King Island in a great spot

King Island in a great spot


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If you like golf, beef, cheese or crayfish there’s not another place in the world like King Island.

If you like golf, beef, cheese or crayfish there’s not another place in the world like King Island.

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Strong sale: Stephen Shinns, Mansfield, sold 11 pregnancy-tested-in-calf heifers for $1660 a head at Barnawartha.

Strong sale: Stephen Shinns, Mansfield, sold 11 pregnancy-tested-in-calf heifers for $1660 a head at Barnawartha.

The island’s beef and dairy industries continue to be the main drivers of the island’s economy.

About 38,000 prime cattle, feeder and surplus cows are shipped off the island each year.

Beef producers enjoy competition from two major exporters in Greenham and Co, JBS Australia and from feedlots.

I wasn’t here when the former JBS plant was in operation but I am told it was only when Greenham and Co introduced competition by sourcing cattle for its Cape Grim brand that farmgate prices rose to be equal with and sometimes higher than mainland prices. Some say prices were 30-50 cents a kg below mainland prices without that competition.

I’m told the island has rarely looked better half way through winter than it does at the moment.

It hasn’t been as wet as usual on the heavier soils at the south end and, until a fortnight ago we were able to drive over most of the farm and not get bogged.

But close to 70mm rain last week means staying off the paddocks until probably late October.

The drains I cut earlier this year with an old Farmour delver have started to flow. Waterlogged pastures aren’t very productive so I’m hoping the drains will do the job and move much of the excess water on and perhaps reduce pugging.

The delver might be old technology but what is essentially a 3pl ripper with a mouldboard that rolls the soil into a wide, angled grader blade that pushes the overburden away from the drain does form a very nice drain quickly on these soils.

So far this year the airport has recorded 367 mm rain, about 100mm below last year. The average annual rainfall over the last 40 years is 860mm.

But it has been pretty cold, for King Island anyway.

Being surrounded by water at the western approach to Bass Strait means it doesn’t get as cold in winter as it does in Victoria (frosts are rare) and it doesn’t get as hot. Temperatures this week are forecast to range from 8-14 degrees.

Fifteen degrees can feel like 25 and when it gets to 25 in summer, people complain about how hot it is.

Even though we’re right on the 40th parallel of latitude (the “Roaring Forties”) and we have had a couple of episodes of sustained very strong winds, overall I don’t think it's as windy as central Victoria.

The climate here is one of the reasons why King Island produces such magnificent pastures. We don't get the temperature extremes and cattle rarely stop growing.

There are now only about 100 farming operations, most of them beef with a few flocks of sheep, some fine Merino, some prime lamb. There are fewer than 10 dairy farms left.

With a population of just 1500 it’s like stepping back to the 1960s. It is a place where everyone knows your name and community is very strong.

The island had two major soldier settlement schemes. The scheme after World War I was at the northern end of the island where the lighter country was more easily cleared.

In the 1950s the southern end was developed for soldiers from WW2. The introduction of bulldozers allowed the development at the south of the island.

About 23,500 hectares were cleared for 150 farms.

The settler scheme was an extraordinary development, well meaning and ambitious. The aim was to not only provide a living for returned servicemen and their families but to develop the nation.

Australia-wide, the soldier settlement schemes were collectively the biggest nation building program Australia has seen. But they are largely unknown to most of the population and forgotten by politicians. It could not happen today.

I’m told the settlers, many of them from NSW, were given a 30-minute interview as assess suitability. They were then selected by ballot and worked on the development of the farms until it was their turn to move onto a farm as it became available. Most were about 200 acres of grass with a milking herd of 40 cows.

Many of the farmers didn’t last long and walked off, including the family who first took up our farm. They arose one morning, had breakfast and walked off, leaving a sign on the gate “Gone fishing”.

Some soldier settlers, however, did very well, bought out their neighbours and their descendants still farm on the island.

The settler houses were identical three-bedroom weather board, either left or right configuration and built close to the road, sometimes where the truck delivering the materials got bogged.

Along with the house the farms were kitted out with a Dutch barn, dairy and piggery. Some of the farms were 500 acres and set up as sheep farms, with a shearing shed instead of dairy.

Such has been the farming economy on King Island over many decades that when the Sheelite (tungsten) mine was operating many farmers worked there.

Land values have fluctuated over the decades and this year reached $4000 an acre.

Three Queensland families, refugees from drought, have bought farms in the past three years. There is not much for sale.

Since moving to King Island I have often described it as paradise with issues.

The main problem is the cost of getting fertiliser, fuel, building supplies and food to the island, cattle off. This is an issue that has plagued the island since it was first settled.

It was the current real and imagined shipping difficulties which precipitated recent media stories on King Island’s desire to leave Tasmania and join Victoria. That can never happen but may have sent a message to Hobart that something tangible needs to be done.

The cost of shipping fertiliser is now $160/t and is tipped to go higher as the new government-run shipping service struggles to provide an affordable service.

It costs $115-$120 a head to get cattle to the Tasmanian mainland.

There is currently a temporary boat operating between KI and Devonport with a private operator also providing a service.

A second temporary boat is supposed to take over at some stage before a new boat is commissioned and built with a triangular service between Melbourne, KI and Devonport.

My tip is that with government involvement, that will take many years.

Hopefully, yet another shipping inquiry initiated by our local upper house member Ruth Forrest will not only detail the devastating affect high shipping costs are having on the cost of living and doing business on the island but also finds a solution.

Fix shipping and freight to and from King Island and it will, truly be a beef production paradise.

*Don Story wrote the What’s in Store column in Stock & Land from 2003-2012.

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