Rule Breakers

It isn’t just the people who do things differently on Roseville Park Merino Stud.

Photography MIKE BELL

A mob of Merinos gather on a small rise overlooking the main cluster of buildings on Roseville Park.

When Matthew Coddington was 17, the sheep industry was in crisis. It was 1990 and the Federal Government had started the flock reduction program, paying farmers $1.80 a head to kill their sheep. “We were running 15,000–16,000 sheep then,” Matthew says.

One of his first jobs after finishing school was shooting the animals and dragging them into a pit. “I came home from school in Year 12 and did that,” he says. “Welcome to the wool industry.”

Matthew Coddington records the weight of the wool that comes off each sheep, to improve the stud.

A quarter of a century later, Matthew runs the multi-award winning Roseville Park Merino Stud, with 10,000 sheep that are “breaking all the rules of genetics”, and the biggest Merino artificial insemination program in Australia. The stud’s monster
rams, weighing 150 kilograms, have produced clips of up to 17kg of 17-micron wool, and they are still remarkably fecund, with
flocks averaging 112 percent fertility rates, peaking at up to 140%.

“We had four ewes that were just freaks – they were 115–120kg and they were all 17-micron sheep,” Matthew says. The stud won the most successful exhibit at every show for 12 months, and commanded the highest average price in New South Wales in 2013, with the top 200 rams generating $600,000. “For a pretty crappy farm it turns out a pretty nice income for us,” Matthew says.

Set in rolling granite farmland in central New South Wales about 40 kilometres south of Dubbo and 340 metres above sea level, Roseville Park is a 4400-hectare conglomerate of adjoining properties: ‘Glenwood’, ‘Currawarra’, ‘Springwood’ ‘Strathgled’ and ‘North Meadows’. Healthy bands of black pine and impressive box trees are sprinkled like seasoning around the paddocks, and about 80% of the pastures are native grasses.

Roseville Park Merino Flock

“We get a really good natural grass that grows here in summer called Warrego grass – it’s really good feed,” Matthew says. But it isn’t all like that. There are areas of poor sandy soils and poorer feed, with weeds and acidic soils taking their toll.

“People come here and don’t believe it. They think it must be all lowland lucerne,” Matthew says. “A lot of the flats have been sown to lucerne, but unfortunately we just don’t have enough of those flats.”

Matthew says the tough conditions in the paddocks actually help them produce stronger sheep that thrive elsewhere. “I want them to be able to go ahead when they leave here,” he says. Thankfully, the climate works in the stud’s favour. “The lowest it really gets is –1 or –2 degrees Celsius, so we can get some growth in the winter,” Matthew says. “And the rainfall in Dubbo is evenly distributed – basically 55 millimetres a month. So you can have green feed throughout the year.

“We’ve got two main creeks that run either side of the farm, and they’ve got permanent waterholes that have never run dry, so we’re pretty secure that way. A lot of people are fencing off waterways to regenerate them, but we’ve found with our low stocking rates that isn’t necessary on most paddocks, however 10km of waterways have been fenced off.” Matthew points out creek lines that are naturally restocking with white and yellow box.

Unlike farmers who have taken up cell grazing with enthusiasm, splitting larger paddocks into multiple smaller ones, Matthew is making his paddocks bigger. “Particularly where there are water crossings,” he says. “By opening it up, there are more places for the sheep to cross, so they don’t damage them and I don’t have to maintain them as much.”

It’s part of Matthew’s counter-cultural farming regimen, in which he is often ahead of the mob. Since he took over the Merino stud in 2005, Matthew has been heavily involved in research groups and efforts to improve sheep genetics (he’s the current director of MerinoLink, a non-profit group that combines new Merino research with existing information), so often adopts new techniques before they become mainstream.

After being involved in the inception of Sheep Genetics Australia, Matthew became an industry advisor on the first advisory committee, meeting a range of people who were “thinking outside the square”. “We’re still getting funding for research and doing different trials,” he says. “If there’s new technology being researched or tested, I’ll get onto it straight away.”

