Pas­sion re­mains de­spite sale

The Weekly Advertiser Horsham - - Ag Life - BY SARAH SCULLY

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.”

Loyal clients

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

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