Kathleen Allan

Farm: Bindaree

Region: Yass, southern New South Wales

Commodity: Merino grazing, cattle, stock-horse breeding, agricultural education

Farming area: 131 hectares, plus agist 192 hectares

Rainfall: Average of 713 mm per year (1899–2005 mean)

Email: bindareelan@bigpond.com

Phone: 02 6227 3221, 0407 744 218

 

How does climate impact on our ability to make management decisions? We would always be wanting to have some sort of activity but we can certainly scale back the size of that decision.

In terms of opportunistic decisions, such as pasture-improvement plans, those come down to economics and environmental sustainability. Because you don’t want to be wasting resources, whether that’s money or land.

Kathleen Allan

 

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Producing superfine wool in southern NSW

I’m a fifth-generation farmer on our farm Bindaree, and we’re in Yass, in southern New South Wales. I farm with my mum and my husband David. Our main commercial activity on the farm is superfine wool production.

We’re primarily a certified Merino-grazing operation, but we also have a number of cattle on the farm. We breed Australian stock horses as well. We also run an agricultural education display business, where we take agricultural displays into schools, shows and festivals.

The property is 325 acres [131 hectares], and we also agist another 475 acres nearby [192 hectares] for our Merino operation. Although our [wool] clip is probably quite small, we are very passionate and committed to best practice and high-quality wool.

We’re running around 1000 superfine Merinos at the moment [March 2013]. We lamb about 300 superfine Merino ewes each year and we’re running about 600 wethers as well, which are our wool-producing sheep on the farm. We have a small number of crossbred cattle with excellent temperament for our agricultural education displays.

Our property is probably in the mid‑range in terms of size and commercial activity. Within the Yass area, one of the most highly regarded superfine wool–producing areas of Australia, there are quite a number of large farms, and there has been a big increase in the number of peri‑urban/lifestyle farms.

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Yass’s Mediterranean climate

My parents bought Bindaree about 35 years ago now, during the second-worst drought in 100 years.

The rainfall around our area is predominantly winter/spring–based. [The 1899–2005 mean rainfall per year is 713 mm.] We usually have quite a Mediterranean-type climate, with quite dry and hot summers and some storm activity. This type of climate and pastures are very suited to Merino sheep and our Shorthorn cattle.

This summer [early 2013] certainly has been very hot and very dry, and the 2 years prior to that were really quite good seasons. We start lambing in 6 weeks’ time; after the really hot, windy summer the pastures have been quite knocked around, so the rain right now is looking good.

There is climate variability across agriculture, but I’ve certainly noticed in the last 20 years that the peaks and troughs that seem to have been widening. Winters seemed to have changed.

When I was at school, it would be perfectly normal that you wouldn’t be able to ride your horse or drive the car anywhere around Bindaree over winter because it was just so wet.

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Scaling decisions to the seasons and climate

How does climate impact on our ability to make management decisions? In terms of how we manage the major decisions that we make on farm, we would always be wanting to have some sort of activity but we can certainly scale back the size of that decision.

For instance, we shear at a certain time of the year, calve at a certain time of the year… You’re looking out 5 months ahead for something like lambing, or indeed 9 months if you’re thinking about calving, and climate could impact on those decisions.

If it was a bad season you may choose to join [mate] less, or if it was a long drought, for example, you might choose to not join that year. And because you’ve got superfine Merinos that are producing wool then, while you wouldn’t be having any lambs that year, you still have the capacity to produce wool. And of course that wool can then be sold.

That’s one of the benefits of running sheep that are wool producers, because you’ve got those two aspects of the production system.

In terms of the more opportunistic decisions that we make, such as pasture improvement plans, that can be impacted by climate and obviously it would come down to economics and environmental sustainability. Because, of course, you don’t want to be wasting resources, whether that’s money or land.

If you had a bad season, for example, you might decide to postpone or reschedule a plan for a particular paddock so that you can maximise the use of that paddock for grazing.

I think we’ve got to be both flexible and rigid. We know we have certain commitments at certain times of the year, so there’s operations that can’t change so much. For instance, shearing’s got to fit in at a certain time, and you’re also reliant on other contractors, so it’s best to try and plan.

But you’ve got to be flexible around the season. You might get an opportunity that doesn’t come along each year and you decide that you’re going to give country a break because you’ve got plenty of feed in another paddock.

