The Litchfield Family - A legacy in farming at Hazeldean
Photography I Camilla Duffy
Farming since 1865 in the Monaro region, the Litchfield family has become renowned for producing strong genetic bloodlines, nationally recognised for its top performing Angus herds and Merino flocks. Rosie O’Keeffe discovers their history in farming in the Monaro region and how whilst they have a long history in agriculture, why they believe it’s important to innovate to maintain their success as one of the largest and most progressive enterprises in the industry.
Whilst the Litchfield family have been involved in agriculture for more than 150 years, they are innovators, constantly evolving the management of their properties and livestock practices to remain at the forefront of emerging technologies and genetics.
The Hazeldean Litchfield business specialises in the production of superior seedstock for the beef and wool industries, and is recognised as one of the oldest and largest Merino and Angus cattle studs in Australia.
The historic family property “Hazeldean” was initially settled in the 1860s by James Litchfield who had travelled from England.
After spending some time as manager of “Myalla” (a property a part of the Litchfield’s ownership today), he took up his first 130 hectare block on the Cooma Back Creek and four years later he established Hazeldean Merino Stud. Eventually he had acquired in excess of 18,000ha of land on the Monaro. The eldest son of James, Arthur, eventually assumed control of Hazeldean before his son James further developed their pastoral interests and introduced Angus cattle in 1926. He received an OBE in 1972 for services to the wool industry.
After further developing the Angus stud and expanding the influence of the Merino stud, fourth generation James Litchfield became recognised as a pioneer in the application of proven scientific research and for his contribution to Australian livestock production with a number of industry awards. These include the Beef Improvement Association’s Howard Yelland Award for services to the beef industry in 1988, election as Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Animal Breeding and Genetics in 1995 and the Helen Newton Turner Medal for Contribution to genetic improvement in the Merino Industry 1997.
Today, Jim Litchfield is the Managing Director of the company and has expanded their pastoral interests even further in marketing bulls in Queensland, NSW and South Australia, the introduction of the Senegus program and progressing the Merino stud, whilst having served on many industry committees.
It was after completing a Bachelor of Agriculture at Orange Agricultural College and jackarooing in northern NSW that Jim, who is fifth generation in the Litchfield family to farm at Hazeldean, returned to Cooma and took the reins from his father.
“I have always had a love of the land and animals and breeding. I also did not want to rest on the efforts and successes of previous generations but rather carry on their work increasing and improving the business,” Jim explains.
He says a highlight was expanding the business with property acquisitions in South Australia, Queensland, and Victoria, as well as the Riverina district of New South Wales. Jim and his wife Libby manage the Hazeldean operation alongside their eldest daughter Bea, son-in-law Ed Bradley, and their baby Stirling. “I am now enjoying being a grandfather and seeing Bea and Ed take over the day-to-day running of the business,” Jim says.
The enterprise now includes the 5,000ha “Hazeldean” property, which is located in south east NSW in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains with expansive landscape including rolling plains. The enterprise also includes “Myalla” which is 9,000ha, and a third property at Adelong 1,000ha which was purchased as part of a drought risk management strategy.
The Litchfields have become world leaders in the use of measured performance and the quality and longevity of the animals that are bred.
“Our Angus cattle are known for their fertility, ease of calving, above average growth and carcase,” Bea, who had studied a Bachelor of Ag Science and worked in a corporate role in agriculture, before returning to the farm, explains. “It’s important that our animals are durable and able to withstand tough winters and short growing seasons, whilst upholding key performance traits in particular fertility.”
Hazeldean’s Angus cattle auctions are still breaking records, with just under 500 bulls sold in their recent season.
“We have had a particularly strong year with our Angus program. Whilst of course the strength in the cattle market has played a major role, we also have been able to capitalise on demand by having a very consistent product in our bulls. We’ve stuck to key breeding principles which align with profit for commercial producers and have not been distracted by trends or fads. As a result we have a very strong line of females that produce consistent bulls,” Bea says.
The Hazeldean Angus herd was established in 1927 with the purchase of purebred commercial Angus females. The registered herd was established in 1952 with the importation of in-calf heifers from six New Zealand studs.
