Innovation drives EP enterprise forward

Innovation drives EP enterprise forward

Life & Style
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WHEN fourth-generation Kimba region farmer Dion Woolford looks back at the enterprise of his great-grandfather Ern Woolford, he is struck by the similarities to their present day operation.

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WHEN fourth-generation Kimba region farmer Dion Woolford looks back at the enterprise of his great-grandfather Ern Woolford - the first member of the family to farm in the district - he is struck by the similarities to their present day operation.

"The concept hasn't changed much at all," he said.

Originally moving to the area in 1928, the Woolfords began with a wheat and sheep enterprise, while also cutting hay.

These three areas remain core in the modern-day property, operated by Bert and Barb Woolford, and their son Dion and daughter-in-law Chelsea Woolford, alongside their children, fifth generation George and Lara.

Bert and Barb are also supported by daughter Hannah Woolford, who lives at Port Neill with her fiancee Tom Davey and daughter Indie, but is actively involved in farming decisions.

There is another similarity across the generations that the Woolfords probably would not claim for themselves - the desire to keep innovating.

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In an article published in Stock Journal in the 1950s, Ern Woolford spoke about his operation, which included investments in the latest machinery, a decision not to burn stubble and a recognition of the shift into the "mechanical age".

The modern generation have also been active in trying new ideas.

"We're using technology to keep ahead of the game," Dion said.

"We can't afford to stay still for too long in this industry."

When Ernest Edward Woolford moved to the Buckleboo region from Murraytown, it was originally scrubland.

Ern built a hut on the farm and married his neighbour, Joyce McDonald, with livestock very much part of the farming mix from the start.

In 2001, the Woolford's bought a second property, at Solomon south of Kimba.

Bert said the differences in soil type and climate between the two properties - "they're chalk and cheese" - had helped mitigate some of their risks.

ALL IN: Tom and Indie Davey, with Hannah, Bert, Barb, Lara, Dion, George and Chelsea Woolford.

ALL IN: Tom and Indie Davey, with Hannah, Bert, Barb, Lara, Dion, George and Chelsea Woolford.

The original property at Buckleboo has an average 300 millimetre annual rainfall, while at Solomon, it was more like 350mm.

Dion said there were some logistical issues in having two properties 60 kilometres apart - as a family as well as moving livestock and machinery.

But, there were also lifestyle benefits.

Dion and Chelsea live at the Solomon property.

"We love going to the beach and this is 60km closer," he said.

While trying to breed better sheep for themselves, the Woolfords began the venture they are perhaps most known for - the Karawatha Park Poll Merino and Merino stud.

In the mid-1990s, Bert went along to a workshop with former CSIRO scientist Jim Watts and learned about Soft Rolling Skin Merinos.

"He had the science to prove the benefits and that got us into breeding that style of sheep," he said.

"But there weren't any rams about to source."

In our first three sales, we probably only sold half of what we offered but it slowly snowballed. - BERT WOOLFORD

He said they began buying some of the "better rams" available and started off their own artificial insemination program.

"Once we got going, we started breeding our own rams," he said.

"By chance, a stud we'd been buying genetics from asked about our surplus rams, which were, at that stage, going to the meatworks.

"We were already doing the measurements to get the rams we wanted, so that's when we registered as a stud, about 2000."

The name Karawatha was the original name for the homestead, translated from an Indigenous word meaning place of pines.

Barb said the farm was not initially called Karawatha until she and Bert took the reins.

When it came time to name their stud, they selected something close to home.

Bert said they initially just intended to sell the rams they did not need for themselves.

"We had a really small client base at the start," he said.

"In our first three sales, we probably only sold half of what we offered but it slowly snowballed."

SALE-O: Karawatha Park sold 470 rams last year, with full clearance at their on-property sale and more sold through private selection.

SALE-O: Karawatha Park sold 470 rams last year, with full clearance at their on-property sale and more sold through private selection.

Last year, Karawatha Park achieved full clearance on the 112 rams offered in its on-property sale, while selling 470 rams in total, including pastoral orders and private selection.

Among the biggest learning curves in operating a stud was the marketing.

"Mum and Dad were not at all comfortable with that self promotion," Dion said.

