The wagyu of meat sheep
OVER the past few decades the numbers in Queensland's sheep flock have steadily declined.
Deregulation, the threat and cost of feral predators and boom in the price of beef pushed many sheep cockies out of the market.
But a new breed, the Australian white, has generated keen interest, leading Nanango grazier Greg Patch to transition into the meat sheep market.
He's built up a small flock of stud rams and ewes and is eyeing off running an artificial insemination program in the not-too-distant future.
"Graham Gilmore was the bloke that started the breed,” Mr Patch said.
"About 11 years ago Graham used to breed polled dorsets. He was over in Brazil and he saw these sheep and he thought to himself, 'Why do you really have to have wool on sheep?'”
Mr Gilmore blended four different breeds of sheep at his family's stud at Oberon in New South Wales.
They include well- carcased poll dorsets, muscular woolled texels from Holland, the south fat-tailed vanrourey and white dorpers.
After 11 years of artificial insemination and embryo management, the Australian white was born.
A cut above the rest
The result is a sheep with a quiet temperament that is both tall and long in the carcase, with fat marbling consistent with what you'd find in wagyu beef.
As a clean-shedding sheep there's no need to shear them, which cuts down on farm management cost.
Plus they grow fast.
"They finish more quickly and evenly,” Mr Patch said.
On average Australian whites get to a killing weight within three months.
This compares with about four to five months for traditional dorpers.
They also have black feet and rears.
"The black pigmentation just makes them a little more hardy, white feet are a bit softer,” Mr Patch said.
A chance meeting
Initially Mr Patch farmed dairy on his Nanango property at Beauvale but he transitioned to beef following deregulation.
In March this year Mr Patch was visiting his niece at Oberon.
"She used to work for the rural store down there, she said to me, 'You've got to look at these sheep, Uncle Greg, they're magnificent sheep,'” he said.
"She used to work in the JBS feed lots and was a livestock manager and she's pretty handy at knowing what she's talking about.
"We were quite impressed.”
Mr Patch is in on the ground floor of this new breed, as he is one of only four studs in Queensland.
One is in the merino country near Cunnamulla, the other two are on the granite foothills of Stanthorpe.
"People say they'll be too soft to run in that hard country out west,” Mr Patch said.
"But there's blokes buying sheep from Oberon and taking them out to Cunnamulla and Bourke and all those western places and they're still handling the conditions.
"It's in their breeding with the dorper and the vanrourey, they browse on shrubs and they are adaptable.”
The demand for the breed has increased exponentially and Mr Patch is having to turn down orders that are too large for his burgeoning operation.
Buyers are calling from Gladstone and out west into central Queensland on the flat plains at Winton.
Reviving the industry
The combination of high-yielding meat sheep and a new generation of exclusion fencing could breathe life back into Queensland's once-vibrant sheep industry.
Government subsidies are encouraging farmers to return to wool production because of the flow-on effect it would have for employment if the shearers come back.
But Mr Patch reckons the deficit of skilled workers is making meat sheep more attractive.
"Because they can't get shearers in a lot of those places people are going into meat sheep and the only meat sheep they have at the moment is the dorper,” he said.
"So they're putting these Australian whites over dorpers.”
Recent data supports this notion after a Stanthorpe sale saw two breeders return solid numbers.
"They have 60 rams at the sale, the top price was $3000,” Mr Patch said.
It tastes better
Along with his stud operation, Mr Patch is looking at a line of branded meat down the track.
"Somehow in their breeding they made it so the fat melts at a lower temperature like wagyu meat and it's marbled like wagyu meat,” he said.
"We've eaten one of our own and it is a different meat.
"We've had dorper-merino cross meat here and the Australian white meat is definitely better in our opinion.”