The sheep farmers breeding success through genetics

Published: April 2019 | By: Beverley Hadgraft

The Legge family have used strong agribusiness nous to build their stud breeding program at Ridgehaven Poll Dorsets despite family tragedy. 

Poll Dorset rams at the Ridgehaven sheep farm in Cudal, 40km west of Orange. Photography by Pip Farquharson.

IN 1965, Ron Legge decided to buy a few stud ewes. He wasn’t able to find the quality of Dorset ram he wanted to put over his lower-grade Merinos to grow prime lambs, so decided to try breeding his own. It might just be a hobby, he thought, but a stud line could create an additional income stream. 

Today, Ron’s “hobby” is the core of the farm he established. Ridgehaven Poll Dorsets at Cudal, 40km from Orange, runs 1,000 stud breeding ewes and lambs, and sells around 500 rams a year to prime lamb producers.

It is a remarkable success story – especially since in October 2007, Ron got his rams in the yard ready to truck to Victoria, went to bed and tragically never woke up. It was left to three of his five children to suddenly take over the business. Floyd, the youngest, was just 23 and Ruth Klingner the eldest at 32. 

With middle sister Isabele Roberts, they have taken care of their father’s legacy, expanding the property, breeding even better sheep and utilising the latest science and innovation to better serve their customers and build the business. And Isabele and Ruth have each raised four children while juggling full-time farming.

Floyd, Isabele and her family and their mother, Jessie, are based on the farm’s main property at Cudal, while Ruth lives with her family on another property, Muddy Waters near Forbes.

Isabele, Jessie, Floyd and their kelpie Al.

Talking about the sudden takeover over of the business from their father, Ruth says: “One advantage we had was that, between the three of us, the only job none of us knew how to do was mulesing sheep.
“Dad already had me doing a lot of the book work, and Floyd had done a lot of mechanical work and welding, so between us we could do every single job on the farm.”

An even bigger advantage was that, two years before his death at the age of 70, Ron and Jessie had drawn up a partnership agreement with the three on-farm children, so everyone had what was expected of them in writing. 

RELATED: Succession planning for the next generation

But perhaps a less obvious reason for their success is that they are a living example of the saying “There’s no ‘I’ in team”. 

The family has never had reason to appoint anyone as boss. In fact, so confident are they of one another’s capabilities, it’s only recently that they’ve decided to draw up an official chain of responsibility – and that’s mainly to ensure they’ve still got every aspect of their growing business covered.

Isabele does many jobs on the farm, including helping out in the shed during shearing.

“Part of it’s a locality thing, as Ruth [and her husband, Graeme] are out near Forbes, and Isabele [and her agronomist husband, Peter] and I are 100km away in Cudal,” explains Floyd. 

“We talk regularly, but we’re going to look at all the different aspects of our business, write down what we’d each like to be responsible for, then compare notes. If there’s crossover, we’ll look at who has the best skills for that role.”

As well as the stud rams and prime lambs, the Legges grow Poll Dorset and Merino wool and run Poll Hereford cattle. They also do some cropping, mainly for feed. But with every part of the business, they’re always looking outside the farm fence. This is crucial when you’re at the start of a supply chain, says Floyd. 

“In the stud business, we look at consumer trends in meat consumption, cuts of meat, what the butcher is looking for. In wool, we talk to processors and where our products go on the rack.”

RELATED: The merino farmer bucking tradition

Using science to improve sheep breeding principles

Once they’ve identified what’s required, increasingly they have turned to science to help them achieve it. With the prime lambs, for instance, “We’re always looking at the profitability of our clients and trying to improve our breeding principle by making sure there’s a high-yielding carcase and high growth in a range of environments so people can sell those lambs off earlier.” 

Ridgehaven is always aiming to improve their breeding principles for their poll dorset lambs.

Over the past two years, they have added DNA and genomic testing to their breeding arsenal, and used benchmarking tools such as the nucleus flock run by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) to make sure they’re keeping up with other producers. 

The nucleus flock is a group of ewes that has been standardised so the genetic information is fully documented. The rams put in are the only variable and are then benchmarked against other participating rams to get a ranking on their comparative performance.

It’s a great service but, unfortunately, it is only available to flocks that are part of the LAMBPLAN sheep genetic system and, due to some industry controversy, about half of producers have chosen not to sign up. This means many sheep aren’t being tested, so from this year, says Floyd, the family farm will offer a benchmarking research flock of its own to try to bridge the gap and allow more producers an opportunity for genetic insight.

A successful pregnancy test for one of the poll dorset ewes.

“We’ll have someone else look after the flock of ewes to ensure we’re at arm’s length and it’s transparent and objective, and the resulting lambs will be tested for weight gain and muscle,” he explains. 
“A portion will also be processed and tissue samples taken for meat-eating testing such as tenderness, toughness of the muscle fibre, intramuscular fat and other DNA traits.”

“It’s shortsighted to dismiss the science available to assist you in breeding work, and this is an opportunity to obtain data that would otherwise be difficult to get. It will be an extension of our business and customers will be charged a fee per ram.”

The family’s love of science is matched by their pride in identifying the visual traits of good breeding sheep, and Floyd is an enthusiastic supporter of shows. “For any potential stud ram, the big shows like Sydney and Canberra are important for benchmarking and promotion. Local shows are good for business promotion and flock lamb sales, and you always hope a primary producer will come through, see your sheep and make a buying decision.” 

Isabele and dog Al in the yards with the ewes.