The pride and joy of the stud is the ram shed, built in 1991. It shelters 17 of the best rams and 10 of the best ewes in the country. Housed inside for about 20 hours a day, these superstars are kept company by adoring fans (electric) and are fed a rich diet of molasses, barley hay, lupins, oats and minerals.

“This is like the shopfront of our stud, that you use to promote and market your rams,” Matthew says. “You get to grow them to their best genetic potential.” After letting the large rams out for some sun and fresh grass, two rams start a serious physical contest, slamming their 130kg frames headfirst into each other.

130kg prize rams butt heads with a thud

The thud as they clash seems to shake the ground itself. “They’re just re-sorting themselves out,”he says. “They get a bit this way if we haven’t let them out for a while, so I try to let them out every day. We find they grow more if you let them out 3–4 hours a day. It kicks in their metabolism and then they go in and eat even more.”

In late afternoon, with scattered clouds looking like rogue Merinos in need of mustering, the five Coddington children help bring in a mob for shearing on horseback. They plod past box trees and granite outcrops, while apostle birds chatter in the cypress. From a Gator, mum Cherie keeps a wary eye on four-year old Timmy. “He’s not such a great rider yet, but he makes up for it in bravery,” she says.

Eleven-year-old Millie, riding confidently in a checked shirt, occasionally sidles up and holds Timmy’s reins for him, while 13-year-old Charlie encourages his older sister to get in front of the mob. Although the children love riding and compete in a lot of gymkhanas, Matthew doesn’t share their enthusiasm: “I haven’t ridden since I was five, and I ain’t starting now,” he says.

The children are the sixth generation of Coddingtons to be farming Merinos, a dynasty that started with Charles Coddington migrating from England in 1880. All the children are competent around the farm, but Charlie, Savannah and Timmy are passionate about it, spending as much time out in the paddocks as they can.

In 2009, Matthew and his wife Cherie decided to give Charlie and Savannah their own project, a Charollais sheep stud that now has about 300 ewes. “It gives them a bit of an incentive to help out when they get the chance,” Matthew says.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Savannah says, describing the first couple of Charollais that Matthew brought home from a sale. “Charlie and I just loved those sheep – we thought they were the coolest thing ever. That was our Christmas present.”

The pair have been regularly showing them at agricultural shows, such as Dubbo. “We’re trying to get them out there so they become more prominent,” Savannah says. “We got champion at Dubbo, but there was only one other stud showing them,” Charlie says. “They’re nothing like the other sheep. They’ve got a lot more meat and more muscle.”

The older children board at Kinross Wolaroi School in Orange, about one and a half hours away, but come home on weekends. “We chose a school where they don’t miss out on everything,” Cherie says. The younger ones catch the school bus into Dubbo, and Timmy goes to preschool twice a week, giving Cherie a chance to sit in the library in town and study for a real estate valuation course.

“I’d like to do a bit more of my own work, but it’s so busy here, it’s hard to fit it in,” she says. “I do all the admin – the book work, the website, keeping that updated so it’s very relevant, and then just following this herd around,” she says, indicating the five children. “I see the farm as my business, but if something happened to Matt tomorrow, I couldn’t run the stud. I’ve told Matthew that when I’m 60–65 I’m done. There are days when it’s really full-on. You just don’t stop. Then, once you’re travelling to shows from July–November, you have extra stuff on. Even the normal stuff takes a lot of time.”

Growing up on a rice farm at Coleambally in the Riverina, Cherie completed an agricultural degree and became a trained teacher in Canberra. She met Matthew when they were both working on Haddon Rig Merino Stud near Warren, NSW.

“When I first met Matt he was having a game of poker … and he was cheating,” Cherie says. “He had cards under the table. So I didn’t like him to start with. He’s always been a bit cheeky like that. But then I started to work with him and we really did click.”

