Organic twist to family’s beefy enterprise at Beachport

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The Weekly Times” 15 March, 2016, 11:00 PM

Popular: Michael McCourt says there is plenty of demand for the farm’s beef. Picture: Kate Dowler

 

BEACHPORT’S McCourt family runs one of the most div­erse farming and forestry enterprises in South East South Australia. The family has farmed Woakwine Station near Beachport, 35km northwest of Millicent, since the 1890s. Michael and wife Helen run a large-scale organic beef bus­iness and pine and bluegum forestry enterprise.

“My great-grandfather lan­ded in Adelaide from Ireland, when people asked about his family history he’d say, ‘Our family history starts here’,” ­Michael said.

“We don’t know what happened in Ireland, it may not have even been his real name, so we are Australians; our history starts here.”

Much of the South East was low lying wetlands prior to Eur­opean settlement. Major public and private drainage schemes have, since the early 1900s, drained and managed the water across the region, enabling productive agriculture. The Woakwine Range is a sand dune running parallel to the sea and Woakwine Station sits against this range. The range prevented water from draining off Woakwine tow­ards the sea. That was until Michael’s ­father Murray McCourt undertook what was, in 1960, the largest private civil engineering feat in Australia.Murray used a bulldozer, scraper and ripper to slice a cutting through the range to release the water from the inland side towards the coast and into Lake George.

“He was self-motivated, highly energetic and a risk-taker, tenacious and determined,” Michael said.

The slow and dangerous work took three years, carving a 1km cutting through the sandstone, 28m deep.

“He could see potential for the land if it was drained, it is peat soil, the best land we’ve got,” Michael said. “It was six-feet high (1.83m) bulrush beforehand, it was a tiger snake-infested swamp of no agricultural productive value.

“People said up until the day before he finished that water would run back into the cutting from Lake George, but there was no way it would, there is 21 feet (6.4m) of fall.”

At the time, mostly sheep were run in the area. Once the drain was in and land developed, creating fattening country for the first time, Murray moved into cattle, another bold move as this was during the peak of the wool boom. The McCourt’s now have about 3500ha. While the long- term annual rainfall was 700mm, recent years have been closer to 600mm.

GOING ORGANIC

THE McCourts began converting to organic farming eight years ago.

“I’d been putting out fert­iliser and seeing the response decrease but costs rise, and the same with chemicals and drench,” Michael said.

“We stopped drenching cattle 15 years ago and realised all I had to do was manage stock properly.”

They now run 800 organic Injemira-blood Poll Hereford breeding cows, calving Feb­ruary-March, and trade 1000 young cattle annually. Steers and heifers — bred and bought in — are grown out from 200-300kg to 530-580kg.

“Animal welfare is a priority — if we have a sick animal it is taken out the organic system and treated,” Michael said.

“Our decision to trade is based on the suitability of our country, we have wetter flats suited to fattening and then rangeland for the cows, which is also good for cold, wet-weather fattening. Our target is to put on 1kg/beef/day, dep­ending on the time of year.”

Woakwine has underground water to irrigate five 35ha lucerne pivot areas. In dryland areas there is a focus on perennial pastures: rye-grasses, fescues, phalaris, clovers, natives and cocksfoot.

“We buy cattle when they are available, mainly in aut­umn and spring,” Michael said.

“We have to go a fair way to buy organic — we get some from the Birdsville Track, they all must have Australian and US accreditation — USDA’s National Organic Program.

“The US is our biggest market, they love organic hamburgers. The best thing is the US premium for organic trim — the price for our old cows is nearly as good as our bullocks, only a 20c/kg difference.”

Michael said most of the organic cattle were sold to Teys for Woolworths’ Macro brand and US markets.

“Since going organic, we’ve not had to seek markets, they’re knocking on the door.”

Selling organic cattle prod­uced better prices — at the ­moment premiums of about 250c/kg above conventional finished steer prices are on offer. But Michael added this was the best they had received and premiums of 150-250c/kg were more common.

ENTERPRISING MIX

THE McCourts also have pine and bluegum plantations.

“That diversity of income has helped during lean times on farm, the two don’t follow the same patterns,” Michael said.

Son Peter runs a business reclaiming former bluegum land for farmland. Youngest daughter Emily is studying but is also included in the family’s business decision making. Another daughter, Sarah, and her chef husband Tom Tilbury, recently opened a restaurant, Gather, in Robe. The focus is on showcasing local produce, including Woakwine Station organic beef.

WASTE NOT

BACK on the farm, the McCourts supply woodchips from their forestry interests to the Naracoorte saleyards for soft flooring. They compost the man­ure and waste chips, fed with local kelp. The aim is to go from the 1000 tonnes prod­uced annually to 3500 tonnes, which would allow a rate of 1t/ha to be app­lied across the farm. While compost was a soil amendment, and not directly comparable to fertiliser, Mic­hael said they had not used superphosphate for 10 years.

“After putting compost out, we are finding our phosphorus levels are as high or higher than what they were — microorganisms in compost make phosphorus plant available.

“Compost also adds soils carbon and a small amount of trace elements.”

While going organic meant a small decrease in stocking rates, weight gain was as good, if not better, than in the conventional system.

“That reduction in stocking rate is about increasing the condition of cows — we look after them better now and find they are a more resilient and weaning weights are up.”

With managers Brian and Cass Watson, the McCourts have a monthly meeting where they set feed budgets, taking a scientific approach to measuring paddock feed and calculating what carrying capacity they will have going forward, in relation to rainfall. Decisions are then made about buying and selling, Helen said.

“Our drought policy is to measure and react,” she said.

Twitter: @kate_dowler

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