In 1960 Hazeldean was one of the first beef herds in the world to embrace the concept of Performance Testing. By using measured weight gain for selection the stud made much faster progress. Selection on measured gain remains a cornerstone of the stud today. The National Beef Recording Schemes ‘Breedplan’ was launched officially at Hazeldean in 1985.
Today the stud uses all available means to maximise the rate of genetic gain. Each year a large Artificial Insemination (AI) and Embryo Transfer (ET) programme is undertaken using the breeds’ most proven, progeny tested sires.
“The Angus are a super fertile easy doing cattle that we know perform under hard conditions. They are incredibly docile and are renowned for their carcase performance. High end processors such as Rangers Valley specifically source our genetics for their carcase quality,” Bea says.
“We are continuously collecting data on our animals to improve our breeding program and be able to better identify those animals that will be the most profitable to our future herd and those of our clients. We know you cant just breed out of a computer, it’s very much looking at the structure of the animals and temperament as well as the performance figures.”
The Merino flock has grown from its establishment in 1865 to being one of the largest and most progressive in Australia. Hazeldean Merinos are built on Rambouillet bloodlines with occasional Riverina Peppin infusions. And have one of the largest individual gene pools in Australia.
Hazeldean still leads the way with performance recording, having measured indicators longer than any other Australian stud since 1954 when James Francis Litchfield began to weigh fleeces, how much wool they cut and the fineness of the fleece.
“The genetic space is very exciting. Through the generations we have always maintained the mantra to continuously innovate and adopt new technologies,” Bea says.
“From being the first stud in Australia to weigh and measure fleece weights we are now utilising genomics to better analyse our animals. We take DNA samples at marking which verify both sire and dam pedigree and also provide us with more accurate breeding values. From this we can more accurately identify the animals best suited to driving our program forward.
“Over the past decade we have built on our heavy cutting, fine wool base to better suit the changing market and environment. The market pressure for non mulesed wool and the strength of the sheep market have increased their place in the mix and we have moved toward breeding plainer bodied sheep that have more early growth whilst retaining the fleece performance.”
Ed Bradley says this year’s ram sale was the strongest the Litchfields have ever seen.
“The promising season obviously plays a big role but it is very encouraging to see commercial clients invest in their genetics and know that our genetics are delivering for them,” he says.
Not only have the Litchfields been focusing on genetics and improvements they can make to the breeding programs, but they are also focusing on pasture improvements to what has been traditionally native country.
“To reach the genetic potential in the animals you have to have the best quality pastures and our agronomy,” Bea says. “This year in particular we have been fortunate to gain new advice on different products available and we have trialled new varieties of crop we hadn’t considered before which we believe has been advantageous.
Delta Ag Agronomist James Cheetham has been working with the Litchfields to diversify pasture varieties and further trial new species that have not been traditionally grown in the Monaro region.
“We have been focusing on diversification in the crop and pasture program, and through this they have grown dual purpose canola for the first time this year to complement the more traditional grazing cereal crops,” James says.
“This has proven useful for weed and disease control whilst achieving some excellent growth rates on the ram lambs. We have been using a program which capitalises on the rainfall patterns on the Monaro to reduce environmental risk in dry periods and capitalising on wet periods, so there is a wider window of available feed through the year.
“We put in a pasture variety trial this season and have used multi species fodder mixes and we are also seeing promising results from these inclusions.”
The Litchfield family have also had the opportunity to educate many jackaroos, overseers and managers in the art of sheep and cattle breeding, performance recording and objective measurement, coupled with visual assessment to select and identify top animals along with best practice in livestock breeding.
Jim and Libby Litchfield stand amongst the lush pastures and glance over at their daughter Bea, her husband Ed Bradley and their baby boy Stirling, as the sixth and seventh generation of the family to be involved in the Hazeldean enterprise, and they know the future of the family business is going to be a bright one.
Bea attributes the continued success to the family’s passion and the importance of continuing on what has been a family farming legacy spanning generations.
“I really believe that is one of our key strengths. We are hands on within the business, and there is nothing like having family members to drive such a strong purpose in keeping the strong family history and links to farming going,” Bea says.