It is one of Australia’s largest Merino sheep units and now, thanks to increasingly ambitious plans, Collinsville Station is a colossal giant. James Wagstaff finds out more.
If any one word accurately encapsulates Australia’s Collinsville Station, it is ‘big’.
As one of the country’s largest and most reputable Merino sheep outfits, it operates in the huge dusty paddocks of South Australia’s mid-north region and has an infamous reputation for producing big sheep with wool cuts attracting big prices.
It is here where, during its 120 turbulent years of existence, big dreams have been dreamt and wins and losses realised.
Registered as flock number 318 in 1895, Collinsville can almost be considered part of Australian farming folklore.
Located in the north-east of Burra, the south Australian station sells 900 rams a year and is said to have influenced one-third of the nation’s Merino sheep flock.
Despite its share of financial highs and lows, it is now well and truly back on track thanks to a young, enthusiastic management team with sights firmly set on the future.
At the helm is 41-year-old owner George Millington, who, despite hailing from Adelaide, knew the Collinsville story all too well growing up.
The business tycoon purchased the 55,850-hectare (138,000-acre) Collinsville Station from Paddy and Helen Handbury, who bought the stud empire in 1995 after it went into receivership in 1991, helping ensure its survival as one of the nation’s great suppliers of superior Merino genetics.
George says: “It was a fantastic opportunity, but also a large responsibility.
“There is a lot of history. It is one of the founding studs in Australia and influences so much of what goes on in the Merino industry, and has done for a long time.”
Although hailing from a family which ran various farms, George had never actually lived on one, but this changed when four years ago he bought the 2,040ha (5,040-acre) Cappeedee Station with his wife Sophie.
From the outset, George has aimed to run Collinsville on traditional lines, producing structurally correct sheep which could provide commercial clients with a 7kg fleece of 21-micron wool, but also with a fresh take.
He has invested in a new ram shed and sales facility on Cappeedee, and added an extra 3,440ha (8,500 acres) of land in recent months with the purchase of neighbouring properties.
This brings the size of the Collinsville operation to 61,110ha (152,000 acres), which has enabled them to breed and sell even more ram lambs.
He says: “Last year, sold about 900 rams, and in the coming season we are looking at selling more than 1,000.
“We want to try and grow the business and the new land acquisition is all part of this.”
Operating with five staff, the station runs about 11,000 Merino ewes, 5,000 of which are registered as part of the stud.
Stud manager Tim Dalla, 35, has worked at Collinsville under previous management and been with the business for nine years.
The aim is to produce a large-framed, structurally correct sheep which will survive and produce a high quality, heavy cutting medium-wool fleece.
Tim, who operates a predominantly closed flock, says: “It must be reasonably plain-bodied, highly fertile and have good early growth.”
The tupping period is for eight weeks in November and December to lamb in May-June. About 500 top stud ewes, aged two to five years, are artificially inseminated.
There were also two embryo transfer programmes a year – one in December and one in March – involving 10 donor ewes.
The commercial flock is tupped at a rate of about 2.5 rams to 100 ewes, two rams to 100 for stud ewes and one to 100 for special stud ewes.
Tim says: “With our AI we try to use one outside ram a year to try and continually improve performance and benchmarking.
“Generally, the ram is of a similar type to ours and quite often from a Collinsville daughter stud.”
Last year, they used semen from a ram from the East Mundulla stud, Western Australia, which in turn was sired by a Collinsville ram.
Lambing rates vary according to seasonal conditions, particularly on the station country.
The annual rainfall varies greatly, from an average of 400mm at Cappeedee to 275mm at Collinsville itself.
It is a winter-dominant rainfall, with most falling between April-May and October.
George says: “There was no spring in 2015 and it was a very tough summer and winter. It gets very cold here.
“We did not get any growth until we had a lot of rain in August and September, then we had one of our best seasons ever.
“But last year’s was very poor with a 60 per cent lambing rate compared to the previous year’s 115 per cent. These are probably the two extremes – we have an average of 85-90 per cent.”
Before last year’s spring break, Collinsville received just 125mm of rain in 12 months.
“While ewes achieved a pregnancy rate of 85 per cent at scanning, which we were quite happy with considering the seasonal conditions, a lack of feed meant we had trouble rearing our lambs.”
Most paddocks on the station are about 2,020ha (4,990 acres) in size and run 300-500 ewes per mob.
Weaning takes place in late August and Tim does classing with the help of stud consultant Michael Elmes, with ram lambs classed in February and sale rams in August and October for AI ewes ahead of joining.
Electronic ID of stud sheep was introduced about a decade ago.
The stud are culled heavily with anything which failed to come up for standard on size disposed of. Rams are weighed and classed every three months.
Stud ewes are shorn at the start of November with the commercial flock following in February.
Each animal gets micron-tested and their fleece weighed at shearing, with stud ewes cutting an average of 9kg of 21-micron wool and commercial ewes cutting 7kg.
With the tough season over the past 12 months, stud ewes cut 8kg of 19.8- to 20.3-micron wool at the most recent shearing. The wool, which produces 700 bales annually, is sold through Melbourne wool sales, with most sold straight after shearing.
About 20 rams enter the ram shed in November to minimise their exposure to grass seeds and dust ahead of the stud’s annual field day in March.
Collinsville shows sheep at the Hay Merino Sheep Show and has displays at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show, Bendigo, and the National Merino show, Dubbo, in New South Wales.
Another 50 10-month-old rams come into the shed in March which go on to be sold at the Adelaide ram sale in September or form the first 25 pens of the stud’s on-property auction shortly after.
At last year’s production sale, 200 rams sold to a top price of AU$32,000 (£19,424) and averaged AU$2,100 (£1,274). Collinsville also sold a ram for AU$33,000 (£20,044) in Adelaide.
Private selection rams sell for AU$600-800 (£364-485).
Tim says: “We have clients which took up to 140 rams this year. Most take 20-50.”
About three-quarters of Collinsville rams are now polled.
Tim says: “The last 10 years it has probably gone from one-third poll to three-quarters poll. It is definitely going to keep going that way.
“We are breeding a lot of pastoral rams from stud ewes which run at the station, which I think helps with their survivability when we sell them.”
The stud does not incorporate Australian Sheep Breeding Values into its programme, but the team uses a lot of figures internally.
All auction rams have current micron and bodyweights displayed.
Tim says: “We do a lot of body weighing, because we are big on growth rates.”
With the recent improved wool prices, the future is looking bright for Collinsville. He says: “Wool seemed to have had a bit of an upsurge.
The stockpile has gone. We are probably into a truer demand-supply system where prices currently are, so we have clients getting AU$2,000/ bale, whereas 10 years ago, they were getting AU$700/bale.
“Last year we sold about 900 rams and sold out. In the coming season, we are looking at selling more than 1,000. “We want to try and grow the business and the new land acquisition is all part of this.
All in all we are in a pretty good spot.”