PASTORAL pioneer Peter Waite could see the potential of the state's north-east as a wool growing area when he took up vast leases in the late 1860s in partnership with Sir Thomas Elder.
His direct descendants, the Morgan and Wells families, have the same dyed in the wool vision for the red dirt, saltbush and native grass country.
Last year Mutooroo Pastoral Company celebrated its 150th year of operation.
Today it comprises five properties - Mutooroo, Mulyungarie, Quinyambie, Lilydale and Manunda - spanning close to 20,000 square kilometres near the SA-NSW border.
After the death of Sir Thomas Elder in 1897, the company was incorporated.
Merino sheep remain pride of place on four of the stations and in a good year the wool clip is about 2000 bales, which is sold through Elders.
Quinyambie Station was Mutooroo Pastoral Company's most recent purchase in 2010, and was previously owned by S Kidman & Co.
The 12,065sqkm property just north of the Dog Fence runs a Poll Hereford herd of about 9000 cattle.
For five generations, Mutooroo's owners were absentee landlords and relied on sound directors and good managers, according to present managing director James Morgan.
But he has broken that mould as the first company head to live and work in the pastoral area.
After growing up in Adelaide, James was drawn to station life, starting at Lilydale, 70km south of Yunta, in 1983.
"It just clicked and I thought this is what I want to be doing," he said.
"I wanted to see it roll on and succeed."
After marrying Alex, whose family owned Ashrose Merino stud,Tintinara, the couple moved to manage 3336sqkm Mulyungarie Station.
They remained there for 11 years until they bought 65,000ha Outalpa Station, via Olary, moving there with their three children Ed, Jack and Lily in 1996. Outalpa is run by the Morgan family, separately to Mutooroo operations.
While Lily and Jack work off-farm, Ed returned home five years ago after 3.5 years working the wine industry.
A stint at WA Merino stud, Seven Oaks South, in 2013 also cemented Ed's interest in the sheep and wool sector.
He has just been promoted to Mutooroo stud manager, replacing John Manning who retired early this year after 40 years with the company.
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James and Alex say those in pastoral areas need to be stoic to ride the season highs and lows but the present drought is one of the worst they can remember.
Just 50 millimetres of rain has fallen at Outalpa in the past 15 months, only one-quarter of their average annual rainfall, and it is a similar story on the company-owned properties.
"You generally get a bit of a dry spot every five or six years but this one has gone on and we are through our second summer now with little rain," James said.
Alex says they have implemented trigger points to make decisions about the timing of destocking, which has been critical financially but also for the health of the country.
The public persona is no-one wants to touch the problem, including the government, but the reality is kangaroo numbers are in plague proportions, they are not threatened at all.
The company has sold off about 30 per cent of its breeding flocks and has only a few weaners at Mutooroo and Lilydale.
For the first time in history, Mulyungarie Station - which has a 45,000 dry sheep equivalent rating - has been destocked.
Alex says huge numbers of kangaroos have exacerbated the drought, with an estimated 160,000 to 170,000 head on Mulyungarie during the 2017-18 summer.
"The timing of that was terrible because that was the last general rain, so the kangaroos moved in and did a lot of damage," Ed said.
James said it rained in November 2017 when it was very dry in western NSW.
"So not only us but plenty of our neighbours got eaten out - we would normally have some stock left but not this time," James added.
The Morgans say it is critical a solution is found to humanely control kangaroo populations.
"The public persona is no-one wants to touch the problem, including the government, but the reality is kangaroo numbers are in plague proportions, they are not threatened at all," James said.
Alex said many of the kangaroos were in poor condition, due to the lack of grass.
The other scourge has been wild dogs, exacerbated by the deteriorating state of the century-old Dog Fence, 100km of which is the northern boundary on Mulyungarie.
In the past year alone they have shot and trapped 360 dogs on Mulyungarie.
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The Morgans say it is time for the state and federal government to join with industry and collectively spend about $25m to replace large areas of the fence and protect SA's sheep industry.
"We are in a similar position to where Qld and WA were with their dog fence - it has been a long way back for Qld and WA's sheep industry has never been the same," Alex said.
The Morgans admit to being anxious about the season but know the rains will eventually come, recounting in 1989 when their 920-bale Mulyungarie wool clip was flooded in for several months. The shearing team had to be flown out by helicopter.
It was hard to keep our resolve when everyone around us was changing to different enterprises but that deep belief in wool being an excellent product kept us in the game.
The 1990s and early 2000s were difficult with the long downturn of wool prices but since 2006-07, the Morgans say there has been a run of good seasons and good prices.
This has enabled them to invest in many capital improvements, including hundreds of kilometres of polypipe for water and putting reliable solar pumps on bores.
"It was hard to keep our resolve when everyone around us was changing to different enterprises but that deep belief in wool being an excellent product kept us in the game," Alex said.
