WHEN Noel Henderson and his wife Lyndsay founded Avington Merino in 1996 they wanted nothing less than an elite ultrafine wool stud, produced at the highest possible standards.
More than 20 years later, it seems they have achieved all that and more.
Avington is the result of the Hendersons passion and commitment to using ethical farming practices to produce top quality merino wool and educate, train and innovate the industry.
But it was through a different industry that Mr Henderson found his innovation and drive.
“I grew up in Melbourne and had a long career in the construction industry,” he told The Southern Farmer.
The construction company he worked for, Multiplex (most famed for the building of Sydney Olympic Park for the 2000 Olympics), was chaired by Australian businessman John Roberts, who also owned the West Australian sheep operation The Grange.
“My wife came from a farming background,” said Mr Henderson.
“Then I started getting interested when I saw John’s stud.”
The Hendersons bought their property in Sidonia – on the granite soils of the Macedon Ranges, 98km northeast of Melbourne.
And with some help from The Grange, as well as local studs Beverley and Glenara, they started stocking it with Merinos.
And so, the stud was born on 450 acres with 500 merinos.
After establishing themselves as a super-fine producer, Mr Henderson got his wish when by chance he was offered an ultra-fine stud that was being dispersed in Armadale, NSW.
“We always wanted to be a ultra-fine producer, and that dispersal formed the basis of our ultra-fine flock.”
Now, after two decades of farming and four decades of marriage the Hendersons oversee 7000 acres and run up to 20,000 sheep.
Avington sell the majority of their wool through the auction system, but some is beginning to be exported to Japan.
Lately, they have been looking to expand their exports to Italy and Europe.
“I have recently been in Italy, looking to export directly,” said Mr Henderson.
“That is now our focus.”
During the recent trip, Mr Henderson was confronted with a question he is all too familiar with.
“All the processors asked when Australian growers were going to stop mulesing,” he said.
“It is still a hot topic there.”
Mulesing is the cutting of strips of wool-bearing skin from around the breech of a sheep to prevent flystrike, as the wool around the buttocks can retain faeces and urine, which attracts flies and can lead to flystrike.
In 2004 the Australian wool industry, concerned by the threat to their international wool market, which was being challenged by animal rights groups like PETA, set itself a deadline of 2010 to phase out the practice.
“In Australia, only about 10 per cent of farmers have stopped,” claimed Mr Henderson.
“In New Zealand, it is closer to 80 per cent, and in South Africa they don’t do it.
“It was supposed to be phased out here by 2010, but it didn’t happen.”
Avington stopped mulesing in 2010 and hasn’t looked back.
“We haven’t had any problems, so I can’t understand why others are having difficulty making that decision.”
Chinese wool tycoon Qingnan Wen, the chairman of Tianyu Wool and the biggest buyer of Australian wool for China has recently been quoted that he wants to see the end of mulesing.
“It has recently become of concern to young Chinese people,” said Mr Henderson.
The husband and wife management team at Avington – Kirstie and Nathan Anderson – are also big advocates against mulesing.
“It is not something that we are interested in doing when farming sheep,” said Mrs Anderson.
“You need to look at how you treat an animal and ask yourself if it is the right thing to do.
“And I have never felt comfortable with it.”
Neither couple believe there has been any negative financial impact on switching from the traditional mulesing practice.
They invested in an elctro-dip, and as a result save about two-thirds of what they were spending on chemicals previously for fly protection, thus paying for itself in two years.
And they still do the same amount of crutching as before.
“We have two ways in dealing with the mulesing problem,” said Mrs Anderson.
The first is through genetics – breeding sheep that are more resistant to flystrike and worms, with fewer wrinkles in the breech.
The second is by maintaining pasture conditions.
“The sad thing is that it is 10 years on and we are still talking about it,” she said.
“I would hope that as an industry we could step up.
“If the customer doesn’t want it, and we don’t have to do it, let’s move on.”
Last year the farm had 987mm of rain, but only had three sheep strained.
“We believe the sheep are now more productive because there’s no doubt they get set back from mulesing,” said Mr Henderson.
“We are actually saving money and getting a premium for our wool.”
He believes most farming problems lay in traditional systems that won’t see adjustment until a new generation takes over.
“I think the Australian industry is very conservative and very slow to change,” he said.
“There’s not much innovation.”
Though he is of an older generation himself, his family is new to the land.
“Without any shadow of a doubt, I am only different because I am a first-generation farmer.”
Mr Henderson is also an advocate for better shearing practices, which he believes can be helped with better training and conditions for workers.
Avington employs a young sheering team with a new attitude.
“They all have a different outlook towards animals and their own health,” said Mr Henderson.
“That’s another generational change.”
Since 2012, they have also run the only Victorian jackaroo program, teaching young people about the entire industry.
“We were frustrated that we couldn’t find young people,” said Mr Henderson.
“So we started training them ourselves.”
Despite things sometimes moving slower than he would hope, Mr Henderson is still excited about the future of wool and Avington was the first wool-growing property in Australia to be certified under the international sheep and wool welfare program, the Responsible Wool Standard.