Context: Dual-purpose crops (for grazing and grain) are an important part of the feedbase in mixed farming systems in the medium-rainfall zone of southern Australia. On these farms, non-wool sheep breeds such as the Dorper may provide an opportunity to increase lamb production while reducing labour costs compared with traditional sheep breeds.
Aims: This study was designed to compare lamb production systems based on White Dorper and Merino ewes joined to a terminal sire, while exploiting a feedbase that included dual-purpose crops.
Methods: Two experiments were conducted at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, during 2013 (Expt 1) and 2014 (Expt 2). In February in both experiments, White Dorper ewes were joined to either White Dorper or White Suffolk rams (lambs designated DD and WSD, respectively), and Merino ewes were joined to White Suffolk rams (lambs designated WSM). In Expt 1 a dual-purpose wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) crop was established and the paddock subdivided into nine plots (0.93 ha each). Pregnant ewes were allocated to plots on the basis of genotype (DD, WSD or WSM grazing separate plots) after blocking for number of fetuses identified at mid-pregnancy scanning, with three replicates based on genotype. Lambing commenced on 28 June, and ewes grazed the crop from 27 June to 14 August and then continued to graze in the same groups on a lucerne (Medicago sativa L.)–clover (Trifolium spp.) pasture subdivided into nine plots (2.1 ha), maintaining the same replicates until weaning on 2 October. In Expt 2, the cropping paddock was subdivided into six plots (1.86 ha each) sown to either dual-purpose wheat or canola (Brassica napus L.), with three replicates. Lambing commenced on 13 July. Merino and White Dorper ewes grazed the crops concurrently from 19 June to 12 August, and then lucerne–clover pasture until weaning on 29 September. In both experiments a mineral supplement was fed to ewes grazing wheat during the crop-grazing period.
Key results: Feed on offer was low (0.33 t/ha) in dual-purpose wheat crops at the start of grazing in Expt 1 and did not differ among genotypes at the cessation of grazing crops. Feed on offer was higher in wheat than canola at the commencement of grazing in Expt 2 (2.6 vs 2.3 t/ha; P = 0.009), and a higher stocking rate was maintained on wheat than canola from the start of lambing. White Dorper ewes maintained a higher body condition score than Merino ewes throughout both experiments. In Expt 2, some ewes had serum magnesium and calcium levels below the normal range, and a high number of ewes (20%) required assistance at lambing. Number of lambs weaned per ewe scanned pregnant was similar among genotypes in both experiments. WSD lambs were heaviest (P < 0.05) at weaning and DD lambs had greatest (P < 0.05) fat depth over the eye muscle at weaning.
Conclusions and implications: When grazed on a feedbase typical of mixed farms in the medium-rainfall zone of southern NSW, White Dorper ewes were in higher body condition than Merino ewes; however, reproductive rates were similar. Joining White Dorper ewes to a terminal sire may increase weaning weight of lambs compared with joining to a White Dorper ram, or a Merino maternal system.