Belalie Station to move from wool into goats

Terry Sim, January 19, 2022

A DECISION to transition the Oldfield family’s Belalie Station Merino operation near Bourke into goat production has created wide discussion in the wool industry.

Some have attributed it largely to the lack of shearers and rising shearing rates, but Tim Oldfield and his ram supplier Nigel Kerin of Kerin Poll see it more as matching the livestock operation to the climate and the country.

“To me it’s a good story about profit-driven succession, climate and matching your enterprise to the environment you live in,” Mr Kerin said.

For the past 11 years, the Oldfield family has run a profitable non-mulesed Merino operation based on Kerin Poll blood, but recent developments have prompted a move to disperse the 10,000-sheep flock through Nutrien Bourke next month.

When the sheep flock is dispersed, it will be the first time since it was settled in the late 1800s that Belalie Station has been intentionally destocked of sheep. Belalie Station was made famous by its association poet Will Ogilvie and Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant who both worked on the station and wrote of their experiences in the area.

Belalie encircled by exclusion fencing

Tim Oldfield said the family recently encircled the 140,000-acre station in an exclusion fence, aimed more at keeping pigs out and stock in.

“We are just on the edge of dog problems.”

Mr Oldfield said he was initially going to keep 5000 Merino ewes, but decided to make a complete operation change. The likelihood that shearers will be difficult and costly to for some time contributed to the decision.

Mr Oldfield said goats are a better fit for our country.

“You are in an arid zone and you are always coming out of drought or going into drought,” he said.

“We are having a magnificent season, but you’ve got to work really hard to make a sheep operation work properly out there.

“This is more about what is fit for our country.”

Goat meat returns prompted family decision

Mr Oldfield said recent goat meat returns had shown that the move to goats could be more profitable and less intensive than sheep, and there was also family support for the move.

“It’s more about the younger generation throwing a good idea at you.

“It looks like it is going to work for us and if it doesn’t work we have already upscaled the fencing and it is not hard to come back,” he said.

“A compelling argument has been made.

“At this stage, it is going to be largely a goat operation and possibly meat sheep.”

Goats, climate and succession

The Oldfields have been farming some goats since 2018 and estimate the sheep can be replaced with 20,000 goats in time. Mr Oldfield said the Kerin blood non-mulesed sheep operation had been very profitable, but the rangeland goat is an animal that lives and reproduces in desert conditions. The Oldfields have achieved marking rates about 115-120 percent with the sheep, but kid production rates have been running at 200pc-plus, with mustering every eight months.

Mr Oldfield said the current goat meat prices also make the operation change attractive and goat production is becoming more mainstream. He is looking forward to not having to mark lambs, or shear and crutch, or chase flies, no matter what the breed of sheep.

“We will muster the goats a couple of times a year, that’s about the biggest thing.”

Sheep industry is profitable, but must match climate and landscape

Mr Oldfield said the sale will be an opportunity for someone to get hold of a very nice line of sheep, probably in the second week of February and Mr Kerin said he is working to market the flock to stay under Merino rams.

The October shorn 18-19 micron flock generally manages a wool cut of 6.5-7 kilograms of wool. The sale sheep will include 7000 yellow tag ewes and wether lambs, 3000 purple tag ewes, 1400 green tags, 1400 orange tags and 1000 blue and black tags.

Despite Mr Oldfield being Kerin Poll’s biggest ram client, Mr Kerin is supportive of the decision to move to goat production.

Mr Kerin said the sheep and wool industry has never had as much wealth in it since the 1950s wool boom, aided by the current mutton, lamb and fibre prices.

He was unaware of any area that has been as affected by drought in the past 12 years as the “so-called salad bowl” area from Cunnamulla down into the country including the Oldfield’s Belalie Station on the banks of the Warrego River north of Bourke.

“If you want to make a s…load of money you must match the class of animal to the environment you live in.

“That was all traditionally a 100 percent Merino sheep area, but our climate has changed in such a way that it is virtually impossible to run a breeding mob out there anymore, because you build up numbers, get decimated, build up numbers and get decimated again.”

Mr Kerin said he had been helping Mr Oldfield sell his surplus sheep for about 12 years and visited the property twice a year.

“And every time I drive out his front gate, I say to myself if I lived out there what would I be running?

“And it’s not a cattle breeding herd and it’s not a sheep breeding flock,” he said.

“The climate has shifted in that country massively and so must the class of animal you run if you want to remain viable.”

Mr Kerin said four years ago he was shown an 8000 acre paddock on Belalie Station that had been fenced with prefabricated fencing and at the start of the financial year was stocked with 1600 does.

“They mustered it at the end of the financial year (to draft off the kids for sale) and put 1600 does back in the same paddock again.”

The Oldfields found the exercise very profitable, with the only costs being mustering and the ear tags in the goats.

The country selects the species that exists, thrives and reproduces there, he said.

The Belalie Station operation change is also about succession, Mr Kerin said. Tim Oldfield’s son, a Marcus Oldham graduate, had continued to put the numbers forward on the goat versus sheep income and costs, he said.

“If Tim didn’t give him a go now, when was he ever going to give him a go?

“I think it is a good story about ‘we’ve realised the climate has changed and we are going to pivot, match our enterprise to our climate and we are not going to ignore the education of our kids.”

Mr Kerin said he knew the operation change decision was coming and told Mr Oldfield he was doing the right thing.

“It’s not some hare-brained idea skipping and jumping from one enterprise to the other.

“To me it has been well-thought out, it’s planned, it’s about fitting in with climate and not fighting against it, it’s about succession, it’s about giving the next generation a go.

“It’s also about realising the market has changed, although there is nothing wrong with the sheep, wool or lamb markets, it’s just that the goat market has gone to a level never seen before.”

Mr Kerin also cited Thomas Food International’s investment in the Bourke abattoir as a sign of confidence in the goat meat industry.


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