Diversification and determination key to success on 688,000ha station at Madura Plains

CC Cooper & Co, founded in 1947, still focused on three vital keys

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Sheep mustering at Madura Plains in 2016. At its peak the property had 70,000 sheep.

Sheep mustering at Madura Plains in 2016. At its peak the property had 70,000 sheep.

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Growing up, David Cooper's grandfather instilled into him three vital keys to successful farming.

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GROWING up, David Cooper's grandfather instilled into him three vital keys to successful farming.

"Diversity, never be afraid to have a go and if at first you don't succeed, try and try again."

For Mr Cooper, the keys have rung true, particularly when running a 688,000 hectare (1.7 million acre) sheep station during a drought and the driest year on record at Madura Plains.

And it is diversification, forward planning, investment and adapting to change, which have been the keys to survival.

The Cooper family's roots are in Jamestown, South Australia, but their mixed cropping and livestock operation, CC Cooper & Co, spans across 1600 kilometres from the western reaches of the Nullarbor to outback New South Wales.

Mr Cooper, who co-manages CC Cooper & Co with his brother Tom, purchased Madura Plains station in 2016.

The brothers were looking for additional grazing or pastoral country for running Merino sheep with a desire to expand in that area of business to match growth that had been.

And while the new venture has been challenging for the brothers, it was a decision they haven't regretted.

Mr Cooper said ironically, it was the "reasonably reliable winter season rainfall", which appealed to him most about Madura Plains when compared to winter rainfall records in pastoral South Australia and western NSW.

"The other appealing factor was that it was relatively cheap on a dollar per dry sheep equivalent ($/DSE) basis," he said.

David Seth Cooper of Madura Plains station.

David Seth Cooper of Madura Plains station.

"I guess the price of pastoral land in western NSW and South Australia had rapidly increased in the previous few years."

At the time, land was tightly held close to CC Cooper & Co's Broken Hill and Jamestown properties, and its value had significantly skyrocketed.

Mr Cooper found the closer to home he looked, the more expensive land was, so he looked beyond the border and finished up at Madura.

"Obviously there's the isolation factor, which impacts on the land value a little," he said.

"It didn't worry us as much as it probably does others.

"Apart from the whole COVID-19 situation, weekly deliveries are no problem, and being on a main highway, freight and logistics are pretty easy compared to a lot of places in pastoral South Australia."

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CC Cooper & Co was founded in 1947, when Mr Cooper's grandfather split from his two brothers and started with 352 acres, which is where Mr Cooper sits today.

But the multi-generational farming family traces its agricultural lineage back to the mid 1800s.

"It is in our blood, like it is for most farmers," Mr Cooper said.

The feedlot at Madura Plains. It contains 24 feed pens which have been likened to having 24 fresh holding paddocks.

The feedlot at Madura Plains. It contains 24 feed pens which have been likened to having 24 fresh holding paddocks.

"We have always been a mixed farming operation and have tried to keep our export hay, grain and livestock based income fairly balanced from an economic risk management perspective.

"In the five years prior to 2016, our hay and grain enterprises had rapidly increased in scale.

"To balance this we wanted more sheep in the mix, which is why we ended up on the Nullarbor."

Within the first two years of owning Madura Plains, the Coopers refenced the entire property, cutting it up into smaller paddocks.

They also decommissioned 28 saline bores and drilled additional holes in areas of better water quality.

These were equipped with automated pumping systems and about 800 kilometres of pipe to reticulate good quality stock water across the station and to the sheep.

Today, there is 1000 kilometres of pipeline.

The highest number of sheep Madura Plains recorded was 70,000, which included lambs and hoggets, in the 2018-19 summer.

Mr Cooper said surplus sheep came off really well at the beginning of that year, with all the wether lambs being shorn in January and topping the February market in Jamestown.

"Obviously things were dry, but we had feed reserves behind us from better seasons in 2016-18," he said.

"We then sold surplus older ewes in March-April as per normal.

"The sheep were in pretty good nick at that point, but we just didn't get any autumn winter rainfall at all in what turned out to be the driest year on record.

"It was an absolute shocker."

 Shearing at Madura Plains this year. There are 12,000 sheep to be shorn in the next couple of weeks.

Shearing at Madura Plains this year. There are 12,000 sheep to be shorn in the next couple of weeks.

Madura Plains recorded 68mm rainfall for the calendar year in 2019 - a far cry from its previous lowest, 107mm in 1970.

As the dry conditions worsened, CC Cooper & Co was forced to destock.

"We have just kept cutting back and cutting back," Mr Cooper said.

"We are probably at around 25,000 sheep out here at the moment.

"They are mostly ewes because all the lambs have come off.

"We aren't completely decimated, but we have a lot of country that is empty."

At the moment, Merino ewes are running on about 40 per cent of the property.

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It is not ideal, but given the conditions they are decent numbers, and the ability to hold on to the ewes is thanks to much-needed upgrades to the station.

Mr Cooper held onto hope a decent splash of rain, and follow-up rain, would reach Madura.

He said there had been localised strips through last year, but there was good general follow-up rain.

Meanwhile, this summer recorded a few rain events, but they were too far apart.

"You might get a germination and then by the time you get the next decent rain, everything is cooked and has died off again," he said.

"There's also no cover between the bushes because of 2019 and in 2020 we recorded no winter rain at all.

"We were over 200mm of rain for 2020, which doesn't sound too bad - there was just no winter rain.

"And we were coming out of a terrible landscape from 2019, with no cover between the bush.

"So we had no spear grass, no winter herbage, we had very, very limited growth of quality feed."

