A north west NSW family has found the sweet spot when it comes to managing a successful grazing operation in conjunction with a secondary on-farm recreation and tourism venture, and as Georgina Poole discovers, having a lot of fun in the meantime.
Agriculture is an unpredictable industry, with soaring highs and cruel lows, but sometimes it takes genuine challenge to inspire the greatest innovation.
Such was the case for Scott and Regina Michell, a couple not only renowned for its progressive grazing operation, but for successfully establishing an on-farm income unreliant on agriculture.
Scott and Regina, together with children Macey, 16, Brody, 14 and Izabella, 12, run Bike Territory, a mountainous, picturesque bike park they operate in conjunction with their fourth generation grazing operation.
For 110 years, members of the Michell family have navigated the rugged mountainous terrain carved out of the Nandewar Ranges, taking for granted the picturesque valley views and native bush terrain.
Yet it was only when Scott’s father sought to retire, that the family began considering the true worth of the property’s seemingly unproductive scrub country.
“Succession planning was upon us and we needed a stream of income – and fast!” Scott explains.
The family’s 3,000-hectare property “Castletop” includes 400ha of rugged, scrubby terrain, unviable for grazing, and seemingly worthless to the operation.
“We figured the most efficient thing would be to investigate any business potentials within our existing, under-utilised infrastructure, which was the scrub country and a number of unused workers’ huts and shearers’ quarters.”
The couple initially looked into establishing a hunting ground on the area, but the logistics proved challenging. Undeterred, they soon realized their golden ticket was right under their noses all along.
While Scott grew up mustering the mountain ranges on horseback, his four-legged friends were fast put to pasture upon his discovery of motorbikes.“I love horses but they are very time consuming, once I started using bikes I never went back.”From work bikes to enduro-bikes, Scott laughs that whether it’s for work or play, a lot of his time is spent on the back of a bike.And the scrub country proves the perfect playground.
The couple converted old fire trails into motorbike tracks and out buildings into self-contained accommodation options and camping facilities, creating a motorbike haven for beginners through to the advanced.
Today, 11 years on, and Scott laughs his “hobby gone mad” has grown beyond all expectations.“We get large groups from across Australia, as far afield as Tasmania and Darwin – mates coming for a ride together or groups of families – over school holidays and weekends our numbers can swell to 200.“We have always taken it for granted, but we’re very blessed with pretty spectacular views riding up into the mountains, and the scale we enjoy out here is unique for many riders – even on our busiest days you can ride all day and not see another group.
A lot of advanced riders also enjoy the challenge this terrain provides, there’s certainly not many spots like it open to the public.”The venture initially grew fast, and organically, with word of mouth its greatest marketing tool - ensuring a strong, and consistent clientele.
“We run two events a year, a four-hour pony express race, which is part of the local series and a postie bike fundraiser which raises money for the Westpac Helicopter Service. They’re always big weekends and lots of fun.”
While the operation can be demanding, particularly on weekends and school holidays, it hasn’t diverted Scott and Regina’s focus from their core grazing operation.
Clients of Delta Agribusiness’s Pat Lash of the Narrabri/Burren Junction region, the couple is equally enterprising and progressive when it comes to their farm management.
“There is no doubt Scott and Regina Michell set the bar. They are constantly keeping us on our toes, inadvertently pushing Delta Ag to be better,” Pat explains. “Scott is so ahead of the game, if he’s looking at a new liquid fertilizer or flagging ideas when it comes to animal health, we have to ask ourselves why we’re not in that space also. He makes us assess our products and supplies, and is often so far ahead of a trend it’s hard to know how it will apply to other growers.”
Pat says Scott is also a sounding board for many other producers in the region.
“Scott is the type of guy who will take you out on-farm, in his truck for hours, he is generous with his time and knowledge and is eager to see everyone in the district succeed.”
Despite the dry seasons, the property is fully stocked thanks to a program that prioritises disciplined fertilizing, rotational grazing and extensive pasture improvement.
“We use a disc seeder to cover heavier pastures on the low country, the high country is hard to access so we fertilise by air and over seed,” Scott explains.
Single Super had been Scott’s fertilizer of choice in the past, yet he has recently moved to a custom blend, created in direct response to soil testing.
Pastures include Kykuyu, Paspalum, Cocksfoot, Phalaris, and the couple is looking to try some new winter based pastures for growth in the cooler months. Legumes are also included in the schedule, including Lucerne, and sub clovers such as white clover and arrowleaf clover.
“We’re trying to get our hands on a new variety, Serradella – it’s hard to get hold of but will do really well here.”
Their self-replacing herd of 500 Angus cattle benefit enormously from the quality pasture across the property, with Scott grateful that it allows him to grow more cattle out.
“We grow our progeny out, and in a normal season we’re able to do so with ease thanks to our increased feed production in response to pasture management.”
A further change in management to rotational grazing has increased fencing and water points across the property, and this better pasture utilisation affords paddocks far better recovery rates, particularly in harder seasons.
Pneumatic yards were installed on “Castletop” two years ago to minimize stock handling injuries and handle larger mobs, and together with a low stress stock handling philosophy and refined genetics, the Michell’s herd is relaxed, quiet and easy to manage.
“The hard work is paying off now, we’ve strived to improve our herd and every little step has helped us reach this point,” Scott reflects.
“Growing up here in the mountains things were a bit wild,” he laughs, “including the cattle!
“Now we have structured yards and laneways and have schmicked the place up a bit, things are very tame in comparison!”
The Michell’s run around 1,000 ewes, diversifying four years ago out of wool growing wethers and into the sheep meat market.
“The wool market boomed as soon as we got out four years ago – which was nuts, but we found the herd very hard to manage and hard on country.
“Now we just run meat sheep which is much less intensive, and thankfully the lamb market is great at the moment.”
And while the Michell’s have found the sweet spot when it comes to combining efficient on-farm management with innovative, profitable diversification, they didn’t anticipate the satisfaction they’d gain by opening their property up to the public.
“Visiting the park is pure joy for many urban riders. While we may take our landscapes for granted, being able to open up our unused terrain to visitors and provide a unique experience is a great feeling.”
With groups of adults tearing around the mountains, and kids speeding across the flats with glee, Pat agrees that you can’t help but get a buzz from a visit to “Castletop”.
“When there are so many sad stories around about people doing it tough, this is a fantastic example of a family who has taken matters into its own hands and looked for solutions rather than hand-outs.
“The reality is the Michell’s are as drought affected as anyone in the region, but their disciplined and progressive approach to pasture management, and innovative off-farm income has kept much of the current season’s pain at bay.”