The Legges are third-generation farmers. Their grandfather, Oswald, ran a few milking cows, beef cattle and fine Merinos at Bairnsdale, 280km east of Melbourne. Ron moved everyone from Victoria to Cudal in 1993 when property prices proved too high to expand the farm.
Premium wool a key focus for farm

Floyd says it was the fact that his grandfather was a Merino breeder that led him to stick with wool, even when prices crashed. “It’s a tradition thing, but when you understand the physical properties of wool, its wearability and how incredible it is as a natural fibre, you can’t just walk away from it. I’ve got a real passion for wool and I’m glad we stuck by the origin of our business and didn’t compromise. We’re starting to get good financial gains by maintaining the genetic quality.

Floyd at work on the wool press.

“The world needs good wool and if we’re not producing it, who will? There’s a strong demand for more environmentally sustainable, biodegradable fibres that are traceable back to source.” 

RELATED: Sustainable merino farm turns to perennials

With their usual careful regard for customers, this year the Legges are going to trial not mulesing their lambs. “We’ve been talking about it for a while,” says Floyd. “The lambs are a bit behind anyway because of the drought, and mulesing is always a bit more of a setback for them, so we’re going to see how it goes.” 

High-end customers and retailers, along with European and North American consumers, are applying pressure, he says.
“There are genuine premiums for non-mulesed wool and that’s the best way to change practice, as long as farmers can make it work.”

The siblings currently run about 1,200 to 1,400 Roseville Park blood Merinos and are joining about 450 to 500 ewes. As smaller growers, producing only 50 to 60 bales a year, their marketing options are limited but Floyd is convinced that “buyers get to know the brands and what’s processed well”.

He’s had evidence of buyers particularly looking out for their clean, bright-white, waxy wool that they keep as free of dust and sweat as possible – the family strives to maintain good quality control in the sheds, with Ruth doing the wool classing and Graeme taking a break from his business making rodeo equipment to help Floyd with the shearing. “We make sure our expectations are known, so everyone knows we’re proud of what we do.”
Although some farmers have moved to a more loose wool, Ridgehaven still grows a traditional, tighter crimp, breeding a bigger-framed sheep to avoid wrinkles. They’ve been encouraged by processors, who say this wool goes through machines more evenly, has better elasticity and can be processed at higher speeds without breakages. It’s also easier to incorporate into tighter-weave fabrics. 

A close-up of some of the wool from Ridgehaven, which has a more traditional, tighter crimp to avoid wrinkles.

“The marketing of Australian wool through AWI [Australian Wool Innovation] and the Woolmark Company has kept the price high. If you don’t have that levy, you have to consider the risk of not investing in the global promotion of Australian wool,” he says, pointing out that New Zealand wool farmers, who did away with their levy, are currently receiving substantially lower prices as a result.  

Floyd recently joined AWI on a study tour to China where in one mill, he was thrilled to see one of his own bales waiting to be processed. He was also delighted by the Chinese processors’ understanding of the care required to process wool.
“There’s great emphasis on resting it between washing, combing and dyeing processes, so they don’t fatigue and break the fibre.”

Around 80% of Australian wool now goes to China and about half of that is exported as a finished product or sent to Europe as yarn for further processing. The rest is consumed within China by the increasingly affluent middle class. 

RELATED: Cashing in on the wool boom

“There’s great opportunity – as with many agricultural products in China – as the middle class becomes more affluent, but it’s just one of many markets we have, so we must maintain a balance in marketing and promotion in other areas in case there’s a downturn.”

 The other part of the Ridgehaven business is much smaller – about 100 Poll Hereford cows that are sold as six-month weaners if the season allows.  

Off farm, Floyd is chair of NSW Farmers’ Sheepmeats Committee, doing anything from guiding policy on sheep footrot to ensuring the current mob-based traceability system remains rather than moving to the more expensive Victorian system of electronic tags. He’s also been leading talks on communication pathways and the importance for representative groups to have good spokespeople. 

The automated weighing machine in action at Ridgehaven. Source: Ridgehaven Poll Dorsets Facebook. 

“For instance, no-one has been talking about the importance of maintaining live exports and, because the industry has been so quiet, the animal activists have had a free run,” he says. “There’s a communication issue we’ve been discussing to ensure the responsibility is known and prosecuted when necessary.”

Good communication has been a factor in the Legge family success. Ruth thinks the reason she and her siblings work so well together is because they leave no room for misunderstanding.

Isabele and Floyd in the shearing shed. They say good communication surround succession planning is key to running a family farm.

Communication is a subject that’s close to their mother Jessie’s heart, too. She looks proudly at her on-farm children (she also has daughters Melinda in Albury and Margaret in Wollongong) as they discuss plans for improving grazing and watering and creating smaller paddocks to expand the business further. 

In fact, if Jessie could give any advice to farmers worrying about succession, it would be to communicate with their family, especially those staying on the farm. “They need to let them know how decisions are made and bring them into their confidence,” she says. Which is good advice for the head of any business. 

Six keys for family succession planning

Communication issues are a key cause of succession problems, with an estimated 50-60% of farmers not discussing their plans with their on-farm children.

  1. Talk about your expectations and let both sides describe their hopes and plans without interruption. 

  2. Don’t make assumptions.

  3. Put everything in writing. 

  4. Always be willing to let both older and younger farmers try something different, even in a small way.

  5. Have a post-retirement activity plan for the older generation.

  6. If one person’s plans don’t sit comfortably with another’s, they should get together to work it out.

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