It’s a combination of being flexible and being prepared to take a bit of a risk as well, but not changing just for the sake of changing or because what you do gets a bit hard.

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Lambing in autumn

One of the interesting things that we do on our farm in terms of seasons and how we manage the livestock is that we’re autumn lambers. That means that we lamb in the autumn each year, which isn’t really common. Most people with Merinos lamb in late winter/early spring.

Because we’re on native pastures and we shear our lambs when we shear the rest of our sheep in November, we’re able to manage other challenges on farm in the summer, such as flystrike and grass-seed issues. If you get a really good spring, you’ll get a lot of summer grass that particularly troubles the weaners.

We try and manage the season and the rainfall, and keep the feed base sufficient so that we can lamb through autumn. Although we’ll have ewes carrying lambs in winter, which poses some additional challenges, it’s something that we’ve done for many years and it’s working quite well.

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Improving native pastures after autumn breaks

Bindaree has a native pasture base. In the last couple of years we have done a lot of work, with Greening Australia in particular, to improve the long-term sustainability of the native pasture base and do pasture-improvement work.

We select certain paddocks for certain years to go from a native pasture into an improved pasture, by predominantly using rye grass–based pastures for 4–5 years, then going in again and putting in a more permanent pasture from that. We’re still in early days at this stage.

We certainly rely on an autumn break and hopefully this lovely rain over the last couple of days [March 2013] will mean that we can do that again for this year. We’ll now start thinking about the pasture-improvement plans that we can do for this year.

So we’ll look at grazing off, spraying out any weeds, and then going in late autumn/early winter, up to June/July at the latest, with our next permanent pasture for future use. You’ve got to take that opportunity if you can take certain paddocks or certain amounts of land out of the picture for quite a period of time while pasture gets established.

It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve had the resources and the skills to be able to send sheep off the farm to another property. Before that, for the last 2–3 years, we were in terrible drought so sinking a whole heap of money and resources into pasture improvement would be a pretty bad idea.

We’ve done it in a fairly staged process which hopefully will pay off, because now we have tree lines and erosion under control, so establishing new pasture is a lot more successful.

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Fitting cattle into different parts of the business

Our cattle is quite a small herd and it’s got to be ‘fit for purpose’.

For our education display business, they need to have excellent temperament and be suitable for the milking display. We have a number of dairy breeds of cattle.

We have crossbred cattle because we use a Shorthorn bull for crossbred calves that we can either keep in the herd if they’re females (to go on and produce beef calves), or if they’re males, send them to market or use them on-farm ourselves.

It’s dependent on the season and on opportunities in the market. If there’s plenty of feed, we can grow them out and get a better price in the end, then we will keep them on until 14–16 months of age.

But if it’s looking like the following winter’s looking a little bit tough then we will wean the calves straight off their mothers and they’ll go and be sold at about 9–10 months.

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Managing and balancing risk

We’re not exactly in a high-risk category with our farm. Through off-farm income, the education displays and our decisions, our farm isn’t as exposed.

If your only source of income is on farm then your risk obviously might be quite a bit higher, then you’d need to spread your risk across the farm by not putting all your eggs in one basket or focusing on one activity.

Like any farmers we certainly don’t like to waste money but looking after the environment and our resource base, and focusing on the genetic basis of our flock, is really important. So we try and balance all those things when we’re making decisions.

It’s about shifting the balance between those activities and being able to keep an eye on all of it. You’ve got to be realistic in terms of what your farm can do for you and what your land-base can do for you. For instance, if we wanted to produce more sheep on our farm then we really needed to look at certain paddocks and improve those pastures.

It’s the same with understanding or managing your climate, managing your soil and managing your farm: it is interrelated and you’ve got to know your resource base, be prepared to ask questions and call on experts as you need them. And you can never stop learning.

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Working with local networks

Being a part of the Greening Australia network and the Land Care community has been excellent, and they produce a number of really suitable publications and have some great field days.

We’re on the border of two catchment management authorities: the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan Catchment Management Authorities. We’re part of a producer network and do a lot with our sheep and wool technical expert as part of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.

We’re tapping into trial results all the time, so we’re able to see what people are doing and how people are benchmarking from a livestock-production and pasture point of view. You just take what you can apply on your farm, based on your conditions and soil types.

Kathleen is an Art4Agriculture Ambassador, Wool Farmer and AGvocate [6-minute YouTube video].

 


Interview date: July 2013

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Contact Kathleen Allan

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