Everyone knows their yields per hectare for their crop and we focus on that for our wool yield. - DION WOOLFORD

The Woolfords run about 1850 ewes in a self-replacing flock, with all treated as part of the stud as far as data collection goes.

"A pretty exciting part of where the stud is going now is the data collection, it's evidence of what we can do," Barb said.

As they bring in younger replacement ewes, they sell the older, surplus ewes to their clients as breeding ewes.

All up they shear about 4000 sheep, with shearing taking place twice a year.

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When the season allows, they try to retain their wether lambs until their first shearing.

Dion said knowing an overall average cut across the flock was the same as knowing crop yields across the farm and they wanted to have more specific information.

"Everyone knows their yields per hectare for their crop and we focus on that for our wool yield," Dion said.

"We can see what each sheep produced and make breeding decisions based on that."

Last year they introduced an autodrafter, which they use to weigh all sheep as yearlings, which allows them to know growth rates, along with individual wool tests and fleece weights at shearing.

Our main aim is for profitable sheep - we don't just aim for a micron, we target the fleece weight, as well as growth rates. - BERT WOOLFORD

"These are three fairly important bits of information we have, along with the pedigree," Dion said.

"That way we can be fairly stringent about which sheep stay and which sheep go."

Bert said Australian Sheep Breeding Values were a big part of how they selected sheep, along with the "obvious" visual traits.

"Our main aim is for profitable sheep - we don't just aim for a micron, we target the fleece weight, as well as growth rates," Bert said.

"Those are the real profit drivers for us."

STUBBLE MAGIC: The two properties have a “simple rotation” of wheat and barley, followed by pastures.

STUBBLE MAGIC: The two properties have a “simple rotation” of wheat and barley, followed by pastures.

This same innovation is included in their cropping rotation, which makes up about 60 per cent of the enterprise and includes hay production.

The Woolfords use yield maps and variable rate seeding.

Analysing protein maps allows them to blend grain to meet market specifications while mapping nitrogen take-off helps when planning inputs the following season.

They have also been using EM38 mapping in their delving, clay spreading and spading program.

Among their investments was a share in a Paxton Plow to reduce compaction, while they are also setting up a liquid kit to inject nutrients at depth.

When it comes to the crops themselves, it's a "pretty simple rotation", with a cereal - wheat or barley - followed by vetch or medic in a pasture phase.

This district is renowned for producing good quality hay - provided you don't get rain after you cut it. - BERT WOOLFORD

Three years ago, the development of the Eyre Premium Hay by fellow Buckleboo farmers the Vandeleurs allowed the Woolfords to move into the production of export-quality hay.

They produce about 1000 tonnes of oaten hay, which is sold to Balco and exported.

Bert said they had grown hay for their own use but export hay required much more "quality control", similar to that needed for their grain crops.

"This district is renowned for producing good quality hay - provided you don't get rain after you cut it," he said.

"The first year we went into it, we got 100 millimetres between cutting and baling."

HARVEST TIME: An aerial view of harvest at Buckleboo. Cropping makes up about 60pc of the enterprise.

HARVEST TIME: An aerial view of harvest at Buckleboo. Cropping makes up about 60pc of the enterprise.

Bert said the oaten hay generally replaced a wheat crop in their rotation at the Buckleboo farm and was a "really good tool for weed control".

Dion said the hay also allowed them to lessen their exposure to hot, dry springs, "which we're prone to having", or frost.

"It also takes the edge off at harvest, which doesn't get nearly enough credit," he said.

A big driver in the way the Woolfords operate their business has been their inclusion in the Farm Owners Academy.

If you're not 100 per cent yourself, you can't perform at 100pc in the business. - DION WOOLFORD

"It has had a profound impact on our business; it transformed us," Dion said.

The three-year course had helped them improve financial literacy, benchmarking, but also personal growth.

"If you're not 100 per cent yourself, you can't perform at 100pc in the business," Dion said.

He said their participation in the course helped provide "clarity".

"It's really helped us work towards common goals and living by our values," he said.

"It's helped us identify values to start with."

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The family hold regular business meetings, where they are able to raise any issues.

"It's got us all aligned and accountable," Dion said.

As a family, as well as a business, they have developed a structure of who takes on what roles in the business, but it is flexible, with each supporting other facets.

Dion is predominantly cropping, while Bert looks after the sheep, Chelsea deals with the books and Barb is in charge of promotions, human relations and "peacemaking".

