FARMING in the driest region of the driest state of the driest inhabited continent in the world is not for the faint-hearted, but over the past 70 years, the Litchfields have not only been up for the challenge, but handled it with aplomb.
"We don't know anything different, we've been doing this all our life," said Peter Litchfield, who steers the ship at Mundowdna Station.
Mundowdna is one of three adjoining stations south of Marree owned by the Litchfields, alongside Wilpoorinna Station to the south, and Mount Lyndhurst on the eastern and southern side.
Peter, along with brothers Gordon, Jeffery, Ian and late sister Sheryl, are part of the second generation of Litchfields to call the Marree region home, with all four brothers still working the land they they grew up on.
Despite having only permanently settled in the region mid-last century, the Litchfields have inhabited outback areas of the country since the 19th century, with one particular ancestor, Eliza Litchfield, even reputed to be responsible for the music to Waltzing Matilda.
Lyle Litchfield - father of the five siblings - first spent time in the Far North as a 16-year-old, fresh out of school in the hustle and bustle of Norwood and headed for Moolooloo Station, near Blinman, as a workman.
After working as a drover, followed by almost five years in the army fighting in New Guinea and New Britain, Lyle returned to the pastoral country, landing a gig working at the Sydney Kidman-owned Glengyle Station, about 100 kilometres north of Birdsville, Qld.
Romantic notions of outback life are often a far cry from reality, but for a young Lois Anderson, the ideology played out like a script.
"My mother (Meg) had divorced and remarried (Glengyle Station owner) Harry Crombie, I was 16 at the time, and I fell in love with the head stockman Lyle," Lois said.
Lois and Lyle married in 1952, and their first home was at Commonwealth Hill - a sheep station south-west of Coober Pedy.
After relocations to Kenmore Park on the SA/NT border, back to Glengyle, then to Clifton Hills, west of Innamincka, the pair moved to Mundowdna at the end of 1958 - a property they bought in partnership with Bert Overton and Mac Clark.
The Litchfields eventually bought out their partners, to take sole ownership of Mundowdna in 1991.
Prior to the arrival of the Litchfields, Mundowdna had only ever run cattle. But that was quick to change, with Merinos introduced almost immediately.
"The Dog Fence is on the northern boundary of Mundowdna, and dingoes were a massive problem back in those days, so we ran a bit of a buffer zone between the fence and the sheep, with cattle," Gordon said.
You get big, or you get out, so we got bigger.
"Mundowdna used to be a depot for cattle coming down the Birdsville Track, so when we got sheep, we had no shearing shed.
"We shore them at Wilpoorinna for those first few years, and then built our own six-stand shearing shed and shearers quarters at Wilpoorinna in the early 1960s."
That early association with Wilpoorinna was perhaps foreshadowing what was to come roughly a decade later, when the Litchfields bought Wilpoorinna in 1972 - a purchase which "paid for itself" in three years.
"Dad (Lyle) got a good deal, and there were about 200-300 Herefords on the place when we bought it," Peter said.
"It was dry when we bought it, and we were ready to sell a big mob of cattle at Stirling North, but the night before the sale there was a big rain, so we were hesitant about whether to sell.
"In the end, we did - there had been good rains all over the outback, so the prices we got were great."
You have to strive to stay in the top five per cent of the industry, and if you can use that as a benchmark, you'll do well.
In the years that followed, cattle and sheep stocking rates varied, with Peter claiming not to have seen an average year yet.
Gordon's daughter Ellen, who also works on Wilpoorinna, said unpredictability was simply "part of life" in the Far North.
"We don't have an average rainfall in the arid lands. It's either exceptionally wet or exceptionally dry, so we don't really have average numbers over five years, or a decade, it's all year to year," she said.
EXPANSION SAFEGUARDS BUSINESS
The volatility of the weather, including a number of lengthy droughts, has meant the Litchfields see expansion as a necessity rather than a choice, which pushed the family to also buy Mount Lyndhurst in 2016.
"You get big, or you get out, so we got bigger," Gordon said.
"(Prior to buying Mount Lyndhurst) we had had a few good years, we were overstocked and busting at the seams, so we were looking at different places.
"Mount Lyndhurst is a big part on our eastern side, but we never dreamed we'd end up with the whole lot."
Mount Lyndhurst is the biggest of the three stations at 3450 square kilometres, while Wilpoorinna and Mundowdna are 2600sqkm combined.
Upon buying Mount Lyndhurst, the Litchfields established Litchfield Pastoral Company, made up of each station's manager: Gordon (Wilpoorinna), Gordon's son Adam (Mount Lyndhurst), and Peter (Mundowdna).
