Location: MacGillivray, Kangaroo Island
Farming since: 1920s
Operation: Wool, mutton and lamb production
Read the full Our Stories publication online here: https://specialpubs.austcommunitymedia.com.au/e-mags/2021/SJT/0722_01/
IN the south-east of Kangaroo Island, there is a hard-working, no-fuss family, who have wool in their DNA.
The Bolto family, who along with their forebears toiled for many years to transform thick bush with nutrient-deficient soils into profitable farmland, have an affinity with wool that stretches back to when the family first moved to the Island.
Through market crashes and disease challenges, the tight-knit family - comprising Trevor and Lyn, and their sons Colin, Keith and Ian - have remained loyal to the fibre and are reaping the rewards today.
They run 17,000 sheep - Merinos for wool and mutton production, and crossbreds to sell store lambs - on 1750 hectares in the 500-millimetre rainfall country of MacGillivray.
KANGAROO ISLAND MIGRATION
Lyn's family (nee Rowsell) came to Kangaroo Island in search of gold more than a century ago, relocating from the Ballarat Goldfields in Vic.
Her grandparents came with their infant son - Lyn's father Maxwell - in 1909 when there was a gold strike between Parndana and Kingscote.
While the promise of a profitable goldfield wasn't to be, the Rowsells turned to casual labour to earn a living and in doing so, were introduced to farming.
"It wasn't until 1924 that they bought a property called Lake Knolls in MacGillivray," Lyn said.
"They also bought Harriet River Station in the 1930s and Dad worked it with his brothers."
Listening to Lyn's recollections of her father's generation working off-farm while tirelessly clearing and improving their sheep grazing land, known for its mineral deficiency, it is easy to see where the family's no-fuss, hard-working attitude stems from.
The same hardy characteristics were evident in Trevor's descendants.
In 1954, when he was four years of age, Trevor's family moved to KI as part of the soldier settlement scheme instituted after the second World War.
The scheme was a reward for those who served in the armed forces.
With the world considered to be short of food and fibre, families took up harsh tracts of land on KI to be used for farming.
The early years were spent clearing trees and scrub, then clearing regrowth, spreading fertiliser and residing in the settlement camp at Parndana.
"We spent three years in the camp at Parndana in huts that had been used for holding prisoners-of-war at Cadell," Trevor said.
"They had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a little washroom. We used a copper for hot water.
"Dad (Albert) was helping with the development of farms - tree and land clearing and working in the workshop.
"After three years, we moved out onto the farm."
CHALLENGES OVERCOME WITH TENACITY AND PERSISTENCE
While Trevor and Lyn Bolto's forebears overcame many obstacles to make the land productive, the couple have also faced their fair share of challenges.
The two main ones were the wool market crash in the early 1990s and an Ovine Johne's Disease incursion in 1998.
Having known each other from school and Rural Youth, Trevor and Lyn married in 1978 and moved into their farmhouse in 1982.
The Boltos have always had a wool focus.
They tried growing cereal crops for a time, but found their soils would get too waterlogged, while transport costs and prices meant there was no money in fat lambs at that time.
Their resolution was tested when the floor fell out of the wool market, but they stuck to their guns.
"We've always tried to be as good as we can at what we're doing and focus on that," Keith said.
"We made that decision in the early 90s, when the floor dropped out from the wool price," Lyn added.
"We thought we could do what other people were doing and try growing grapes or move into prime lambs, but we thought we had a reasonable knowledge on wool production so we concentrated on it.
"It wasn't a massive decision at the time because we loved what we did.
"It was a tough few years, but we stuck at it."
Their toughest time came when their sheep contracted OJD in 1998.
Misunderstanding of the disease led to great community angst, as the number of properties affected rose and rose.
"Within a couple of months, there were four properties detected with it and it went on from there," Trevor said.
"There would have been 30-40 properties affected all up."
The Boltos underwent an 18-month destocking process, only for OJD to be detected in the replacement sheep they'd bought in.
