla on the western fringes of the Hilltops region has seen four generations of Ryans breeding merino sheep.

Their rise from a stud established by his grandparents using Bungaree bloodlines in 1949, a period of hiatus during the 80s and 90s after Trevor Ryan’s father’s death, has been meteoric given they moved from 21st position in 2022, to eighth in 2023 with their average of $3208.

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For Trevor Ryan the path to the top 10 started when in 1994, fresh from a stint in the Kimberley region, he purchased a flock of Severn Park bloodline ewes. Severn Park is a stud owned and operated by Charles Massy in the Monaro.

He segued from commercial to stud operations in 2004 and genetics has played a huge role in that, resulting in ethically produced long plain bodied sheep with thin and supple skin producing a silky soft deep-fibre wool.

“We’ve sort of identified where the industry is heading long-term, and I guess we’ve tried to move with that,” Trevor said.

“The key is to keep balancing your flock to collect as much data as you can and maintain all the visual trait,” he added.

Last year’s on-farm stud sale resulted in a 100 per cent clearance, which Trevor says he was thrilled with, as much as he is delighted by “Richmond’s” recent top 10 billing.

Original Article published by Edwina Mason on About Regional.

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