Lyle had passed away 13 years prior, in 2003. He and Lois had retired to Quorn in 1992.
The strength of this sort of enterprise is that everyone knows the country so well, we've been through everything.
While Gordon, Adam and Peter are the "bosses" of the three stations, the running of the stations is well and truly a family affair.
At Wilpoorinna, Gordon's wife Lyn, daughter Ellen and son in-law Blake are also active in running the station, while the Mount Lyndhurst workforce is made up of Adam's wife Kate as well as Peter's brother Jeffery, and Jeffery's wife Jenny. Peter's wife Janine works on Mundowdna with Peter, along with Peter's brother Ian.
"We run each property separately, but when we're doing stock work and need more manpower, we work together, because it's very hard to survive in this country without mates," Peter said.
VALUE IN KNOWLEDGE
Adelaide-born Janine, who originally moved to the region as a governess and now works as a teacher in Marree, said the knowledge and understanding between the family members continued to be a large contributor to the success of the properties.
"The strength of this sort of enterprise is that everyone knows the country so well, we've been through everything," she said.
"The knowledge that Gordon and Peter have, and now Adam and Ellen, means they look at this country, know what they see, and know the value in it."
Adam and Ellen have one other sibling, Sarah, who lives in Saudi Arabia with husband Tom, and children Agatha, 12, and Gussie, 10, and while not directly involved in agriculture, they love visiting home.
Adam has been the instigator of many key changes on the Litchfield's properties, upon returning home in 2002 following stints at Longreach Pastoral College, Qld, and on a number of Kidman properties in the Kimberley, WA, and Qld.
With an ingrained love for station life and a wealth of pastoral experience under his belt, Adam's first major change to the property was to switch from Merinos to Dorpers.
The move was novel, but rather than a "leap of faith", Peter described the transition as a "good and calculated risk".
"Wool was shocking at the time," he said.
"People were starting to go organic not long before that, and the only chemicals we used on the place were to deal with lice and blowflies in Merinos. By switching to Dorpers, we were able to switch to certified organic in 2007."
According to Gordon, Dorpers "breed like flies and grow like mushrooms".
"In dry times, if you don't have too many Dorpers but have got enough country, they're like goats," he said.
"It's near impossible to starve a Dorper, because they'll walk to feed no matter where it is."
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Any Dorpers that made their way onto neighbouring properties were immediately brought back to the yards and sold, Gordon said.
"That's a very important part of it, and a big part of our neighbours' accepting that we run Dorpers," he said.
Rams are left in with ewes year-round, with the Litchfields achieving lambing percentages of 70 to 80 per cent, three times a year. Bulls are also left in with the herd all year.
With continual improvement as a common theme for the Litchfields, the family have also introduced Australian White genetics in their Dorper flock, aiming for a more robust sheep with better resistance to wild dogs.
Rather than breaking the bank with ram purchases, the Litchfields attended the Avonlea Australia flock dispersal sale in Dubbo, NSW, in early 2016, buying about 60 ewes and five stud rams.
"We couldn't go over and pay $2000 a ram then. It doesn't sound much, but it was a lot of money, especially if we bought 20 rams and brought them back and lost half of them to dingoes," Adam said.
"Aussie Whites weren't the hype at the time, as they are now. Now they're viewed as the Wagyu of the sheep world."
Adam's ability to drive successful breed switches was not limited to sheep.
He was also the force behind the addition of Senepol, Angus and Murray Grey influences into the cattle herd, which had traditionally been Shorthorn and Santa Gertrudis genetics only.
The inclusion of these genetics has helped the Litchfields to add heat tolerance and drought resistance to their cattle, and the resulting composite herd, with a strong Angus influence, is a product with which they are satisfied.
"We breed the cattle that the meat buyers want," Peter said.
"Cattle are no different to people - there are good and bad in all breeds of people, and good and bad in all breeds of cattle. A lot of people think that crossbreeds are better for these conditions, but buyers like Angus. So we're still trying to keep an Angus herd, with a touch of something else to toughen them up."
The Litchfield family focus on growing breeders suitable for the station country.
"It is very hard to beat acclimatised home-grown breeders up here," Gordon said.
"They know their way around. If the water dries up, they know where the next water source is. The not so tough ones die out early.
"We've spend a lot of money hanging onto core breeding stock during drought, through agistment. There have been a lot of dry times in the past 20 years, but we'd much rather agist than sell, because it pays off in the long run."
Peter said it didn't pay off to sell during drought, due to their location.
"When it's getting dry in central Australia, this is one of the last areas to go into drought - the feed hangs on and hangs on and when you eventually run out, everyone is in drought so cattle aren't worth anything," he said.
