Old Koomooloo offers slice of South Australian history

Liz Wells, February 13, 2023

The Thomas family has been running its commercial Merino flock based on the family’s Craiglee bloodline on Old Koomooloo since 2006. Photo: Elders

A CHANCE to buy into South Australia’s tightly held north east pastoral district will be presented to the market when the 35,000ha Old Koomooloo station goes to auction on March 10.

Old Koomooloo is located 83km east of Burra and 253km north-east of Adelaide and is been offered for sale through Elders agent Adam Chilcott, for Wayne and Helen Thomas, who in 2006 bought the station to run their commercial Merino flock.

The Thomases are selling Old Koomooloo to simplify their mixed farming, wool growing and prime lamb operation, that is based on their home property Craiglee at Manoora, south of Burra, and incorporates two additional satellite blocks.

Links to the Country Women’s Association SA beginnings

Old Koomooloo was established in 1868 by Thomas Warnes and family.

When the Warnes built a station neighbouring it to the west in 1892, it assumed the name Koomooloo. The foundation property was therefore renamed Old Koomooloo and became home to the founder’s son Thomas and his wife Deborah, with his brother Isaac and her sister Mary marrying and living on Koomooloo.

The sisters would ride their bicycles once a week to meet at a mid-point as their only regular form of female contact available in station life. Deborah died in 1903, but Mary lived until 1959, and her understanding of the need for female companionship in remote areas in 1929 saw her found an organisation in Burra which became the first branch of the South Australian Country Women’s Association. Mary and Isaac Warnes moved to a farm close to Burra, and Old Koomooloo became home to their son Tom and his family.

Old Koomooloo stayed in the Warnes family for another generation before passing through several owners prior to the Thomases.

Low-maintenance adjunct

Helen Thomas hails from a dairy farm in Western Australia, while Wayne Thomas grew up on Craiglee, where his father Bruce in 1955 established one of South Australia’s first Poll Merino studs.

Helen and Wayne have raised their own family on Craiglee, and while the children have provided valuable input into the business, Mrs Thomas said a Christmas-time conversation confirmed they did not plan to be involved full-time.

“We don’t have kids coming on to take over, and Old Koomooloo is looking beautiful at the moment, so we’ve decided to simplify our operation and sell it.”

“It’s a little bit sad to be selling Old Koomooloo, because we’ve got all the pieces together now between the different climate zones,” Mrs Thomas said.

“We’re looking to have what you might call some long service leave.”

She said Old Koomooloo’s proximity to reliable cropping country meant it was likely to suit someone already established in the wider region.

“We think the buyer will be someone similar to us who wants to run Old Koomooloo from cropping land anywhere from the Yorke Peninsula to the Riverland, but it would also suit a dedicated pastoralist.”

Conservatively stocked

The Thomases are running around 10,000 sheep across their four properties, including a self-replacing flock of 3000 adult Merino ewes based on the Craiglee bloodline and running at Koomooloo. The clip averages around 18 micron.

Under Pastoral Board of SA stipulations for leasehold country, Old Koomooloo has a maximum stocking rate of 5500 head. The Thomases have stocked it conservatively throughout their ownership, with numbers peaking at 4250 in 2013, and last year getting to 2526 head following a flock rebuild after the 2019-21 drought.

The station features a four stand shearing shed with yarding for around 3000 sheep, and has come to the market with abundant feed and seed, mostly of spear grass, ready for germination on winter rain.

“We have a central arterial pipeline, and we run wethers on the harder northern country, and ewes in the south where the bluebush is.”

The Thomases have themselves managed shearing, crutching, mustering, fencing and other jobs on Old Koomooloo, often timed to coincide with school or university holidays, but have engaged backpacker, contract or part-time labour at times.

Old Koomooloo includes a homestead, shearing shed and quarters. Photo: Elders

While Old Koomooloo has a homestead and shearers’ quarters to stay in, the Thomases have often exercised the day trip option.

“It’s a three-hour round trip from Craiglee, so we can go up for the day; it’s been a good workable distance for us.”

The station’s north-south arterial pipeline connects to most of Old Koomooloo’s 16 dams, and critical water points are monitored remotely.

“Up north, we muster by controlling water.”

Feral goats offer a further income stream, and 5460 head have been harvested over the past 12 years.

Gluepot is Old Koomooloo’s nearest weather station, and indicates annual average mean rainfall of 267mm, well below the 2022 total of 352mm.

Carbon-farming could also present as an option for Old Koomooloo.

Wool tells story

Old Koomooloo wool regularly classes into the elite category for pastoral lines, and the station’s ability to produce high-quality wool fits in with Helen and Wayne’s objective over the four properties of achieving value for wool and meat per hectare, not per animal.

“Burra is famous for copper, so their diet naturally includes copper, sulphur and high protein in the feed.

“Old Koomooloo is in a premium wool growing area,” she said.

“The benefit of Old Koomooloo is the consistent diet it gives the sheep, and that means greater staple strength that helps with the price of the wool.”

A central north-south pipeline and 16 dams are a feature of Old Koomooloo. Photo: Elders

Mrs Thomas said when dry times come, Old Koomooloo’s feed maintains its quality, and when rain brings a flush of herbage, sheep continue to eat shrubbery as a counter to tenderness in the staple that can occur when nutrition changes markedly.

The first option to purchase livestock on Old Koomooloo will go to the highest bidder for the property on the day of auction.

Shuffling sheep

Mrs Thomas admits they have “a complicated set-up” which has evolved since their first days of married life, when the wool floor-price collapsed and the family’s income relied on Merinos.

“We set ourselves up with having Craiglee, and a commercial arm, and value adding by growing out crossbred lambs.”

In previous years, the Thomases had a property in the Mallee, but remote management became difficult.

The Thomases’ other two properties are located at Emu Downs, east of Manoora, and Ashbourne, 14km west of Strathalbyn.

After weaning, lambs from Old Koomooloo are trucked to Craiglee, home to the stud flock and 250ha each of cash and fodder crops.

Helen Thomas in the yards at Craiglee with Merino lambs, most of which were born on Old Koomooloo.

Weaned lambs start at Craiglee on clover before moving on to an oat-vetch mix, and then going in behind the headers.

“Lambs get the first pick at barley stubble, and then ewes follow after they have picked out the best of the wheat stubbles.

“The ewes are then supplementary fed in autumn when we broadcast lupins or beans for them.”

In early May, “anything not lambing” goes on agistment to McLaren Vale, where rams, wether and dry ewe hoggets keep weeds down in vineyards, and benefit from a frost-free winter by the sea.

“That enables us to get crops in at Manoora.”

Cull ewes are joined to White Suffolk rams at the Ashbourne block.

The Thomases will join up to 1000 ewes for their prime-lamb operation, with progeny sold finished, or as stores or forward stores, depending on markets and the season.




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