Alan's cover image


Year of Award: 2007 Award State: Tasmania Agriculture > Meat And Dairy
The Jack Green Churchill Fellowship to research cross-breeding options to establish an Australian breed of dairy sheep - USA, Canada, Italy, Israel

To make the geographical move from Queensland to Tasmania and a professional shift from financial planning and law to raising dairy sheep for cheese-making puts new meaning into the phrase ‘sea change’. This is what Alan Irish and his then partner Diane Rae did, aiming to establish an Australian breed of dairy sheep suited to the Tasmanian climate and conditions. Were they being enterprising, or simply foolhardy?

They bought a flock of East Friesland sheep for their Birch’s Bay property 35 kilometres south of Hobart. It seemed a positive first step: these sheep had the reputation for being the best milking sheep in the world. To have a vibrant sheep dairying industry requires sheep that are able to produce large quantities of milk during each lactation. Genetic disposition to multiple births was another advantage. The plan was for each animal’s potential to produce an annual gross income of about $2,000 over a productive life of six or seven years. With the size of their flock this would produce an adequate income. So far, so logical.

However, it soon became clear that the East Friesland breed had weak lungs, making them highly susceptible to colds and pneumonia. Invariably the latter was fatal. Tasmania’s cold, damp climate did not help. They realised that this congenital weakness of the breed would result in unsustainable stock losses.

But they did not give up. When Alan gained a Churchill Fellowship in 2007, he and Diane had the opportunity to travel to the United States, Canada, Israel, Italy, France, England and Ireland to examine the operation of dairy sheep farms abroad. It was in Ireland where they learned that the propensity for their breed of sheep to develop pneumonia was not limited to Australia. An Irish dairy farmer said to them, ‘The East Frieslands love to die – all they need is the opportunity!’

In Roquefort, the area in France renowned for the outstanding blue cheese made from raw sheep’s milk, the breed developed is the Lacaune, which are multiple-birthers, exceptional milk producers, and well adapted to the local conditions. In Sardinia, where the local breed is the Sardi, they had the same felicitous traits. In these areas sheep breeding and yoghurt and cheese production are large, successful industries.

Viewing thriving dairy sheep farms such as these, it became clear to Alan and Diane that they needed to expand the breeds of milking sheep available in Australia or develop a breed suited to Australian conditions. Both options proved too expensive, difficult and time consuming because of quarantine requirements and other complications. The only alternative was to breed up a strain of dairy sheep using the breeds already available in this country, while assessing them over time to determine their suitability for local conditions.

Research both at the University of Wisconsin’s Spooner Agricultural Research Station and later at the Israeli Department of Agricultural and Animal Science confirmed that it would be necessary to keep the proportion of East Friesland genetics in a cross-bred sheep to 50 to 75 per cent of the overall genetic material.

In 2007 Diane Rae bought Alan out of his share of the farm and now runs it on her own with a farm cellar door tourist facility, which continues to be successful.

Excerpt from “Inspiring Australians” written by Penny Hanley (2015)

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