Global merino conference in Otago: president says industry better than ever

World Federation of Merino Breeders president Will Roberts reckons he has never seen the merino industry has never been so good as it is now.

Mr Roberts and his wife Nada have been in Otago attending the Merino Excellence 2020 Congress, and Mr Roberts also judged at the Wanaka A&P Show.

The couple farm a 13,000ha sheep and cattle property in Queensland, originally bought by Mr Roberts’ family in 1906. The Victoria Downs merino stud was established in 1911.

The World Federation of Merino Breeders has 14 member countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, France, Lesotho, South Africa, Uruguay and Hungary, and Mr Roberts described it as like an "information exchange" organisation.

A conference was held every four years, and the next would be in Hungary in 2022. Four years ago, an interim conference was instigated; New Zealand was invited to host a one-day conference and tour this year.

The event had attracted people from around the world, including Kazakhstan, and it was hoped that country would join the federation.

The opportunities from being involved with the merino industry had been "staggering" — "it’s taken us everywhere", Mr Roberts said.

He had been president of the Queensland Merino Stud Sheepbreeders Association and the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders and judged around Australia, as well as at Christchurch and, now, Wanaka.

He had also been on a tour with Australia Wool Innovation, talking to retailers around the world and at an International Wool Textile Organisation conference in Italy.

World Federation of Merino Breeders president Will Roberts, of Queensland, judges an all-breeds...
World Federation of Merino Breeders president Will Roberts, of Queensland, judges an all-breeds class at the Wanaka A&P Show on Saturday. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
That was all about getting people to understand what farmers were doing, and ensuring they got the message that they were farming responsibly, he said.

His involvement with the world federation was an opportunity to give back to an industry that he believed in and that had also provided a "reasonable living".

On their own property, the Roberts had had their lowest rainfall ever in 2017 since the property’s records began in 1906 — but then that was superceded in 2018 and again last year.

Because of strong commodity prices, they had been able to "keep going quite strongly" and continue doing a lot of development work on the property.

Usually in a drought situation, farmers were cash poor "because everything’s worth nothing", Mr Roberts said.

He was very impressed with the merino sheep he had seen in New Zealand, saying they compared very favourably with their Australian counterparts.

Both countries were fortunate to have high levels of management and genetics, he said.

When it came to judging duties, Mr Roberts loved assessing animals and giving an opinion.

One of the most important things was to try to communicate those assessments to those who were watching the judging.

It was not all about winning in the show ring; rather, showing sheep allowed breeders to evaluate their animals and see if they were hitting the goals they had set themselves.

People should "never get too hung up on winning and losing".

Asked what he liked about merinos, Mr Roberts said they were "very malleable" — "you can make them what you want" — and the more you put into them, the more they gave you. "That’s not necessarily dollars and cents. Sheep just reward you for the effort you put in," he said.

Mr Roberts also said breeding animals was very exciting — "whether you’re breeding canaries or fish, that’s what I like. We’ve just got caught up in the merino side of things".

One of the nice aspects of the industry involvement was the people they had got to meet. Having previously not really ventured out of Queensland, they started showing sheep at Sydney in the early 1990s and, as a result, started to get known by others.

That had led to the judging invitations throughout Australia and the forging of new connections, which had been very exciting for the family, he said.

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