Ever the optimists, the Boltos said some positives did come out of the experience.
"We were compensated for the sheep that we lost and we bought sheep and land that was supposed to be free of OJD - it didn't turn out to be, but that gave us the opportunity to expand and buy 1000 more acres," Trevor said.
"That has been a big help in allowing the boys to buy some land, because that gave us some equity to work with."
The experience had a lasting impact - the family still vaccinates for OJD and run a closed flock, artificially inseminating rather than buying in sires.
SONS WORK TOGETHER TO CARRY FARM FORWARD
The next generation of Boltos are quickly making their mark on the family business.
The succession process began five years ago, with Trevor and Lyn gradually handing the reins to Colin, Keith and Ian.
Each brings their own skill sets and qualifications, which helps make the operation tick - Keith is the manager, researcher and number cruncher, bringing home tertiary qualifications and experience from working in the Department of Primary Industries from a stint on the mainland.
Colin is also university-educated, is the resident expert on watering systems and electrical work and is the first to put his hand up for the night shift, while Ian worked for 10 years as a builder and is adept at anything to do with plant and machinery.
The change in management resulted in a change to their enterprise too.
Keith said their flock was exclusively Merinos up until two years ago, when they introduced crossbreds for diversification.
The Boltos shore 17,500 sheep this year and mated 7000 ewes, of which 2000 were crossbreds and 5000 Merinos.
They estimate they will sell 2000 store lambs this year through AuctionsPlus, 3500 ewes to mutton and 450 bales of wool.
"Wool prices are good, but lamb prices are even better," Keith said.
"You can generate a lot more gross income/ha if you have more meat in an enterprise.
"It gives us a bit more diversity too. We were pretty heavily in the meat market already - 30pc of our income was mutton - now we're about 50:50 with meat and wool.
"It's pretty unchartered waters for us in terms of business structure, but it worked well this year."
WOOL IS THE WINNER
While the Boltos plan to be flexible when it comes to their enterprise mix moving forward, Keith said wool would continue to be a big winner for them due to freight differentials and the continued improvement of their flock.
"Wool averaged $2200 a bale and it cost us $20/bale to get them away - that's 1pc freight, whereas mutton, for example, cost us about $12 to get away and they're worth $140-$150 so you're talking about 10pc freight for mutton versus 1pc for wool," Keith said.
In the past 10 years, the Boltos have reduced the micron of their flock from 20 to 18 and have maintained their wool cut per head per hectare by selecting fine, heavy cutting sheep.
Keith estimates that difference in micron would equate to a $300,000 premium on 10 years ago.
Seeing their sons carry the business into an exciting new era gives Trevor and Lyn a great deal of satisfaction.
Having started out with 500ha of land and accustomed to running 5000 sheep during the '90s, they have seen the enterprise expand to 1750ha of pastures and 17,000 sheep.
"It's pretty amazing when you think about it," Trevor said.
"I remember going to a Grasslands Society conference and a fella was talking about running 20,000DSE and I thought 'bloody hell, how'd he get into that situation?'.
"We're now running 17,000 sheep, which is around 20,000DSE, so there is a sense of achievement.
"We've taken a long time to get there but we're proud of what we and the boys have achieved."
BRIGHT FUTURE FOR FAMILY
The wool industry is one that has served the Bolto family well on KI and Trevor and Keith both predict a bright future for the commodity, which is good news for the next generation.
That next generation could well be Keith's sons Alby, 6, a shearing demonstration enthusiast; Max, 4, a wool presser; and Patrick, 2.
"I don't see a reason why people won't keep buying wool," Trevor said.
"It's almost becoming a niche industry because production has decreased significantly and a lot of people are getting into crossbred sheep and that wool is hardly worth selling at the moment."
"I think the future is bright for wool because people care about what they're wearing," Keith added.
"They want a quality product and wool is that, particularly for outdoor clothing.
"As people become more environmentally-conscious and move away from 'fast fashion', we should see a shift to renewable fibres and I think that will only be a good thing for the wool industry."
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