An African sheep breed which calls the Kalahari desert home is proving its worth to a growing number of Australia’s drought-stricken graziers.
When the first dorpers arrived in Australia in 1996, not much attention was paid to them, but their performance in successive droughts has seen the meat breed surge in popularity.
For the owners of Bellevue grazing company at Millmerran in south-east Queensland, dorpers have kept their business viable.
The Curtis family said if they had held on to their merino sheep, they would have been forced to totally destock, but now they have healthy pregnant dorper ewes, many with twins, surviving in very dry paddocks.
Sophie Curtis said the key to the breed’s survivability was its similarity to goats and willingness to eat almost anything.
“They won’t survive on dry ground, but they are non-selective browsers so they will go and nibble on the eucalypt, bark thistle or whatever, they’re not fussy at all,” she said.
Sophie’s father David Curtis said they’re the right sheep for the driest continent in the world.
“This is our third year of being drought declared and our bottom line has not changed,” he said.
“They’ve just held firm.”
At Aramac in western Queensland, the cattle are long gone from Shandonvale station.
Deon and Lane Stent-Smith sold their herd in 2014 and moved into dorpers.
Mr Stent-Smith said carcass yields were high and the sheep reached target weights earlier than other breeds, with lambing percentages well over 100 per cent.
“What I have seen is unbelievable, they certainly are a tough animal,” he said.
“Even though it’s been dry the last two years, one mob’s averaged [a lambing percentage of] about 155 per cent and the other about 125 per cent.”
The growing interest in dorpers was evident at a recent annual sale run by the van Niekerk family, who are established breeders of one of Australia’s earliest studs, the Dell dorper.
The clearance rate at their Moama property in southern New South Wales was 100 per cent.
There to buy six rams were local father and son Don and John Douglas, who sold all their merino sheep after the millennium drought and visited a dorper breeder who suggested switching out of wool.
“His dorpers were eating virtual gravel, let me put it that way,” Don Douglas said.
“I was most impressed and they’ve delivered beyond expectations.”
John Douglas said their drought tolerance totally surprised him.
“To be really honest I’m not really a sheep man, I’m a numbers man and I love the numbers we get out of the dorpers,” he said.
Dell Dorpers Australia owners Jean and Moozie van Niekerk and their daughter Andrea moved to Australia from South Africa 14 years ago.
They also have an embryo transfer and artificial insemination business and export dorper genetics around the world.
“We’re selling to Spain, Germany, Finland — China’s probably our biggest market and then the US is pretty big,” Jean van Niekerk said.
Russia is also buying Australian dorpers, but it wants live animals.
Last year, livestock agency Landmark organised a trial shipment of nearly 18,000 dorpers for a Russian client.
The consignment of 16,000 ewes and 70 rams was sourced from nearly 50 producers in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and Landmark has said it’s discussing another shipment next year.