Black Barn Hill
LOCAL FLAVOUR: Black Barn Hill sheep farmers Nici Barnes and Pete Armstrong on their property near Milabena where they raise about 500 lambs per year. IMAGE: Rodney Braithwaite
Relocating from the mainland to Tasmania in 2018, Black Barn Hill's Nici Barnes and Pete Armstrong are quietly winning over the local trade with their 'farm to fork' lamb and humble, can-do attitude.
Celebrating their first year in business this March, Pete and Nici say while they may be seeing a reward for their efforts, the journey hasn't always been an easy one.
"We had been trying to figure out how to make a small farm support us in a way that we could feel comfortable (ethically) doing, so we started the lamb business after six months thinking and organising," Nici said, adding they were inspired to provide their community with fresh, locally produced meat during the pandemic when shelves were often empty.
"People [here] are very motivated to know where their food comes from, and COVID seemed to magnify this. We love our lamb and have been very pleased to find that others think it's great too."
Set on 88 hectares (218 acres), the majority of the scenic property at Milabena is covered in extensive bush and lush rainforest with Pete and Nici currently running about 300 crossbred ewes and 500 lambs.
"Pete describes it as a 'large hobby farm'," Nici said, adding the couple were also initially running 25 Short Horn cattle, selling all but two to focus on their flock.
"This has been a moving feast as we learn about farming in Tassie - which is very different to farming in Western NSW."
While Pete tackles the day-to-day operations of the farm (Nici jumping in when needed) the pair will often share the load when selling the produce online and at local markets.
"We process to order every week, plus a set amount for our local butcher and the markets. This works out to be approximately 10-12 lambs a week."
The Black Barn Hill lambs are transported a short distance to Trent's Mobile Meats in Sheffield, the carcases are then sent to Jai North at Van Diemen Prime Meats to be cut and packed; the pair will then label, store and deliver the final product.
"Our main outlet is through our website but we also sell at the local farmers markets at Burnie, Ulverstone, Launceston and Hobart, through the Tasmanian Produce Collective (TPC) and our butcher - Jai, also sells our lamb at Van Diemen Prime Meats in Wynyard."
With a dry summer almost behind them, Pete and Nici are looking forward to growing their product range to include pies, sausage rolls, borek and koftas.
"The biggest thrill we get when selling our lamb is handing it over to great people who truly appreciate what we do, like to hear about the farm and the lambs and who keep coming back for more."
Nici said the biggest challenge for the pair was to "provide people with the quality they expect and deserve".
While Nici and Pete are focused on ethical, pasture-reared lamb, the couple say they try not to get bogged down by labels and prefer to let the product speak for itself.
"There are so many misunderstood and overused terms being thrown around at the moment. Most sheep and cattle in Tasmania are 'pasture-raised' without actually carrying the label.
"We really don't believe the labels are either necessary, helpful, or needed," Nici said. "What is more important to us is keeping the welfare of the animals, and the farm, at the forefront of what we do.
"We make this obvious to the people who buy our lamb and being honest about it is important to us. It is then the consumer's choice."
Recording a birthing rate of about 180 per cent and a weaning rate of 170pc, Pete and Nici say they have been "pretty impressed" by their flock of crossbred ewes and rams, with bloodlines purchased from local studs.
"After a little experimenting, we are focusing now on a Coopworth-based self-replacing ewe flock.
"These lovely girls have amazing fertility [with] a majority of twins and triplets, great temperaments, are good milkers and excellent mothers." Pete and Nici plan to use Hampshire Downs rams as the terminal sire.
"They also have great temperaments and provide the muscle we are looking for in the lambs.
"This cross is producing lambs of good birth weight, quick growth rates, and are giving us well-muscled and marbled lamb meat."
All lambs are kept for growing out, to be processed from six months of age, with a handful kept as replacement ewes. Joining twice a year, in autumn and late spring, allows the couple to 'spread out' lambing to cover the production schedule.
"The spring lambing is the preferred option as ewes are naturally more fertile and have more twins and triplets at that time of the year.
"End of spring feed is also at its most abundant for their high milking mothers. However, March lambing has its benefits as it is much kinder weather and better for reduced lamb mortality."
Rotational grazing of their flock allows Black Barn Hill paddocks to 'rest' with Nici and Pete actively working with Cradle Coast NRM agricultural project coordinator Ali Dugand on regenerative pasture development.
"At the moment, the pastures are predominantly perennial ryegrass and clover-based, which also naturally reseed.
"However, these pastures are older and we are working to introduce more species into the existing pasture for better feed all year round." While the flock enjoy lush pasture year-round, the winter months can often call for supplementary feed to be added to their diet in the lead up to lambing.
"We are hoping our work on the pastures will reduce, or eliminate, the need for this," they said, adding the lambs are offered grass-based pellets with chocolate.
"They really are very spoiled."
*First published February 2022 for Tasmanian Farmer Newspaper - owned by Australian Community Media.