The woolshed (centre) sits across the track from the homestead

Across the dirt drive from the homestead, with its swimming pool, 1.2ha garden and a menagerie of rabbits, guinea pigs, chooks, a couple of goats and the mini fox terriers that Cherie breeds, a spacious room off the four-stand 1950s shearing shed holds a vast woollen tapestry of Mother Nature, disrobed in all her splendour. It was once a backdrop at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Awards and ribbons are displayed around the room.

When Matthew was young, this room was used as a tourist showpiece. “We used to get a lot of Japanese tourists – we’d tell them the story of wool and what it can do,” he says. “I was still 19–20 when I did it. I was the main person. We’d shear a sheep, we’d auction a cow, feed poddy calves and lambs. We did damper on a stick. Now it’s just too busy for us to run.”

Matthew is involved in various committees, such as the NSW Stud Merino Breeders’ Association, so the room is now used for workshops, meetings and education. “We educate clients on profit drivers and things like that,” he says. “I believe sustainability in our industry is also about education and improving business skills.”

The kids hold some of the mini fox terriers that Cherie breeds (l-r) at front, Tessa, Charlie, Millie, and Timothy and at back, Cherie, Savannah and Matthew

Matthew points at some of the photos of prize-winning Merinos from his father’s and grandfather’s time. “They’ve doubled in size since 1946,” he says. “This ram here [a 2012 winner] weighed 155kg, whereas that one [pointing to one from the 1960s] probably weighed 55kg.” He says the sheep have become plainer too, with less skin folds, making shearing easier, and meaning sheep have less chance of becoming flyblown.

The photographs testify that the Merino stud has been winning awards pretty much since it was formed by Matthew’s grandfather in 1938. Then called Roseville Merino Stud, based at Kingsvale, central New South Wales, it won one of the earliest known wether trials at Cootamundra three years in succession in the late 1940s.

Matthew’s father Graham and uncle took over the stud in 1974, but dissolved the partnership in 1987, with Graham and his wife
Sally forming Roseville Park Merino Stud. By then they were based at the ‘Glenwood’ property, where the homestead is. In another rule-breaking trend, succession on Roseville Park happened early, efficiently and seemingly with smiles all round.

With the help of a succession planner, in July 2005, with Matthew just 32 years old, he and Cherie bought the stud and the properties Glenwood and Currawarra. They added this to Springwood, which they’d bought in 2002. “The best thing that happened to us was that succession – for our relationship and for the business – because it gave us such control of our own destiny,”

Cherie says. “You see people our age who still have to go to their father to get money to do anything. I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were really lucky.” At the same time, Cherie and Matt felt the burden of taking it on, and having to prove themselves. “They had built up a very good business, but it was a huge level of responsibility,” Cherie says. “Can we continue this on?”

The pair have not just continued, but excelled, growing the business more than threefold. They continue to win award after award, adding many new ribbons each year, including Champion August Shorn Ewe Overall at the 2014 Great Southern Supreme Merino Show and Best Exhibit of five August-shorn sheep at the 2014 Sydney Royal Easter Show for the 14th time in 20 years.

The homestead is like a giant trophy cabinet. In recent years they’ve been selling rams for more than $20,000, and have become the number one seller of Merino semen in New South Wales, averaging 3000 doses a year. From one super ram, nicknamed ‘Barry’, they sold so much semen that they named the large outdoor dining area after him – Barry’s Shed.

Such outstanding results can be attributed to the care that goes into benchmarking and constantly lifting the quality of the flock. Genetic benchmarking means recording data for different characteristics of individual sheep – such as weight, wool weight, fecundity, health and growth rates – and comparing them to the best statistics for the breed.

