Quest for the golden fleece
FOR a sixth-generation farmer in the upper Derwent Valley, his business operation is simple.
That is to grow the best fine wool by paying attention to the flock’s genetics and responding to the district’s climate variations.
Charles Downie, 39, and his wife Sally oversee superfine wool farm operations at 2000ha Glenelg Estate near Gretna.
The couple has three children — five-year-old Ollie, Joe, 3, and 10-month-old Amy. Mrs Downie is on maternity leave and will soon return to work part-time as a sonographer.
Along with Charles’ parents Andrew and Christine, they also run sheep on 3600ha at Interlaken and lease another 800ha at Hollow Tree, 25km north of Bothwell.
Across the properties they run about 16,500 Merino producing about 60,000 kilograms of wool a year with plans to increase size of the flock.
Mr Downie said he used genetics for the flock from New South Wales and the estate breeds its own rams. This year they will use a Hazeldean sire. The flock lambs in middle of September.
“Our business is simple really, we aim to grow the best fine wool by lots of attention to the genetics and working within our environment and the climate variations,” Mr Downie said.
“We must continually improve our wool because we are targeting the European sportswear market. We are hoping to supply Norwegian company Devold, which is one of the world´s oldest outdoor brands. We are targeting European clothing markets with higher margins, which helps to offset the fickle climate.
“The farm stopped mulesing in 2015, and will soon have a greater supply of nonmulesed wool suitable for these markets. We won’t see the results for a couple of years and we don’t see the results from genetic changes for several years.
“The micron of our wool averages at 16.5 but most sportswear manufacturers want a broader micron than that.”
Mr Downie will be a feature presenter at one of Tasmania’s most popular producer events, the annual Red Meat Updates forum on July 28 at the Tramsheds in Launceston.
He will be among a line-up of guest speakers who will discuss a range of topics around beef and prime-lamb production with a focus on building business resilience.
Mr Downie’s topic is about matching management and investment to land capability.
“I have a particular interest in the use of technology in agriculture,” he said.
There is a large variation in topography and soil type across his properties, which need different management strategies. Extensive grazing history has been collected for all paddocks across the properties, along with soil testing and subjective measures. The data is used to aid decision making on appropriate stocking rates, fertiliser use and capital investment.
“I have been running a software program, PAM, which tracks stocking rates. We have 15 years of continuous data, and we use that information to aid our decision-making.
“We look at pasture improvement and at stocking rates, so we can determine what management is worth doing. We look at the stocking rate data to determine whether it is worth applying fertiliser, improving pastures or other activities.
“And if land comes up for lease or sale we are able to use the information to arrive at an accurate value.”
Mr Downie returned to Tasmania to manage his family farming business at Glenelg in 2003. Before that, he completed a farm management degree at Marcus Oldham College in Geelong, and spent time working in Western Australia and South Dakota in the United States.
After five years managing Glenelg, he joined NAB and spent 18 months in agribusiness banking before returning to farming in 2010.
“I like the variety of farming. It’s good at the moment, grazing is fantastic with good commodity prices,” he said.
“We had a good spring last year, which holds you in good stead for a dry the following autumn and winter.
“I am concerned about the dry this June, but we are coming into from a good position. Fortunately grain prices are low.”
Mr Downie said there was a bright future for agriculture.
“We can’t predict much about what is to happen. Agriculture runs in cycles, that’s just the nature of the business.
“At the moment we are sitting with a great opportunity to set ourselves up for the future.”
At Glenelg Estate, they are committed to land management and conservation having more than 3000ha of native forest protection to complement grazing pasture.
Steeped in tradition, six generations of the Downie family have taken their hand to tend the fleece at Glenelg Estate. The grand homestead was built 1878 and designed Henry Hunter.
Granted an initial 1000 acres by Governor William Sorell in 1822, solicitor Andrew Downie established the first merino flock after emigrating from Stirling, Scotland.
The Downies operate a progressive farming enterprise where tradition and generational knowledge are blended with technology to produce a premium and ultra fine merino fleece.