Winning streak lays foundation for successful Snowtown stud

Our Stories: Winning streak lays foundation for successful stud

Life & Style
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JUST shy of 150 years ago, the Michael family arrived in the Snowtown area and despite enduring crippling droughts and uncertainty, the operation has a foundation that will prosper well into the future.

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JUST shy of 150 years ago, the Michael family arrived in the Snowtown area and despite enduring crippling droughts and uncertainty, the operation has a foundation that will prosper well into the future.

The family arrived at Barunga Gap in 1873 and Andrew Michael along with his wife Rosemary and three sons Luke, Stewart and Alistair, run what has become one of SA's most successful Poll Merino and White Suffolk studs, Leahcim.

The operation began as a mixed farm of cropping and sheep, but a passion for sheep has run deep through each Michael family member for six generations.

In 1921, Andrew's grandfather and thoroughbred horse racer Alexander Michael won the Port Adelaide Cup with a strapping horse called Leahcim.

Andrew said at the time, it would have been difficult to realise that the win would begin the Michael family's long history in farming.

"It really all started with that - he won two races and the prize money was used to buy a new car and the farm," he said.

The farm at Snowtown began on 232 hectares, with a further 80ha bought soon after, with the farm gradually growing in size and diversity from this point onwards.

Although sheep were an integral part of the operation, it was not until 1971, when Andrew returned to the family farm full time, that the family's legacy in stud sheep breeding would begin.

Technology introduction

In 1991, after Andrew and Rosemary had their three sons Luke, Stewart and Alistair, they took over the farm.

Andrew said the business progressed from a traditional farm to now, adopting a lot of technology to improve profitability.

"I do not know why, but we carried a passion for environmental technology throughout the generations," he said.

Andrew's father Bill died at just 53 years old after ill-health plagued his life.

The farm then went into a terrible drought and Andrew's brother Bruce left the farm in 1991.

"It was an extremely difficult time, especially for my mother Margaret. We had tough seasons and minimal money," Andrew said.

"Mum was really strong with resilience and lucky she was, it gave us something to work with later and we were lucky to have the farm left at the end of it all."

As the flock grew, the Michael family also increased their holdings.

In 2001, they bought a 6475ha pastoral property east of Burra, which got the business "out of trouble" on a few occasions.

"Instead of selling stud ewes in tough seasons, we were able to keep all of that breeding and technology investment on-farm," Andrew said.

"It has really been a blessing in the past 12 months."

Today, the Michaels run about 3500 stud breeding ewes.

"A few years ago, we bought an adjoining property with a feedlot on it," Andrew said.

"In the past few years, it has also been a saviour for containment feeding."

Andrew said decades of hard work had gone into "safeguarding" the farm against drought and unpredictable seasons.

"Through the horrible dry periods, we have had no environmental damage - the minute feed reserves get low in the paddock and sheep are receiving no benefit from the paddock, we put the sheep in confinement and use our own grain," he said.

International genetic success Harbouring a passion for genetic research, Alistair Michael delves into data collection for the family's Poll Merino and White Suffolk studs and loves it.

After he completed school, Alistair took on a career as a livestock agent, but when he was given the opportunity to return home to the family farm and get stuck into stud sheep breeding, Alistair jumped at the chance.

"I was not sure what I wanted to do after I finished school, but I always had an interest in research," he said.

"Initially, I had no ambition to return to the farm. But then I saw the opportunity of technology adoption, especially with electronic tags."

Alistair then dedicated his time to learning the ropes of Leahcim stud, with the help of his partner Eloise, who does the farm accounting.

"I focus on collecting data for Australian Sheep Breeding Values," he said.

"I think it is really important to use this information to progress sheep breeding in the stud, but also for the betterment of the industry."

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Through his interest in technology, Alistair then fell into follicle density work, after funding for it almost ceased during the wool market crash in the 1980s.

The work involves a small skin biopsy that is analysed with a microscope to determine a fibre count per square millimetre.

"It is highly correlated to increasing wool yield and we are putting a lot of work into researching it," he said.

"We use it as a selection tool to identify sheep with the density and correct structure to use as stud sires and keep in the system."

Alistair believes the "goal posts" for utilising this type of technology will change and therefore increase its popularity.

"Eating quality upgrades at abattoirs will make this type of tech even more applicable for sheep producers," he said.

The Michael family's interest in genetic progression has helped to strengthen their 30-year long relationship with the Marin family in Chile.

Alistair has visited one of South America's largest sheep farming families on many occasions and said the relationship had continued to improve as the stud's adoption of technology increased.

The family runs about 100,000 sheep and the father, Pepe, estimated that up to 50 per cent of the six million sheep in Chile have Leahcim genetics.

South East insurance

The Michael family also owns a property near Keith in the South East to help manage risk.

About a decade ago, Luke Michael moved to the new property to run a sheep operation, comprising about 2000 Merino ewes and 600 White Suffolk ewes.

Luke said he was always destined to work with sheep.

"Mum always said I retired from the farm to go to kindergarten - I was never a cropper, I just always loved sheep," he said.

"I love a challenge and moving to the SE was a massive learning experience."

Luke said spreading risk through investing in additional property has helped map a future for the family farm.

"We have started with 600ha, but we hope to expand on that," he said.

With the help of his partner Tara, who also works in pasture management, Luke sows about 100ha of sheep feed and has two 25ha pivots.

