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Tough decisions require courage

KEVIN Feakins hales from Hereford in England; he has always been a sheep farmer – like his father and grandfather before him.

He has spent some time as a live export agent of store lambs to France after a chance meeting with an abattoir representative on a holiday.

Life has dealt some big lessons for Kevin and his wife, Gina, who are now settling into life in south-west Victoria, at Cudgee.

It is a life that should really be told in a biography – it would be a tough but fascinating read.

For Kevin and Gina, being caught up in the ‘Foot and Mouth Disease’ - outbreak in England in 2001, was utterly devastating.

The government very hastily took over the Feakins’ property and shot all their livestock and buried all equipment – because it was easier to bury it than clean it - and placed the farm in lock down.

Kevin explained the government’s answer to this crisis was to bury everything – including chemicals and fertiliser – because the mentality at the time was ‘if you can’t see it, then it can be forgotten about, and it looks like they (the government) have done something’.

KEVIN Feakins and his Charolais sheep enjoy the grass at Cudgee. Photo: JODI FRY.

The Feakins family was effectively left with nothing and took the government to court which took a period of six years. 

The government tried to drag the legal action on long enough for it to pass the statute of limitations – thus becoming null and void, but they did not count on the tenacity of the Feakins’, who had absolutely nothing left to lose.

Eventually, the matter reached a conclusion finding in favour of the Feakins’. 

Kevin and Gina remain outraged at the levels the government would go to in order to completely obliterate their claim.

It has left them both with a very unsavoury opinion of government - who have no knowledge or understanding of agriculture practice and are relentlessly interfering and over regulatory. 

A prime example of this, was when an inspector told Kevin that the area around the bale feeder had become boggy (from foot traffic from the stock) and told Kevin to re-seed it.

Kevin explained to the inspector, that the seed would not germinate at this that time of year – to which he was told he had three weeks to do it. 

Farming was still firmly on their agenda but a new location out of the United Kingdom needed to be found. 

After research, the Feakins decided on Australia and settled in the northern Tablelands, 20 kilometres south of Glen Innes. 

This country appealed to Kevin and Gina and reminded them of the English countryside. 

Soon it was time to stock the farm and Kevin was after a sheep breed that he was very familiar with – charolais. 

Kevin explained that in England the two most common breeds of sheep are the black faced suffolk and the charolais – they are both strong and robust breeds with remarkable ease of lambing. 

Kevin was particularly drawn to the Charolais for a number of reasons - the elongated face of the charolais allows for ease of lambing because the front feet of the lamb fit neatly under the chin, allowing ease of passage through the birth canal.

This, combined with the fact there is a double muscling on the animal means that they grow a leaner (less fat, more muscle) but heavier carcass.

The breed is not particularly well-known here, but as the buyers and agents become more accustom to their carcass testing results, he expects they will be highly sort after.

Kevin tried importing charolais sheep into Australia to set up his breeding program, but quarantine regulations banned him from doing so. 

As it happens, a chat with his local veterinarian put him onto another veterinarian, who had previously imported charolais embryos – before the embargo. 

Kevin purchased the embryos and had them implanted in his surrogate ewes. 

Thus, Kevin and Gina’s Charolais sheep stud was born. 

Now all that work to get the stud up and going was fine, for about 10 years – and then it turned to dust. 

“All the locals said ‘don’t worry, it will rain’ – because it always had, and now it’s the worst drought in living memory,” Kevin said.

“Even the agents thought I was panicking but I was listening to the long-range forecast.

“I didn’t like the look of it, didn’t like the look of any of it, and it’s no good sticking your head in the sand – those people from the bureau (Bureau of Meteorology) wouldn’t tell you that there is no rain on the horizon in the next six months if there was – they base it on something.” 

Kevin wells up with emotion as he explains how bad it feels to have to send animals for slaughter because there was no feed – mothers with calves.

“It goes against everything you do as a farmer – we care for our animals – we breed them and want them to have those babies - it’s all wrong,” he said.

“After 12 years, the decision was made fairly quickly to sell up, down size and move south.

“Even as we were doing this, other locals were thinking that it would come good – but it hasn’t - and an agent told me the other day, that if I thought it was bad when I left then it’s so much worse now. 

“A neighbour has his property on the market for a lot less than ours, and hasn’t had any interest.

“It’s a hell of a decision for those farmers to have to make – and it’s worse for them because they were born there in many cases, it’s been their fathers and grandfathers and for us, we were outsiders if you like, so it was a relatively easy decision to make.

“It’s all those things, the emotional ties to stock and property, so it’s a really difficult thing but at the worse they should destock as early as possible – while the stock are in good nick and still worth something.

“An old farmer from Inverell, he would’ve been about 80, said ‘you sell the animals, sell ‘em. Don’t listen to all that shit about 30 or 50-year-old blood lines, the best chance you have of surviving is to get rid of them, once you start feeding them, they will break you – and he was right.”

Kevin said there are people who are there now millions of dollars in debt from feeding stock, and it’s a debt they will never get out of.

There are a lot of properties probably 50–60 per cent in hock to the banks and when it rains and the properties look good, then the banks will apply pressure to sell.

“We were spending $30,000 a month on feed and I said to Gina ‘we have got to get out of this, it’s stupid, we will go under’.” 

The emotional effects of the drought, Kevin describes as ‘soul destroying.’

“Every morning you wake to the sound of the cows bellowing for food, you come in at night covered in dust, wiping it out of your eyes,” he said.

“It’s bloody depressing.”

They found a buyer quicker than anticipated and went searching for another property – which Gina found at Cudgee. 

Kevin admitted they took on more work than anticipated – turning a dairy farm into a predominately sheep and horse property.

“So far we have erected 12km of fencing and still have another six-km to go,” he said.

They have built sheds for lambing down of twins and triplets. 

The ewes are scanned and the multiples are then managed accordingly.

They are in the process of finishing a new two-stand shearing shed and covered holding yards and although reasonably small, the layout will make it very efficient.

Kevin has always farmed sheep and thinks his 260 acres is ideal for his charolais stud. 

He is confident that once people understand the attributes of the breed then they will open to trying them. 

Kevin lambs his ewe lambs at around 13 months.

Last year, he scanned his ewes and lambed at 176 per cent. 

“The singles we don’t feed and they stay in the paddock,” he said. 

“The ewes with twins and triplets are separated and supplementary fed – this is to allow the mother to maximise her nutrition to carry and produce those lambs and to provide more milk to successfully rear them.”

As the multiple lambs inside the ewes take up more room, there is less room for her stomach to hold food – thus the nutritional value of the food she can hold must be of good quality to sustain her and the lambs. 

Anything that is not scanned in lamb is sent to market.

This also increases fertility in the flock by only keeping ewes that have successfully reared a lamb on first joining. 

Kevin will be having his second on property ram sale in at the start of October 2020. 

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