Being presented with the 2023 Gundagai Lamb Producer of the Year was an unexpected consequence of the genetic direction Paul O'Connor, Brad Cavanagh and the Oxton Park team have taken with their self-replacing Merino flock.
It was also further proof that their goal to breed a dual-purpose Merino, with the capacity to produce a quality soft wool, on a plain bodied animal with superior meat qualities was being recognized by new objective measurement technology.
And crucial to their success has been the breeding of the own Poll Merino rams, albeit to a strict adherence to structure and type, when classed by Chris Bowman, Hay.
The journey began in the early 1990's not long after the collapse of the reserve price scheme.
"We wanted to go down the dual-purpose path with our Merinos," Mr O'Connor said.
"And we couldn't source the numbers of replacement rams of the type we needed so we decided to breed our own.
"Because we had ceased mulseing in 2008 we were able to attract and develop a very beneficial relationship with New Zealand Merino and the brands they buy for such as Icebreaker and Smartwool."
The biggest genetic influence in the Oxton Park flock in the last 12 years has come from the Bundilla Poll Merino stud at Young, and Mr O'Connor said the combination of subjective appraisal and objective measurement has served them well.
"The biggest improvement to our bottom line has come from the consistent improvement in daily weight gain of our Merino lambs," he said.
"Each year they have reached their target weights earlier than the year before."
Mr O'Connor credits Chris Bowman for the very positive influence on the Merino enterprise since coming on board as our sheep classer in 2013.
"Chris's considerable sheep classing skills and experience are complimented by his wonderful people skills to educate and inspire in particular the next generation members of the Oxton Park team," he said.
"We were particularly impressed with what Rick, Jill and Ross Baldwin were doing at Bundilla measuring all of the important traits like eye muscle, fat, yearling weight and fleece weight."
The Oxton Park team have also used Poll Boonoke and Anderson Rams genetics in more recent years with very positive results.
Mr Cavanagh said Merino lambs finished on grazing canola through late autumn and early winter had been sold to Gundagai Lamb from July 2021 when that meat processor introduced the marbling grid and encouraging producers to focus on quality carcase traits.
"I had been taught that the reputation of the eating quality of Australian lamb was due to the high content of Merino lamb," he said.
"If we were able to sell Merino lambs with a 35kg dressed weight, I thought we would get good feedback which would help with our breeding program."
When that first draft of lambs bred on Oxton Park were processed by Gundagai Lamb, Mr Cavanagh said 45 percent qualified for the premium due for the marble content.
"Maturity of the lambs was a factor, but our selection for rams based on their growth, fat and eye muscle measurements has lifted our overall production," he said.
"And with this award, we are even more focused on the marbling of our sheep, and trying to get them younger onto that grid."
Mr O'Connor said this award gives credibility to the Merino for what it can produce as a breed, other than being singularly a wool producer.
"We are still focused on wool, it is an important enterprise for my family," he said.
"But we have shown that the Merino is also capable of producing quality meat, and we are being paid a premium for the quality."
Mr Cavanagh said the feedback provided by Gundagai Lamb has allowed the Oxton Park team to see, objectively, the breeding and management practices they are doing well, and where they can improve.
"It is a powerful tool for a business of this scale, as every time we increase our carcass value per head, it has a positive impact on our bottom line," he said.
Since Oxton Park has been involved with Gundagai Lamb, over 11,000 lambs have been processed at an average weight of 27.55kg dressed weight with 61pc graded GLQ5+, the highest grade.
"Every lamb that goes into that grade gave us a $22 per head premium at 27.5kg dressed weight," Mr Cavanagh said. "This award is recognition for the small things we do to ensure every lamb destined for Gundagai Lamb is as good as it can be."