The ancient Warrumbungles mountain range in northern NSW provides a majestic backdrop to “Calga”, a property spanning 16,000 hectares, comprising natural and improved pastures, used for livestock production and broadacre farming.
Although the enterprise was traditionally a wool-growing property, a decline in the wool industry influenced the growth in dryland farming, and in particular, the introduction of the Dohne sheep flocks.
Today, the broadacre cropping operation spanning 13,500ha, centres around wheat, barley, chickpea, and faba bean varieties, and as I speak to farm manager Stuart Davidson, he’s about to embark on another long day harvesting the wheat and barley crops.
He explains that whilst the heavy black and volcanic soils on the property, located 29km east of Coonamble, generally means minimal fertilizers are used, and this rich earthy landscape also sucks up a lot of moisture, meaning strategic decision making in rotations and the timing and amount of rainfall is very important to maximising productivity and profitability.
“We really try to grow what the market demands. In the past two years we’ve grown large chickpea crops, then after that we’ll grow wheat in those paddocks because we get the nitrogen points to flow… Unfortunately, we just didn’t get the rain this year to get the faba bean crop in, and with heavy rain at the end, we didn’t get the chickpeas in,” Stuart explains. “At the end of the day, the wheat is yielding 4 to 5t/ha so we’re still going to come out on top.”
Over the past four to five years, there’s been significant investments made in infrastructure, including grain storage, and the purchase of new farm machinery such as three 36m spray rigs, large tractors with auto steer systems and pull 36m planters, and four CLAAS Lexion 770T harvesters with 45ft fronts to enable the team to carry out their own harvest operations and not rely as much on contractors.
The operation is now run as a zero till farming system which has also contributed to the increasing yields and has significantly reduced the workload.
Stuart says it has also been important to be at the forefront of emerging crop varieties and Lancer and Spitfire wheat have been the main focus.
“We do like to try new varieties, we are trialling Dart wheat and next year will use some Reliant. We also changed our barley variety last year from using Hindmarsh to La Trobe.”
Another key component of the cropping operations is the capacity to store 15,000t of grain on-farm, and two 1,100t drying silos with the capacity to dry 700t. This increases the grain handling efficiency and maximises the opportunity to take advantage of seasonal fluctuations in grain markets, something that property owner Margie Pye is currently paying particular attention to with hopes that “increased yields above average partly compensate for disappointing lower grain prices”.
Margie and the late Bill Pye met while he was jackarooing in the Riverina region, and the couple owned Delta Station, located amongst Merino studs near Jerilderie. The opportunity eventually came for Bill to return to the family property at Coonamble in 1992, and then the Pyes purchased Calga in 2004, which had been owned by the Pye family since 1932. The couple ran a successful Merino operation for several years servicing an established ram client group, however, in 2002 the decision was made to introduce the Dohne breed. Now, with the purchase of the Uardry trademark and historic 28,000ha property “Caroonboon Station” in the Riverina, combined ewe numbers of more than 2,200 from the Calga and Uardry studs, means the operation is now one of the biggest Dohne breeding flocks in Australia and certainly a leader in the industry. “Return was the main motivation for Bill changing to the Dohne breed. Fertility was another main factor, being able to turn the lambs off quickly, excellent feed utilisation, and they are a good dual-purpose sheep,” Margie tells me. “Bill always had an affiliation with the Riverina, having jackarooed down there, and the purchase of “Caroonboon Station” in 2014 was a rare opportunity after having had more than 170 years of ownership in the same family. It contained large areas of varied saltbush varieties which could be conservatively grazed and could sustain sheep in very dry times when the grass had disappeared.”
The property was stocked with a total of 12,000 Dohne cross ewes and with the majority of the ewes joined to ram lambs, and despite the dry conditions, a scanning percentage of over 90 per cent was achieved. The Uardry stud is run separately to the existing Calga Dohne stud to ensure the Uardry type is preserved and keeps the same breeding objectives and management. Measurements are continually taken of the Dohne flocks with analysis of the Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBV’s) indicating that for all body weight traits, both the Calga and Uardry rams are well above breed average with the average fleece weight values in the top 25 per cent of the breed. In the latest Dohne Analysis, a Calga ram CA12-5010 has risen to second place on the index that ranks Dohne sires across Australia. As well as domestic success, the Dohne studs are also internationally recognised with genetics present in a number of South American countries.
The purchase of Caroonboon has allowed the Calga and Uardry Dohne studs to benchmark genetics on a large scale commercial operation and test profitability - a very important tool that few studs possess.“We’re experiencing good wool weights and won the Champion Dohne Fleece at Bendigo Wool and Sheep Show in July last year and that was a fleece from the Caroonboon commercial flock so that was a great result. We’ve also recently won a superfine Merino ribbon with 17-micron fleece, so we’re thrilled with how our southern commercial sheep enterprise is going,” Margie explains. “We are particularly thrilled with the exposure we have had since winning the prized fleece at Bendigo.“It’s been a good year for sheep producers. All studs have experienced record sales and clearance, possibly with grain prices low and good rains across the eastern states. “We haven’t been able to meet demand for our rams and we are now looking to really expand the sheep numbers to utilise more grazing country and maximise returns.”The flocks graze in lucerne paddocks and those with natural grasses. “The property has a lot of creeks running through it and we have over the years fenced off those creek lines into paddocks as well to utilise those areas. We prefer not to graze sheep on the cropping paddocks due to compaction issues,” Margie explains. As well as the Dohne stud and commercial operation, in 2011, Senapol heifers and bulls were purchased to establish a commercial stud at Calga to produce bulls to supply northern cattle companies.
Margie says it’s a placid, easy handling breed that originates from the Caribbean and they were tick resistant.
“Initially we were going to supply bulls to northern properties in Queensland but with the prolonged drought that fell through, we we now have a grazing operation and one that uses our grazing paddocks.”
Voices boom through a UHF as I speak to Margie who has been driving a header during the harvest operations on Calga, proving that whilst she’s normally in charge of the overall administration and management of the business, she also undertakes more physical tasks when required.
Margie’s knowledge of the property has developed as she now oversees the enterprise and ensures it remains an industry leader since the tragic passing of Bill last year, however, she’s feeling positive that she can steer the business into a new era when children Georgie, 25, currently a project manager in Brisbane, and Sandy, 21, who is about to start an agricultural course at Marcus Oldham next year, hope to one day take over the management. Margie believes that a key team of specialist advisors including Delta agronomist Graeme Callaghan, stud master Jason Southwell, sheep classers Allan Clarke and Bill Mildren, have been significant contributors to maximising productivity and continuity.
And, as the headers continue to strip the paddocks in the bright summer sun, there’s certainly a new light shining over the expansive and historic Calga landscape.