Mr Cooper said while some rain was better than none, follow-up rain was crucial when starting from new germination.

"It dries out again before anything that does germinate gets a follow-up," he said.

"We got a reasonable amount on the eastern part on the property in December, but not on the western part and that has definitely been a big benefit.

"Due to the fact that again we haven't had a decent follow-up, it is not a drought breaker.

"If we had a follow-up of something similar again three or four weeks later, to really kick a germination along again with that second hit and let it establish a decent root system and get it established it would be alright."

Despite the lack of rainfall, the sheep have remained in good condition and health.

That is due to the water work CC Cooper & Co completed in 2017-18, and because the long-established blue bush plants have been able to stay fresh on the isolated summer rains that have been received.

By comparison, in the extremely low rainfall year of 2019, the plants were dropping leaves because they had received no rain whatsoever.

"Because there's perennial saltbush and blue bush there in 2020, some of those areas that have had reasonable rain, might not have grown the winter herbage and grass you really need, but grown sheep have been able to tick along okay," Mr Cooper said.

"If the lambs had stayed on property through this summer they would not have done at all well on just saline blue bush or salt bush alone."

With no paddock feed, the Coopers bought in a substantial amount of feed to be used in their feedlot, which can hold about 10,000 sheep.

The feedlot was installed in 2019 to help handle shearing.

Mr Cooper said it had always been their intention to build the feedlot, however it was brought forward because if they had been solely reliant on holding paddocks through shearing, they would have been decimated in no time.

"We would have really battled to keep sheep in reasonable condition in holding paddocks without any feed in them," he said.

"For trucking sheep and certainly handling shearing it is really good.

"We have 24 feed pens and that's like having 24 fresh holding paddocks every morning.

"We were always going to do it, but 2019 meant we needed to do it now, so that we could really manage sheep well in that situation."

In 2019, Madura Plains weaned about 62 per cent lambs, most of which were not marked.

Mr Cooper labelled it a "salvage job".

"If we hadn't installed the water points and hadn't fenced in the small mobs, with access to a set of yards at the corner of every paddock, then we wouldn't have had a hope of getting those lambs out alive," he said.

"We installed about 150 new water troughs, so we have those, as well as the water points that were already there.

Madura has three bore fields with "very good" water quality ranging from 800 parts per million up to 4000 parts per million.

The average stock watering use, all in one common pipeline system, is between 2500 to 3000.

If the station had relied on the water used previously in the 2019 season, and considering that the sheep were entirely dependant on halophytic bush and saltbush, it would have "bowled" not only the lambs, but also had a fair impact on grown sheep as well.

"So while 62pc might not have been what we were aiming for as far as the weaning goes, it was pretty good considering the year," Mr Cooper said.

"We knew going into the 2019-20 summer we were going to be under a hell of a lot of pressure to keep systems full, keep water pumping and keep on top of faults quick enough.

"We already had a reasonable amount of telemetry in place, but we put in a hell of a lot more leading into that 2019 summer.

"Just to give staff some hope of being able to pick problems in advance and keep up with general maintenance in keeping pipelines full."

Madura Plains pumps underground water to the surface using automated diesel generators.

The reason for this is because the initial start-up costs of solar with batteries, given the number of panels needed, would have been too expensive.

Mr Cooper said while generators were a short-term solution and reduced start-up costs, most of the station's line pumping was solar and over time they would probably change to pulling water out of the ground with solar as well.

"To pump a bore at 800 gallons an hour, 24 hours a day from 500 foot deep, and to do that with solar, the cost of setting that up for every bore upfront was more than we had money," he said.

Another future investment that the station in looking into is drones for "efficiency and safety."

Aircrafts have not been used as much at the property as they were in 2016-17 because the area has been fenced into much smaller paddocks.

This has reduced the critical need for aerial mustering.

That being said, when used, it significantly reduces the number of labour units on the ground, or increases the amount of country that can be mustered in a day.

"Alternatively, a drone using species recognition could be used to map the whole paddock just before we start mustering a paddock," Mr Cooper said.

"That information could be fed into a tablet or phone, on a motorbike to show where all the sheep are.

"It then means that we can just muster what we need to muster, rather than having to grid the whole paddock."

Mr Cooper added Madura Plains' station manager Tom Austin is driving this development personally and was also working on species recognition technology to identify wild dogs.

"The drone technology would differentiate a wild dog from a kangaroo, sheep, wombat, etc.

"In the event of a dog getting in, it would help us try and locate the dog as quickly as possible and deal with it."

Wild dogs have proven an issue for station owners on the Nullarbor in recent years, particularly in the 2019-20 summer when they followed the kangaroos south for feed.

So, are there any other future developments in the pipeline?

Mr Cooper said there had been a small amount of water pipe work done this year to hook a few more paddocks up to quality water.

He said three quarters of the station has been substantially redeveloped with plans for further development of the south eastern portion of the property.

At Madura Plains station sheep are shorn onsite with shearing in the western half of the property starting this month.

There are 12,000 sheep to shear in the next couple of weeks and Mr Cooper predicts the wool yield and quality to be "OK".

"The sheep that are still there have been in paddocks that weren't as badly affected by drought in 2020," Mr Cooper said.

"Whereas anything that was in the other areas going into the 2020 lambing season was trucked off to agistment or for sale.

"I think the wool cut probably won't be too bad, it will be a lot better than 2019 anyway."

As winter approaches, Mr Cooper and other station owners across the Nullarbor will be pinning their hopes on some rain.

Particularly given it is one of the reasons Mr Cooper purchased Madura Plains.

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The story Diversification and determination key to success on 688,000ha station at Madura Plains first appeared on Farm Weekly.

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