Passion remains despite sale
Despite being ‘born and bred’ on a sheep stud at Gringegalgona in western Victoria, a young Tom Silcock never thought he was destined for a life on the land.
Growing up, he planned to be a builder or an architect after discovering a talent for mechanical drawing and general mathematics at school.
“Everyone thought I was going to be a builder or an architect and so did I,” Mr Silcock said.
It was a meeting with a careers advisor in his final year of boarding school that sealed his fate.
“They interviewed me and asked me a lot of questions about what I liked and didn’t like,” Mr Silcock said.
“Eventually they said to me, ‘Have you ever considered farming? Because a lot of the things you love are to be had in farming’.
“So I didn’t do my matriculation, as it was called then. I went home to the farm for a year then went away for a year and went on to ag college.”
Mr Silcock worked at his family’s stud for a while and also enjoyed a stint as a jackaroo.
Eventually he and his wife Alison branched out into their own cozmmercial enterprise.
“We ended up buying rams back home and a few others around and about,” Mr Silcock said.
“We had always had a strong focus on wool quality and micron, which has never waned. So, to get what we wanted, we decided to have a go at breeding our own.”
The Silcocks started The Mountain Dam merino stud at Telangatuk East 30 years ago, with Mr Silcock’s passion for merino genetics driving a strong breeding program with a focus on fine and superfine wool.
“We got to the stage where we were the third-biggest ram seller in Victoria, before we had a big fire 13 years ago,” Mr Silcock said.
“It decimated our flock and it took us about five years to get back to the numbers we previously had.
“Before the fire we were artificially inseminating 3000 to 4000 ewes a year with our top sires, plus we had embryo transplant programs.
“We only have small AI programs now compared with what we used to do. If I was living on my own and didn’t have family around me I would have been pushing the accelerator button to get back to those bigger AI programs.
“But there are costs associated with it, not just money, but also time and commitment.”
Heart and soul
Mr Silcock, 62, has poured his heart and soul into The Mountain Dam stud.
Spend 30 seconds with him and his passion and commitment to making the stud the best it can be and producing superior rams is evident – even if you can’t quite keep up with the conversation.
“I can get excited by feeling a lambskin,” Mr Silcock said.
“It’s exceptionally challenging to make significant genetic change in your own flock, or clients’ flocks or stud flocks but I get a real buzz out of it – I really enjoy the sense of achievement.”
It is easy to see why Monday’s The Mountain Dam on-property sale will be a bittersweet one for the Silcocks, as they mark the end of an era.
The Silcocks have decided this year’s ram sale will be their last, offering the stud for sale by negotiation.
Mr Silcock said although his passion for merino breeding had not waned, the sale would be the final step in a succession program as he and his wife handed over the enterprise to son John and daughter-in-law Merty.
“We’ve been challenged operating the stud for a couple of years now, because John and Merty have not wanted to be part of running a stud,” he said.
“I think it’s fair to say that Alison has started to begrudge all the book-keeping and records – there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, because of the way we operate the stud. We do a lot of recording and a lot of data management.
“I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm at all, but the support base around me has become less and less enthusiastic.
“I’m a great believer that people should be working in a job they enjoy. And if you’re not doing something you enjoy then you end up begrudging your work.”
Mr Silcock said although John lacked his passion for the stud, he loved commercial farming.
“The reality is we need to let him do what he wants to do,” he said.
“John loves his farming and there are a lot of reasons why the stud side of things does complicate the commercial side of it. So selling the stud is the final plank in full succession and hopefully the commercial enterprise will keep going as strong as ever.”
Mr Silcock said his family would try to sell the stud as a going concern.
Otherwise, they have committed to selling off parcels by auction in December.
“One way or another, that means we’ve committed to drawing a line in the sand,” he said.
“To me, great succession means you’re there to mentor and give advice.
“You see so many farming enterprises where the reins aren’t handed over, so succession happens with death – that means there isn’t anyone to answer questions and support them.
“I reckon about 30 to 35 years of age, most people probably peak within their physical capability and enthusiasm and drive. So at that age, you need to make room or they probably won’t reach their potential.”
Mr Silcock said he expected the final on-property sale to be well attended, with the stud benefiting from a strong client base.
“Our clients have been exceptionally loyal and strong,” he said.
“We originally started with a client base out the back of doing exceptionally well with wether trials, which I was involved in running for years at Balmoral.
“We had a reputation for being a top performer in the trials and won flock of the year in 1989.”
Mr Silcock said a computer program designed by his late sister, Marion Gibbons, was among the keys to The Mountain Dam’s success.
“We obviously visually select the animals initially and that’s backed with raw data and figures, followed by breeding values,” he said.
“But the real driver of our selection and our stud decision-making is performance recording, which analyses the animal every year for what it’s done versus what it should have done. It’s been fascinating.” The Mountain Dam’s performance recording spreadsheets comprise more than 200 columns for a single ram, containing data such as fleece weight, wool quality and weaning and yearly body weights.
“If you don’t have any figures and you look at the animal the decision is quite simple,” Mr Silcock said.
“But as soon as I start telling you what its fat and muscle scores are and what its worm resistance is and whether it’s had a lamb or whether it’s a twin or a single… your decision-making gets a bit murky.
“We have the full extreme. We have some clients, as my parents did before us, who are happy just to ride the coat tails of our stud success. They’re clients because of what we do and the way we do stuff.
“We’ve got others who Alison sends all the spreadsheets to and they do the full analysis. Some of them are into pushing the dual-purpose and fertility buttons and are doing quite well by doing that.
“It’s a pretty exciting time to be in breeding. Wool prices are good.”
Mr Silcock said although he would miss running the stud, he still planned to ‘keep his finger in a few pies’.
“I’m still doing a fair bit of sheep classing and I enjoy doing that,” he said.
“I’ve been doing a bit of classing for Lynley Anderson in Western Australia. She is one of the leading sources of genetics for studs in Australia, so it’s exciting to be on that journey with her.
“I’ve also started writing a book, although Alison has threatened to divorce me if I try to finish it. I’d love to write a book about farming in Australia, but in a really intriguing fictional way, with all the dramas and excitement that drive farming that a lot of people don’t understand.
“There’s some pretty rugged stuff that happens out there with death and disasters, bushfires and so on, and in my life time I’ve experienced a fair whack of that.
“I also have some design-work dreams – there are a few more inventions I’d like to see come to fruition.
“I’ll never be bored.”
MAKING PLANS: Tom and Alison Silcock take time to pause at their picturesque property at Telangatuk East ahead of a busy week preparing for their final ram sale. The Silcocks have put their successful The Mountain Dam stud on the market. Picture: PAUL CARRACHER