Goat industry helped family farm prosper
WHEN other markets crashed and Coombah Station was gripped in drought, it was the goat industry that kept the McLeod family's property ticking along.
More than just helping the New South Wales mixed enterprise farm survive, goats made their business prosper.
Fiona McLeod said rangeland goats allowed her and husband Andy to expand, which had now paved the way for their adult children, Felicity, Annabelle and Alex, to all have a viable future on the land.
"With the country that we have got here and the droughts that we have had, if it wasn't for goats we wouldn't be here,” she said.
"That's the bottom line.”
The McLeod family operates three adjoining properties, situated about 125km south of Broken Hill and 145km north of Wentworth.
On top of goats, they run merino sheep, dorper sheep and a handful of cattle. When seasons permit, they also do opportunistic cropping.
But, goats are their mainstay.
"We have had some pretty bad droughts over the years and the goats just keep on keeping on,” she said.
It's looking a little dry on Coombah right now, but last year the family had an above-average season.
At the moment, it's a great time to be in the goat industry.
Goat Industry Council of Australia president Rick Gates said prices were sitting higher than any other red meat.
In February alone, 12-16kg carcase weight goats averaged a record 648c/kg, reaching a high of 730c/kg.
However, for the industry to fully reach its potential Australia needed more producers, he said.
Tradition and conservatism, he felt, were the two things holding others back from entering the industry.
"And I am not saying that's a negative thing,” he said.
"There are good goat prices at the moment but people might see this and compare it to when other markets fluctuate, so I think they are waiting, maybe, to see if this is a solid industry.
"It's quite a big investment.”
Fiona and Andy first started working with goats about 36 years ago.
"The goats have always been here and we always have sold them,” she said.
"We sold them even when they weren't worth very much, because at the time sheep weren't worth much either.
"We have now got very good stable markets overseas, and that's something we didn't have years ago.”
On an average season, they would turn over about 10,000 head.
Compared to sheep, Fiona said they were a low-cost animal to run as they did not require earmarking or drenching.
"Having said that, if you do want to keep them in a paddock, that's where your costs lie, in erecting the fence,” she said.
Fiona describes goats as a trickier animal to herd than sheep.
"They are not as easy to muster,” she said.
"They don't mob up like sheep do.
"You can get them all together, and if you go through a bit of bush or something, when you come out the other end sometimes three quarters of them have gone.
"The mob will split up. Three might go one way, and two will go the other.”
However, Fiona said the family had learnt new skills over the years in goat handling and now loved working with goats.
The family has always worked together.
Alex, who is on the property full-time, now has his helicopter licence.
A handy skill to have, as the family has just invested in a R22 chopper so they can aerial muster their sprawling 120,000 hectares.
Fiona said the investment would make mustering much more cost effective and time effective.
It also "prevented sore backsides” from long days riding motorbikes.
Growing up on Coombah, all the McLeod kids played a vital role on the property.
"They have been fantastic,” Fiona said.
"They worked in the shed when they were still at school and helped us muster.
"If it wasn't for our kids helping us, especially when wool prices weren't good, we might not still be here.”
Middle child Annabelle is married to Mildura chopper pilot John Walsh and has a baby boy, but still regularly comes back to the property, and eldest daughter Felicity is currently in South America studying with a Nuffield scholarship.
Fiona said she always knew her kids wanted to stay in the business.
"They have just always wanted to be home,” she said.
"Both girls worked at home quite a bit when they left school.
"Felicity went to Canada for a bit then did an agribusiness degree at Armidale.
"And our son did a trade as a boilermaker and last year was playing rugby in Dallas.
"So they have all gone off to have a look about.”
The high price for goat meat means the McLeods can now invest back into their infrastructure, and hire contractors during busy times, like lamb marking.
Rick said the best way for a producer to smoothly transition into the goat industry was to learn from someone who had industry experience.
"The biggest thing is word of mouth,” she said.
"With the prices at the moment, it's a good time to encourage people to stay, or go into, the industry.”