"I definitely love the rainfall and it is nice to know we have irrigation too," he said.

"The station and Willalooka property are like chalk and cheese."

Life after murders

AFTER enduring a difficult period brought on by the Snowtown murders, the Michael family, who owned the Snowtown bank, set their sights on improving some of the area's reputation.

It led them to acquiring the homestead and working buildings of one of Australia's most successful historic stations in 2016 - Hummocks Station.

"Rosie and I went on a holiday to Darwin, 15 years after the murders, and it did not matter where we went as soon as we said we were from Snowtown, it was all the area was known for," Andrew said.

"The bank was our first off-farm investment and it was a horrible period for us, but it led us to a new investment that has been incredible."

When the couple returned home, Andrew visited the owner of Hummocks Station to express his interest in buying the property.

"It turned out, it was being put on the market the following week, so we had a beer and that was how it started," he said.

The plan for the history-rich property - which recently celebrated its centenary as a soldier settlement farm - was to restore the homestead and shearing quarters and open a caravan park and accommodation.

The station was the first place to run sheep north of Adelaide and about 15ha is left of the original 250 square miles.

"It has exceeded our expectations - visitors absolutely love it," Andrew said.

Hummocks Station is run by Stewart's partner Jemma.

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Farm to yarn to you

ANOTHER side venture will see Leahcim wool put to the test, as Rosemary Michael begins turning the stud's fleece into garments.

Always being "crafty" meant it was an ideal project for Rosemary.

"A few years ago we tried to get some of our wool processed, but it was too difficult. So it went on the backburner," she said.

But a few years ago, Rosemary met a craft shop owner in Clare and the business gained traction.

"When we were shearing down the South East, I asked Luke to select the best fleece to fill a bale.

"We took it to Geelong for scouring and then to Bacchus Marsh and Bendigo woolen mill to be spun."

In November 2019, the first bale was sent and it returned in September last year.

Rosemary has since learned how to dye wool and turned the wool into scarves on a loom.

"I am waiting for my labels and building up stock," she said.

"We put so much into breeding these special wools and it is about seeing how our wool can be created into beautiful items."

Focus on industry progression

WITH plenty of passion for sheep breeding and a gift of the gab to match, Andrew Michael also holds an important role off-farm that gives industry an opportunity to benefit from his decades of experience.

Andrew began his first term as a Meat & Livestock Australia producer board member three years ago and recently commenced a second term this year.

"I nominated because industry representatives encouraged me. It is a skill-based board and I had the skills they wanted," he said.

"There were a few threats to our industry at the time, which was frustrating. So I wanted to be involved as a producer representative to increase awareness from a farming perspective to industry leaders.

"Leadership and industry need connection to the levy payers on a skills-based board."

As one of the founding members of the White Suffolk breed, Andrew could envision a bright future for the industry, but only if technology adoption increased.

"I could see the SA sheep industry so well placed, we had the tech and research, but we needed to get it into the field and get it used," he said.

Andrew believed it was simply moving too slow. But in the same breath, he also said industry had achieved some "pretty big" successes in the past few months.

"Traceability for mulesing and pain relief is something that I am very passionate about, as well as environmental management," Andrew said.

"I can see that my time on the board has so far been beneficial, with R&D advances and increased adoption."

Andrew said since being on the MLA board, his awareness of consumer needs had also increased.

He said having an understanding of transparency and traceability, meant he could utilise the knowledge on the board and in the family business.

"Every animal on the farm has a full genomics test, so at any time, I could trace the sire, dam and progeny of 9000 sheep,or test wool or meat in China and know that it came from this farm," he said.

Truth in labelling will be massive, Andrew said, and he has brought that awareness back to the family farm.

"I believe my place on the board is to make sure that areas critical to producers get noticed at MLA," he said.

Passion takes flight

AT just 12 years old, a young Stewart Michael found a passion that would follow him through adult life, and take him to high places that he never dreamt of.

Stewart has looked after the cropping operation of the family farm since 2008 and his passion for flying remote control planes as a child, led him to gaining a commercial pilot license that would help manage the station.

"Mum used to drive me around as a kid to compete in remote control aerobatic plane competitions - I have always wanted to fly and I was lucky enough to have parents that helped foster that passion," he said.

At 16 years old, while still on a learner drivers license, Stewart had flying lessons at Port Pirie and a year later, he applied for a personal loan and bought a Jabiru plane.

"Of course, it was good to travel places in the plane, but the main reason was to check water and stock across the station. It was much easier," he said.

"I did that for about 10 years and I wanted more of a challenge, so I decided to get into aerobatics."

Stewart found a plane in WA, finished building it, and began competing in air shows in 2013.

Stewart has competed in China and at state and interstate shows, with formation aerobatic displays his favourite.

He was also involved in this year's Barossa Airshow. "I have a couple of mates that I fly with - it is more of a team effort and I like that aspect of it," he said.

Stewart's passion for flying has also led him to work with Aerotech, where he is a contract pilot that sprays chemicals and spreads fertiliser.

"It is great being able to combine farming and my love for flying," he said.

The daring pilot also uses his skills as a water bomber for the Country Fire Service.

Based at Hoyleton, last year was Stewart's first season and he "loved" it.

"I will keep doing it for as long as I can," he said.

Stewart said he approaches flying in the same way he approaches farming - with efficiency and maximising opportunities.

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