LAST year the Robertson family celebrated the 150th anniversary of Chowilla Station, east of Renmark, in South Australia.
Achieving such a milestone was significant for the custodian of the family property, James Robertson, who is looking to secure a continuing presence for the family into the next century.
Chowilla Station, formerly Bookmark Station, was bought by the Robertson family in 1864 and spread across almost 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) between Berri and the NSW border.
Like many early pastoral runs, “Chowilla” was built on the Merino’s back.
The first shearing was held on “Chowilla” in 1870, in the shearing shed which still sits on the bank of the Murray River, not far from the homestead which was built eight years later.
Records show the family shore 70,250 sheep in 1881 in the 10-stand woolshed with clips loaded onto paddle steamers heading to Melbourne markets.
While sheep numbers declined through the decades, between 30,000 and 40,000 sheep were still being shorn in the original shed until the 1960s.
By the 1940s the Robertson family brought in managers to run “Chowilla” until James’ parents, Jock and Liz, returned to take the reins in 1994.
The couple gradually bought controlling shares in “Chowilla”, and from 1994 worked in partnership with James until their retirement to Meningie, via Lake Albert, SA, in 2012.
Since then James and his wife, Kerrie, and their two daughters, Emily, 7, and Sophie, 5, live in the family’s historic 1878-built “Chowilla” homestead, and operate the property in partnership with a cousin.
Today Chowilla Station encompasses 132,400 hectares (327,000 acres) spread across four properties – three of them contiguous in NSW and contributing 35,200ha (87,000ac) to the total.
Consisting of mostly
semi-arid rangeland featuring saltbush, blue bush, copper burr and native grasses, Chowilla Station still supports a Merino-based sheep operation – although the family bred crossbreds (White Suffock/Merino) for a period when the wool reserve price scheme was scrapped in the early 1990s.
The Robertsons shear 15,000 to 17,000 head of sheep (depending on the season) based on bloodlines from Kelvale, Keith, SA, and Keri-Keri, Moulemein, in the “new” eight-stand shearing shed built in 1967, as well as the “Bellsgrove” shearing shed in the NSW portion.
When the Robertsons bought the NSW country the sale included the sheep each property was carrying.
While these sheep were mostly based on Keri-Keri bloodlines James said they were a “different style” of sheep to those on “Chowilla”, so have not yet been mixed.
“While we think of both areas as one aggregation – but use different property identification codes for the NSW and SA areas – the national vendor declarations and sheep health status are the same either side of the border,” he said.
“We’re also running two separate lines of sheep
at present, but will gradually breed them closer together.”
James said there were many characteristics in the NSW sheep he’d like to see bred into his SA sheep.
“The NSW sheep have a slightly larger frame than our sheep but the wool has a slightly higher micron (than the SA sheep), so we’ll be selecting rams to achieve an average 21 micron across the entire flock while also aiming to build some frame size,” James said.
“We employ an independent sheep classer who goes through the young ewes and we’ll follow his lead.”
Like many long-held family operations, “Chowilla” went through a static period and to ensure the family’s long-term future James is focusing on modernising as much of the operation as fast as he can.
One of his first jobs was installing a UHF repeater tower to improve two-way coverage across the property.
A stand-alone solar inverter generator has been installed to power the property, which has always been “off-the-grid” and dependent on diesel generation.
The next step in modernising “Chowilla” and improving work efficiencies will be the introduction of remote monitoring for watering points, such as troughs, tanks and dams.
“With that level of technology I can monitor and manage our water system from anywhere – we could pretty much do away with the water run.”
James believes the next big “game changer” for a rangeland holding such as “Chowilla” will be total grazing management fencing to exclude grazing herbivores, such as kangaroos and goats, and predators, such as wild dogs.
“That’s where I’d like to see us go in the next five to 10 years,” he said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.