Quest for the golden fleece

The Gazette (Derwent Valley) - - FRONT PAGE - ROGER HAN­SON

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.

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