"But wool is a commodity and commodities go up and down."
Tech drives labour savings
Mutooroo Pastoral Company founder Peter Waite imported 265 tonnes of wire from England in 1870 to begin fencing vast areas into small paddocks with big dams.
A century and a half later the company is continuing to innovate with water telemetry systems.
In the past six months they have spent about $60,000 on a wi-fi system on Lilydale Station, installed by Adelaide-based tech company Xentech.
Two towers have been strategically placed on Lilydale's ranges to skip a wi-fi signal from the Barrier Highway across the station to remotely monitor the main water distribution points.
Cameras have been attached to the 10 main header tanks as well as on some troughs to provide real-time footage back to the office or for staff mobile phones. Importantly, the staff also have mobile phone coverage at these points.
A similar project has been undertaken at Quinyambie with Stockman Electronics from Burra using UHF radio towers.
Ed sees this as a game-changer for saving time, fuel and vehicle wear and tear, with the water run at Quinyambie, which is 230km long and 60km wide, taking more than a day.
Big investment in top genetics
Breeding rams in the pastoral area for their pastoral flocks has been key to developing hardy Merinos that have good wool cuts and also achieve good lambing percentages, according to Ed, the new Mutooroo stud manager.
The stud was established about 30 years ago and comprises 2000 stud ewes that breed 300 to 400 rams a year for the four stations.
Surplus rams are sold to other pastoralists.
The medium-wool flock is based on Ashrose bloodlines with Alex's father Brian Ashby having a big classing influence for many years.
In the past decade, Mutooroo has sourced rams from SA studs North Ashrose, Old Ashrose, Greenfields and Collinsville.
The Mutooroo stud has had good success with AI programs but a decision about three years ago to increase its ram buying budget is also paying big dividends.
At last year's Adelaide Ram Sale they secured four rams, paying to $28,000.
"You can test and class as hard as you like but unless you are spending money on the genetics at the top level you will never compete with the top level studs and commercial flocks, that is where we want to be," Ed said.
"You need the lamb numbers to get the effect as well, which we have been lucky enough to have."
James said their philosophy was that just because they have large numbers, does not mean they cannot also have quality.
People are greatest asset
People are Mutooroo Pastoral Company's greatest asset, according to James.
The company employs between 20 and 30 staff, depending on the season, as well as shearers and other contractors.
"You can't run these businesses without good people - if everything is not under control then you have stock losses and things break down and you start losing money really quickly," he said.
James says they are fortunate to have experienced managers, which is key in making difficult decisions in dry periods.
Lilydale Station manager Todd Noakes and his wife Nicci joined the company in October 2010 with three decades' experience in the pastoral industry.
The Noakes say Mutooroo is a great company to work for, especially with the directors' long-term view to advance the properties for future generations.
"James lives not far from us so if it's dry here it's dry where he is too, whereas other owners that live away mightn't get that," Todd said.
Industry involvement important
Mutooroo Pastoral Company managing director James Morgan has been a director of Australian Wool Innovation since 2013 and says it has been enlightening to see the scope of the projects the organisation is putting research into, from robotic shearing to worms and pastures.
Although AWI has met criticism in recent years, he sees the steady lift in prices as proof of the board and its chief executive officer Stuart McCullough's sound decisions.
"Supply has got a bit to do with it in recent times but there has been a pretty static supply of wool for about eight years until this drought and the market has continued to lift price-wise," he said.
"So whatever is going on is working, because if it was just driven by supply you would have seen the supply curve drop away, (but) it hasn't, it has just flatlined at about 350 million kilograms a year."
James sees his role on the board as ensuring AWI is exposing the world to wool from leisure wear to high-end fashion.
"I am on the board to make sure woolgrowers earn more money and get a better return for what they are doing," he said.
It has been a sacrifice for him to spend considerable time off-farm but Alex says a strong industry is key to the future of any family business.
"If you want longevity through the generations the industry has to be vibrant and people have to be able to make a living out of it and build their businesses up to hand over to the next generation," she said.
Looking forward, not back
In the mid 1980s there was a major ownership shake-up with James's father Peter seeking out many historic shareholders as far afield as the United States to buy out their shares. Some family members were bought out at the same time.
The remaining custodians have no plans to exit the industry, seeing an exciting future for wool and red meat.
But James says the family is committed to running it as a business, financially benchmarking both Outalpa and Mutooroo's stations through Rural Directions at Clare.
"History is important and there are some lessons to be learned from the past but tradition doesn't pay the bills," James said.
Ed is also optimistic about the future.
"This area has come through a lot of other difficult periods before, since I have been home I have probably seen it at its best so it is interesting to see it at its worst," he said.
Alex said the family's passion for the sector and the pastoral area ran deep.
"I love the industry - we all enjoy doing what we do and are fully committed," she added.