Barb said one of the biggest assets to their business has been their staff.

"We totally value the people that work with us, we couldn't do what we do without them," she said.

Initially Dion was looking off-farm for his future, studying human movement, with a view to physiotherapy.

But halfway through his degree he realised he wanted to return to the farm instead.

This is a chance to have an impact and help come up with a solution. - DION WOOLFORD

For Bert and Barb, who remembered him borrowing the Farming Ahead magazine among his school library books as a child, this was not a complete surprise.

After graduation, Dion studied a graduate agribusiness course, which he loved.

"Some people get a trade," he said.

"Health science, it's a life science, and it can be applied to sheep health, but more importantly to our own health."

Dion also sits on the board of directors for grower representative group Grain Producers SA.

"The learning curve for me has been massive, and that was half the appeal for it," he said.

""Plenty of people are happy to freely express their problems without necessarily coming up with a solution, but this is a chance to have an impact and help come up with a solution.

"We've got such a diverse board, with knowledge so widespread, which is such a massive strength."

FAMILY TIME: Chelsea, Lara, Bert, George, Barb and Dion Woolford in the Solomon shearing shed.

FAMILY TIME: Chelsea, Lara, Bert, George, Barb and Dion Woolford in the Solomon shearing shed.

Off the farm, they are very active in the community.

In 2018, Chelsea was named young citizen of the year at the Kimba District Council Australia Day Awards.

A primary reason for this recognition was her role as co-founder of Kimba's Mental Health and Wellbeing Group and her ongoing role as a member of the Upper Eyre Local Health cluster, as well as a student mentor at Kimba Area School.

Chelsea, who grew up on a farm between Yorketown and Edithburgh on the Yorke Peninsula, met Dion while they were at boarding school in Adelaide.

After university, where she also studied human movement, she lived in Adelaide for two years before moving to Kimba and working in health promotion.

She was approached by the KMHWG co-founder Megan Lienert about forming the group to reduce the stigma of mental health in the region.

"There are not a lot of mental health options available in Kimba, so we're trying to improve what's available," she said.

"What we're noticing is a lot of people in community are coming to our group for direction on reducing that stigma and we're educating people on how to help others."

As part of spreading this message, they hold regular events, with their Kimba Health and Wellness weekend, held in October, named joint-winner of community event of the year in this year's Kimba Australia Day Awards.

Related reading: Seven generations help future-proof farming legacy at Spalding

This advocacy for mental health is a something Chelsea shares with her husband.

Dion took part in Mentally Fit EP, a photography project that captures images of men across the EP, alongside photographs of the activities that help keep them "mentally fit".

Dion's photograph was of him and son George playing in the sand.

"For granddad, or dad even, it wasn't OK to talk about mental health, it was just 'she'll be right mate'," Dion said.

"As parents of children, we need to break that cycle and show it's OK to talk about mental health.

"If I did my ankle playing footy, I'd walk into the club and everyone would feel comfortable asking about it.

"But if I was having issues with my mental health, no one would feel comfortable asking about it."

Sport is another common interest.

Chelsea plays in the local netball competition, while Dion plays football.

Bert also played football locally, including some A-grade, until his retirement, before taking on administrative roles within the local club, the Kimba Tigers.

When everyone lives so remotely, it's hard to randomly meet people in the street, but everyone comes in for sport. - DION WOOLFORD

This then grew to roles in the league and zone, and he is now on the Eyre Peninsula's Regional Football Advisory Council.

"Sport is what keeps a community together," Bert said.

"If I want to watch my grandchildren play sport, we need to have a competition."

Dion agrees, saying sport is also a key way to socialise in farming communities.

"When everyone lives so remotely, it's hard to randomly meet people in the street, but everyone comes in for sport," he said.

For Barb, art and photography helped to fill in some of her time when her two children went away to school.

"I'd been so involved with school and their sport that there was going to be a big gap that needed to be filled," she said.

She began studying photography, helped out by some "fantastic" mentors as well as online and face-to-face courses.

The area where she lives provided inspiration, and she loves to take pictures of the landscape, particularly in the Gawler Ranges.

She also takes portraits and - on occasion - puts her skills to work on livestock, which helps in the stud promotion.

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