Australian Sheep and Wool Show entrants in Bendigo talk about change in their industry

The experience of sheep breeders visiting Bendigo this week for a showcase of their prized animals tells the tale of an industry in transformation. 

More than 3000 ovine animals from hundreds of studs across the country will vie for ribbons at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show from tomorrow.

Among the hopeful entrants is fifth-generation merino farmer Winston McDonald. 

He and wife Sue have entered every Bendigo show since the event shifted from Melbourne two decades ago, making the eight-hour drive from Wallendbeen, New South Wales.  

The family shifted their Royalla stud to the rural town when the the suburban sprawl of Canberra began encroaching on their farmland. But a change of scenery was not the only transformation the breeders witnessed, they said. 

Champion sheep that might have once bore more than 20 kilograms of fleece were these days likely to return weights of just 16 kilograms, Mr McDonald said. 

Wiston McDonald. Picture: MARK KEARNEY

Wiston McDonald. Picture: MARK KEARNEY

The change was a consequence of there being fewer, less-skilled shearers available, he said.

Typically prized for their wool, the purpose for which merinos were being bred was also changing; more farmers were beginning to spy opportunity in the meat market – though it was still a touchy topic among many traditional breeders. 

The ability to transport fresh produce quickly overseas was another new phenomenon to which the McDonalds were witness. 

“It’s a lack of protein in the world, the world will buy protein in any form,” Mrs McDonald said. 

Border Leicester breeders Graham and Isabella Grinter were among the first to arrive at the Bendigo showgrounds on Thursday.

While the pair still relied on fleece from their flock to raise an income, but viewed change as a constant feature of the job. 

Mr Grinter said the fortunes of farmers always at the whim of food and fashion trends.

“It all goes back to what you’re wearing and what the household is eating,” the sheep breeder of 55 years said. 

The Retallack Stud owners transported 22 sheep from Ariah Park, New South Wales. for this year’s competition, and Mr Grinter believed Bendigo was a better fit to host the show than its predecessor, Melbourne.

“It’s a very easy, country, relaxed style,” he said.  

Shipshape for sheep showcase

The desire to parade their animals and meet up with mates is so strong among some Australian Sheep and Wool Show breeders that they will not only travel long distances, but take unusual modes of transport to reach the regional Victorian destination. 

Breeders from as far afield as Western Australia were in town on Thursday in preparation for the weekend’s judging.  

Several flocks were transported to mainland Australia on passenger ship the Spirit of Tasmania to be in the running for a ribbon.  

Shipping sheep across the seas was not unusual to South Australian stud owner Rachel Chirgwin, who began her Curlew Valley Stud on Kangaroo Island before shifting to north of Adelaide.  

As much as Ms Chirgwin hoped her two ewes and three rams would take a prize home from Bendigo, she said the main motivation to hit the road was catching up with friends. 

“For me, the show is about benchmarking yourself against others, but really it’s a social opportunity.”

Wool show’s good will

Australia is often said to have rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back, and now a Bendigo charity is hoping the animal can give its cause a deserved boost.

The OTIS Foundation has been selected as this year’s beneficiary of fleece sales from the Bendigo Sheep and Wool Show.

The Bendigo-based not-for-profit provides retreat accommodation at no cost to people dealing with the challenges of breast cancer.

One of its locations, family retreat Kez’s Hideaway, stands in Redesdale, just 50 kilometres from where the fleece will go on show this weekend.  

The wool from more than 400 sheep vied for top honours in this year’s competition, judged during the three-day event at the Prince of Wales showgrounds. 

With about 85 per cent of the entered fleece to be auctioned off for the charity later this year – and considering an average fleece rakes in about $15 for every kilogram of wool – the OTIS Foundation looks set to receive a handsome donation. 

The community contribution is befitting of an event backed by volunteer support.

The show’s chief executive officer, Margot Falconer, said the event would not be possible without the assistance of almost 100 unpaid workers who gave time to set-up and run the venue. 

Among those lending a hand were visitors from Geelong and Ocean Grove, members of community group Blaze Aid.

After coming to the assistance of Black Saturday victims, Blaze Aid volunteers have since offered help to other worthy causes, including the Bendigo agricultural showcase. 

Australian Fleece Competition convenor Candice Cody this week told Fairfax Media a large number of Corriedale fleeces were registered for the Bendigo competition, as well as a good representation of woolgrowers from Tasmania.

“We set the bar quite high so to get full points for any characteristics the fleece needs to be a very good performer - for a commercial sheep to hit the target is an extraordinary effort,” Ms Cody said. 

“Wool exporters are consulted and benchmarks are reviewed when required. It has grown to the premier fleece competition and the largest of its kind.”