When people talk about meat sheep nowadays, it’s Dorpers, Dohnes and SAMMs that spring to mind, but for most of the past 85 years Merino wethers and cast-for-age ewes formed the backbone of the industry in the state.
Issue after issue of the Queensland Country Life carried reports of the market at Cannon Hill saleyards in Brisbane, or in the case of an article from June 1941, when rain brought everything to a halt.
Heavy rains in the central west have prevented train loads of sheep arriving at Cannon Hill saleyards.
“One firm reported the cancellation of just under 4000 sheep owing to inability to truck them.
“Buyers now waiting at Barcaldine and Longreach have been unable to reach the stations where sheep are waiting for inspection.”
That report highlights the early reliance on rail as the means for moving sheep to slaughter, as memories by Roma’s pioneering road transport operator Fergus Williams show.
In 1939, it took 29 hours for a train-load of sheep to travel from Roma to Cannon Hill but Main Roads authorities forbade Mr Williams from taking his prime mover and self-made stock crate down the range at Toowoomba.
Thanks to the influence of local Member Jack Taylor, he was finally able to take a body truck load of fat lambs from Lindsay Whip’s Scattering Plains property all the way to Cannon Hill in 1947, and pave the way for others.
He remembered how suspicious graziers were of transport by truck and how they wouldn’t let him use a stick to prod sheep onto the truck, but also how much money was made from the clean sheep skins delivered to Cannon Hill by Williams transport, thanks to the careful transportation.
Mutton on the menu
Meat sheep in those days was all about mutton, which even consumers in tropical Cairns had a taste for, according to an August 1954 report that the city was permanently short of the meat except in the tourist season when three passenger ships a month landed 700 to 800 carcases, apparently originating in Melbourne.
The article said this was despite there being about 18 million sheep in Queensland, adding that some years earlier, regular supplies of sheep reached Cairns by rail from the north west, but drought and the high price of wool ended that trade.
“It is a further anomaly that farmers on the Atherton Tableland who have gone in for fat lamb raising complain that they cannot find a profitable outlet for their product!” our correspondent wrote. “This is a good example of how badly distribution of vital food products is organised!”
Among those featured on our pages at sheep shows are some surprising faces – a 10-year-old David Bondfield, now a successful Charolais breeder, described as “a proud lamb exhibitor” accepting a trophy at the Stanthorpe Show in 1969 for the best lambs sired by Dorset Horn rams.
“David selected the prize-winning lambs from his own small flock of Polwarth ewes mated with Dorset Horn rams,” the caption says.
In 1961, there’s a photograph of Angela, Marie and Howard Hobbs and their Border Leicester stud ram Charlie, at the Chinchilla Show.
Howard, who is better known as the former Member for Warrego when he was based at Tambo, remembers having several hundred ewes on their Thorneloe property, selling rams locally for people wanting to supply the fat lamb trade, making use of a crop of oats for the purpose.
“We thought they were very hardy animals, and I remember they’d go through any fence you put up,” he said.
While the Darling Downs was, and still is, the home of traditional British meat sheep breeds, Bundaberg is not where you’d expect to find many sheep.
However, in 1959 QCL reported on Protein Stock Foods P/L making use of finely chopped sugar cane mixed with lucerne, grain and molasses to feedlot wethers and lambs.
Some 10,000 head had been fed in a 12 month period, marketed through the Bundaberg Abattoir and supplying Childers and Howard.
While a surplus of sugar led to that anomaly, the loss of the wool floor price in 1991 and the subsequent sale of the stockpile gave exotic meat sheep breeds a foothold in Queensland, as producers explored other opportunities.
For Dorper Sheep Society board member David Curtis, it was more a case of needing a hardy animal for paddocks at Millmerran and no strong wool foundation that made Dorpers attractive.
He imported frozen embryos from Namibia and was the first in Australia to go through the breed standard course, travelling to South Africa for the final qualification.
He remembers imports beginning in general in the late 1990s and growers begin to experiment more with meat sheep in the early 2000s.
“People went from $50 a head for wool in the 1980s to $15/head, and shearers were getting older,” he said.
“It was a steep learning curve when it started – there were no preconceived ideas about what to do.
“People were being innovative – double joining and running less ewes but breeding more often, scanning lambs, importing frozen embryos and so on.”
In Mr Curtis’ eyes, the best part of the meat market these days is how well organised it is, thanks to groundwork by MLA, Thomas Foods International, Arcadian Organics, and Roger Fletcher.
The latter left his Glen Innes home in 1969, buying 5500 sheep at Hughenden and Winton, railing them to Blackall and then walking them home.
“I got a lot of experience and a little bit of money,” he said, adding that he had just wanted to make his way in the world, with money he’d saved up from rabbit trapping.
As well as the sheep, he had to buy horses from the ranger in Blackall, travelling his mob along the now little-used stock route past Homebush Station to Tambo, along the Ward, and via Charleville, Bollon and Dirranbandi.
“That’s how they survived – 1300km in five-and-a-half months – thanks to mulga,” Mr Fletcher recalled.
He did that for the next six years in the “biggest paddock in Australia”, supplying store markets.
“The drover’s camp is the greatest uni of all – you learn to cook, be the mechanic, the doctor and the weather forecaster,” he said.
Fletchers International is now one of Australia’s great agribusiness success stories and it’s Roger’s entrepreneurial drive that many credit Australia’s current position at the top of the sheep meat export market to.