Matthew also puts his flock up to the scrutiny of others through a heavy show schedule. He says many graziers do only one or the other – genetic benchmarking or showing stock. “We do both – phenotype and genotype,” he says. “It’s about getting both of those right. You’ve got to have them genetically right and physically right.“

This year we had lots of maiden ewes with 10kg of wool. I think we’ll average 7.4kg across all the adult ewes. We had the best maiden ewes doing 12kg of 18-micron wool with plenty of witnesses. You often hear those sorts of figures and no-one will believe it, but we had lots of people in the shed who saw it.”

Matthew has stopped using wool classers, as the price difference between 18 and 22 microns is only about $1 a kilo. “The gain now is about providing more kilos, body weight and then fertility. They’re the three main profit drivers.”

Shed hands separate the belly, shanks and the stained wool, and the fleeces are individually weighed and recorded before being dropped straight into the press. “Usually, as the genetics go, the finer the cut, the less you grow, but our sheep are doing both – 18-micron wool and lots of it … We try to shear most of our top sires ourselves – you learn more about the sheep, the fleeces and how well they shear.”

Shearing is primarily done in March, with a second small clip in December. The main lambing is May/June and Matthew personally performs artificial insemination (AI) on 2700 of his ewes each year. “Twenty-five seconds and we’re in and out,” he says. “I’ve done 450 in one day, but I find it better to sit on 350 a day.”

The best 15 ewes are selected to be the sources for embryonic transfer. They are flushed three times, six weeks apart, in October, mid-December and around Australia Day. This year that generated 240 embryos, which were put into ewes that have already reared and weaned one lamb. “An embryo is worth about $200,” Matthew says. “Our current stick rate is about 75%.”

Out in the paddocks, the emphasis remains on keeping stock levels low, but quality high. “Over 8000 sheep we’re going to get an extra 8 tonne of wool just by looking after them,” he says. “If your stock levels are too high, you’re pressuring your country, you’re pressuring your own state of mind and you’re not gaining anything. You get an extra 20% of lambs just by treating them better.”

After various rounds of culling, just the best ewes are retained. Roseville Park holds an annual September on-farm ram sale of 150 rams and another 50 are auctioned at a depot sale in Hamilton, Victoria. A further 500 rams are available for private sale to buyers who come over the rest of the year. “The top two are about all we keep out of a drop of 1500 rams,” Matthew says.

There are 700 buyers of their rams on the books and last year 300 people came to the auction, including 76 registered buyers and 26 registered Merino stud buyers. “Three of the top 10 woolgrowers in Australia use our genetics,” Matthew says.

To provide some extra cash flow, Matthew and Cherie also trade cattle. They grow lucerne for hay, and oats and barley crops to provide fodder for the stock. He puts superphosphate on the pastures every second year. “These New-Age types say ‘don’t fertilise’ but it’s the best way to improve the condition of the stock.”

Charlie, Savannah and Tessa enjoy some horseback mustering

Matthew believes that succession of employment is just as important as family succession, and he enjoys employing young trainees. “We do our own fencing, cropping, spraying, mustering, hay-making, general maintenance, yard building and all of the artificial breeding. By the time someone leaves here, there’s pretty much nothing they can’t do,” he says. “Now, because of our reputation, we’ve stopped needing to advertise for employees.”

His capable staff, Grant Judd, Ross Howard and trainee Alice Woodlock, all speak kindly of Matthew and Cherie. After the annual ram sale and when the wool clip is sold, the staff receive a bonus. “They’re so good to work for,” Grant says. “If you look after them, they’ll look after you.”

“Matt and Cherie basically treat you like one of the family – they keep you involved,” Ross says. “When you hold a ram at the show, if it wins, you get to hold it for the photos. Other farmers come in at the end to take all the credit.”

Over the past decade, Matthew has grown his export business so well that Roseville Park’s flock now influences 70% of the estimated 1.6 million Merinos in Uruguay. Roseville Park Merino semen is now also sold in Argentina, New Zealand, Russia and South Africa, and the station’s sheep have an influence on more than 250 Merino studs worldwide.

Matthew says the challenge now is keeping doing what they are doing. “It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s harder staying there,” he says.

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