Station owner staying positive through dry
THERE is no doubt that Tor Downs Station has seen better days.
The 41,000ha merino and cattle operation is located on the banks of the Great Darling Anabranch in western NSW, and, like most of the properties in these parts, it is in desperate need of a good drenching.
There are 200 merinos left on Tor Downs, as well as five cows and a couple of bulls, which is a considerable reduction from better days when the farm ran 4000 sheep.
But Felicity McLeod, 33, who runs the family station on behalf of her parents, is not one to dwell on negatives.
“We’re OK,” the Nuffield Australia farming scholar said.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been through drought and it won’t be the last.
“When the drought hits, you just have to keep an eye on the ground cover and sell stock as you need to.
“When stock numbers get down it also means you have more time for maintenance.”
Felicity has been selling rangeland goats on Tor Downs, as well as on her parents’ two additional properties, Coombah and Popio, which she also helps muster.
“We sell about 10,000 goats a year on average across the three properties,” she said.
“We don’t rear them. It is really an opportunistic part of the business, mustering and trapping them when we can.”
Goats are not a bad sideline business, either, fetching much more than three decades ago when the McLeods first started selling them.
“Prices are now up to $6 a kilo, and when mum and dad started doing it 30 years ago, they were a couple of dollars a goat,” Felicity said.
“Compared to merinos, they browse more than they graze so they do really well on scrubby country, such as trees and bushes.
“People in the Western Division have always done goats and it has helped put a lot of people’s kids through boarding school, as well as adding an extra income source.”
FELICITY knows all about the importance of the latter.
She won a Nuffield Australia farming scholarship last year, which included almost two years of travel and study exploring issues of predation and on-farm diversification techniques in far-western wool-grazing enterprises.
She travelled to Asia, India, South Africa, New Zealand and the US – both in a group of co-scholars and on her own – to study how overseas farmers diversified and set up sideline income streams and infrastructure.
“In India, we went up into the mountains to a coffee plantation, and in a sense you could say they were doing integrated cropping because they had trees and herbs within the coffee plantation that they harvest at certain times of the year to help diversify their income,” Felicity said.
A lot of overseas farms Felicity visited have adapted well to drought, and even the animals were pitching in on one.
“I visited a farm in the northeast of Brazil and they only had something like 150mm rain for the two years prior,” she said.
“They were running goats with sheep, which they found useful because the goats were actually knocking the thorns off the cactuses and the sheep could access the flesh from the cactuses, so they were helping to feed other animals.”
IT’S clear Felicity’s scholarship studies and travel have had a big impact on her.
She is now considering installing remote water monitoring on Tor Downs, for example, which she looked into as part of her scholarship.
“It’s 36km to the top tank on Tor Downs, so I could put a monitor on and see how the levels are looking from my phone,” she said.
“It saves wear and tear on a vehicle, and frees up time as well.”
Felicity has also added another line of diversity to her income through her own jewellery making and leatherwork business, Fred Mac Designs (Fred Mac is a nickname a neighbour gave Felicity when she was little).
“I’ve always enjoyed making jewellery and mum always made clothes for us growing up,” she said.
“I’m also studying wool classing through Dubbo TAFE, not because that’s what I want to switch to doing, but because it’s important to be across all aspects of your business.”
And if there is one thing Felicity has learned from her time as a Nuffield scholar, it’s the value of research.
“In terms of on-farm diversity, you need to do a lot of research,” she said.
“You have to actually make sure your farm has the staff and the capability to do what it is you want to do.”
Felicity said it was important to make sure there was a market for whatever business line you were introducing.
“It has to be viable in that someone has to want to buy it,” she said.
“It’s all well and good to go into a certain type of animal, but if you don’t have anywhere to sell it to and there is no one who wants to buy it, then there is no point.” PLANNING AHEAD: Felicity McLeod on her property Tor Downs on the Great Darling Anabranch in western NSW.