"And it's a double whammy - the drought always breaks last in our area, and by then, prices are through the roof so you can't afford to restock, and quality often isn't great either."
Across the three stations, the Litchfields run 2000 breeding cows and 5500 breeding ewes, with the aim to double those figures in the coming years.
Even though there is enough country to run a significantly higher herd and flock numbers, a focus on sustainability and longevity has the Litchfields content with smaller numbers.
"With our expansions over time, and particularly with Mount Lyndhurst, the primary aim has never been to increase stocking numbers, but rather to make sure we can run what we want for longer," Gordon said.
"We just want to run enough to keep us going."
SUSTAINABILITY IN THE SPOTLIGHT
A focus on sustainability is well and truly entrenched in the next generation, with Adam having helped to shift the focus from livestock to soil and grass health following a RCS Grazing for Profit Course in 2008.
Ellen is a Nuffield Scholar, with her 2019 project having focused on the impact of climate change on red meat production. She is also SA state coordinator for Farmers for Climate Action - an organisation looking to ensure farmer voices are heard in climate policy development.
"We see the sustainability side of things as really important," Ellen said.
"In this area, farming is extremely natural - rather than more conventional agriculture where there are so many different inputs, here it is all about looking after native pastures and native animals. There are areas of our properties, where they used to tow a cart to have any shade, and now there are lots of trees everywhere, and revegetation.
"Because of where we are, these changes happen over long cycles, because we might get next to no rain for 10 years. But there are places on Mundowdna, where Dad (Gordon) and Peter can definitely see big differences from when they were growing up."
Aside from sustainability, efficiency is another key cornerstone of the Litchfields' success, and has allowed the family to run the stations on "skeleton staff", compared to the workforce 50 years ago.
"A good man and a motorbike is equivalent to about five men and 20 horses," Gordon said.
"We like horses, and we use them when we can, but nowadays with gyrocopters, motorbikes and Toyotas, if you have to get a lot of work done quickly, you have to forget about the horses.
"We can be doing ten jobs at once - 50 years ago, we would have needed 30 or 40 blokes to run the places the way we're running them today."
Peter said a key to efficiency was getting the right people involved, and sourcing outside help if needed.
"You have to strive to stay in the top 5 per cent of the industry, and if you can use that as a benchmark, you'll do well, no matter what industry you're in," he said.
"Look at proven ideas, and copy them, and take the advice of those who know the game."
The list of tweaks and changes the Litchfields have made across the properties is a long one, while internal fencing, rotational grazing and gully rehabilitation are on the to-do list.
But the family is all too aware that when the drought is stretching on and the chips are down, diversification is a must, no matter how efficiently the stations are run.
We are so fortunate in the way our children love this way of life, so we feel blessed to live in the outback, growing an organic quality product and taking care of the landscape.
This fact has led the majority of the family members to take up off-farm jobs and be involved in aspects of outback life not specifically involving pastoralism. For some, these jobs have been blips on the radar, while others have held more permanent roles.
Kate is a veterinarian, while Ellen, who also has a vet degree, has recently launched her business The Sustainable Sausage, selling organic lamb snags.
Janine is a teacher at Marree, while Blake works week-on week-off for BHP in Roxby Downs. Lyn is a qualified nurse - her profession originally brought her to the area, from Cleve.
Gordon has previously been involved in earthmoving, while Peter has completed contracting work in the past, such as roo shooting.
While Sarah, Adam and Ellen were at boarding school, Gordon and Lyn dabbled in even giving overseas visitors a taste of outback life.
"We aren't tourist operators, but desperate times call for desperate measures," Gordon said.
Dipping a toe in the film industry and adding further diversity to the bow, Adam and Kate were involved in the production of the 2008 film Australia, working in the Kimberley as a cattle wrangler and vet, respectively.
Even Adam and Kate's second child, Olivia, 6, has diversification in her genes, with hopes pinned on becoming a songwriter, if being an "animal lookerafterer" doesn't work out.
Olivia's eight-year-old brother, Syd, is happy to follow in his dad's footsteps, with his sights firmly set on "being a cowboy".
The Litchfields have enjoyed - and continue to enjoy - their off-farm jobs, but their outwardly visible love of the land is the current which flows strongest of all, and something each generation feels proud to be able to pass on to the next.
"We get a special feeling whenever we get the first glimpse of the (Wilpoorinna) house when we are driving home, it is so special, that feeling of knowing we are home," Lyn said.
"We are so fortunate in the way our children love this way of life, so we feel blessed to live in the outback, growing an organic quality product and taking care of the landscape."
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