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Blackall Merino stud celebrated 120 years in business in 2016

Queensland Country LifeReported by:
Sally Cripps

Western Queensland in 1896 was a booming place. Most of the country had been settled, artesian water had been discovered and Jackie Howe had shorn with blades his world record of 321 sheep in a day’s work at Blackall.

The town was a focus for wool production and had seen partnerships such as the one between Victorian parliamentarian and racing enthusiast Donald Wallace and RG Casey, who took on the management of Terrick Terrick station in 1883.

In a decade of management documented by the latter’s son, Lord Casey, no profit was made from the 561,305ha (1,387,000 acres) aggregation, carrying 370,000 sheep and 5000 cattle, largely because when the price of wool began to fall, Casey resorted to over-stocking, combined with abnormal droughts and floods.

Wallace made the decision to sell his vast Blackall holding to the Australian Estates and Mortgage Co Ltd in 1896, who immediately set about selecting 850 ewes from the 99,155 ewes available to them as part of the Terrick Terrick flock, and started the Merino stud.

For the next 83 years, the stud was under the management of Australian Estates and saw some of the most influential sheep breeders in Australia trained on the property, men such as Ray Murdoch, Ken Riley, Howard Holmes, Duncan McDonald and Basil Clapham.

One of those, Peter Harvey modestly says that Terrick Terrick “played its part” in Queensland’s wool history.

“When Australian Estates had the properties (which included Gowan Poll Merino Stud), we were one of the biggest ram sellers in the state,” Mr Harvey said.

Up to 3800 horned and poll rams were sold in the late 1960s, producing wool mostly in the 21 micron range.

“Our clients ranged from Surat to Julia Creek so they had a wide variety of needs,” Mr Harvey said.

The stud’s current owners, Rick and Jenny Keogh, believe that Australian Estates’ ideals contributed greatly to its longevity, employing quality people who engendered a spirit of loyalty.

“Managers maintained the stud’s relevance over an extended period,” Rick said. “They produced acclimatised rams for Queensland; that was their secret.”

The stud was taken over by CSR Pastoral Division in 1979 and in 1985 was sold to NM Rural Enterprises Pty Ltd.

Its future looked uncertain at the beginning of a new millenium as Queensland’s central west began making a transition to cattle production, but in September 2001, the stud, comprising 54 stud sires and 2187 ewes was sold to Rick and Jenny, who changed the name from Terrick Terrick to Terrick Merinos to save confusion with the original property.

Relevant rangeland genetics

Rick and Jenny Keogh never expected to be owning a Merino stud.

Bright future: Jenny and Rick Keogh and some of their 2015 drop stud sires. Terrick Merinos are fielding healthy inquiries for rams this year. Picture: Sally Cripps.

 Bright future: Jenny and Rick Keogh and some of their 2015 drop stud sires. Terrick Merinos are fielding healthy inquiries for rams this year. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Rick, a former Terrick Terrick employee, explained that when he was selecting rams for people, they were asking where they would get their rams from if Terrick closed down.

“We took up the opportunity – it seemed like a natural progression,” he said.

They moved the operation further south in the Blackall district to their home base at Amaroo, where their first four years were “quite challenging” when it didn’t rain.

“It has been a good business decision in the end,” Jenny said. “We had a small amount of country so it was value-adding for us.

“And in 2001, when the stud was 105 years old, buying a piece of history was quite nice.”

While respecting that history, she said they had stamped their own brand on the rams they bred, using as much modern technology as they had available – sire evaluation, benchmarking, indexing, DNA footprinting and electronic tagging.

AI programs have used sires from Nerstane, Pooginook, Bilandri, Toland, Charinga, Banavie, Centre Plus and Well Gully, and 120 ewes from Caranna Merino Stud have been purchased, as well as 320 Lambert ewes in 2014. 

After weathering some of the driest years on record, the couple say the stud is experiencing healthy ram orders and they feel very confident about the sheep industry in western Queensland over the next 10 years.

“The fact that cluster fences are going up is creating opportunity,” Rick said.

“I think AWI should take note thought, that 75 per cent of the people who say they are going back into sheep want to run Dorpers.

“It’s imperative that people recognise a self-replacing Merino flock is as profitable as any, and very manageable in a drought.

“A pure meat sheep isn’t a straight swap with a Merino, in DSE terms.”

Rick believes that Merino wools are very homogenous today, with a very narrow micron range, and he believes the direct to mills supply chain idea is worthy of re-examination in a world where skilled labour is almost non-existent.

“We don’t mind paying people; it’s just that we can’t get any,” he said.

The perception that running Merino sheep was hard work needed adjusting, according to Rick, saying that genetically, breeders had moved away from features that encouraged fly-strike in sheep, and chemicals these days lasted six months.

Commenting on the differences, he remembered dealing with a fly wave in 1978, when he woke up to one-third of a mob with their heads down kicking.

“We jetted 20,000 – that took a month and then we had to turn round and start again. That just doesn’t happen nowadays.”

He and Jenny are proud of the type of animal they’re breeding for Queensland conditions.

“Some southern genetics aren’t working up here on an environmental basis,” Rick said.

“On paper they should be way ahead, on an in-flock analysis, against our genetics, but they’re just not.

“We make a point of not pampering our sheep so they can live in our environment.”

Full circle

Dingoes and then wild dogs have always been part of Terrick Terrick’s history and Rick and Jenny say the stud was once again a leader in showing Queensland how they could be managed in conjunction with sheep production.

The Terrick Trust group collectively built a 292km-long fence in 1923, employing boundary riders and trappers, which lasted successfully for 80 years.

“Dogs weren’t an issue when I was there (in the 1970s and 1980s),” Rick said. “Jack Dearmer and George Dern both worked there for 30 years, men it was a privilege to learn from.”

He said wild dogs had cost their operation $1.5m in 2015, at a conservative count, and he was pleased to see banks showing a willingness to lend money for fencing.

He’d now like to see technology put towards further protective advances, things such as thermal imaging and virtual fencing, in order to keep on top of the dogs that would inevitably be fenced in.

“Despite eight comprehensive baiting campaigns after we fenced, we caught 27 dogs inside,” he said. “If you don’t get on top of it ASAP, all the outlay will be wasted.”

Terrick Merinos is a stud that has stood the test of time and continues to be a force in the contemporary wool industry.

Old ways: A Terrick Terrick stud ram from the 1940s. Nearly 4000 rams were sold to clients the length of the state at a peak in the 1960s. Picture sourced from State Library of Queensland.

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