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Humour helps duo meet challenges of the land

FOSTER CARE: Diana Kirby with the little merino lambs under her charge this spring.
FOSTER CARE: Diana Kirby with the little merino lambs under her charge this spring.

IF YOU were ever to question Ray and Diana Kirby's commitment to wool, the fact they drove 500km with a merino ram in their Toyota Corolla should be answer enough.

The personable Leyburn locals still joke about the trip they made into New South Wales to bring home the well-bred young stud.

It was a light-hearted moment in a lifetime of wool growing that has been challenged by dry seasons and lacklustre markets.

It was freezing and wet, so I think the ram was happy to travel like royalty, but there were moments when we had to drive with the windows down.

"I couldn't believe it when Ray suggested we pick the ram up in the car," Diana laughed.

"He fitted a crate in the back and opened the door on one side and had him loaded before I could even grab a photo. It was freezing and wet, so I think the ram was happy to travel like royalty, but there were moments when we had to drive with the windows down."

Being able to laugh through tough times has been an integral part of this relationship, which began more than four decades ago.

She was a Pittsworth girl who shifted with her family to Ellangowan and then met and fell in love with a boy from a neighbouring property. They married in 1971 and have two children, Andrew and Elizabeth, and two grandchildren.

Wool growing has always been central to their business. For Ray it's a connection that dates back to an earlier generation, when his father settled in the Leyburn district and started breeding merinos.

Back then his family owned about 1000 hectares and ran the holding as Grassmere. During the past decade the land has been divided to make way for differing objectives.

And today, as part of their succession planning, Ray and Diana now take care of a 500ha holding, Homebine, which is owned and operated by their son, who juggles running the property with an off-farm income contract harvesting.

"It's difficult making a living out here on a place this size, it's really just a hobby farm," Ray explained.

"So it's hard to make a go of it unless you work off farm as well. Most of the blocks here just aren't big enough to support a family."

Today the holding runs between 800 sheep, including 100 ewes, and 60 hereford cattle. When the Bush Tele caught up with the Kirbys they were busily checking ewes, with just three weeks to go until the end of lambing.

"We have about 70 lambs on the ground already," Diana said.

"So we're pretty happy there are still a few more weeks to go.

"We've ended up with nine

poddies so, between feeding them and checking the paddocks, we're fairly busy."

The Kirbys operation focuses on turning off fine 18.5-19 micron wool on country they describe as "ideally suited to sheep".

"We aim to produce fine wool as opposed to super fine wool," Mr Kirby explained.

"There is just not the weight in superfine wool to make it worth growing."

The couple shore in March and sold their clip in May/June, when prices were averaging 1000c/kg for 17-20 micron fleeces.

"Of course, prices picked up in July," Ray laughed. "Now I think the same wool is making between 1350-1400c/kg so if you cut 4kg a head it's pretty good return.

"That's the thing I like about wool growing over cattle: If you look after your sheep, you get a few years' income out of them but once you sell your cattle, they are gone."

The 71-year-old has worked as a shearer - and still takes his turn in the shed - and has classed his own wool for years.

"Before the 1970s things weren't so tough and you didn't have as much pressure from expenses," he explained.

"Back then I was getting 43c a head to shear and you could buy a gallon of petrol for 43c.

"Now shearers are being paid $2.70 a head and a gallon of petrol would cost you about $6.

"So it takes a lot more of your income to cover your expenses."

It is one of the primary reasons the couple encouraged their son to get a trade before he came back to the family farm.

"Andrew did a boiler maker apprenticeship and then went contract harvesting and has just bought his third harvester," Diana explained.

"It's the only way you can really make a go of it in the bush. He's away from October until December harvesting and then he comes back and starts harvesting around here."

With his parents firmly established as caretakers, the arrangement works sweetly.

"I don't know whether he'll stay in sheep, they are a lot of work," Ray explained.

"It will be up to him but the country around here is well suited to sheep and, for the past six or seven years we haven't had any problem with dogs, so we've been fortunate.

"But we do have electric fences and that helps."

While they count themselves as fortunate on the predator front, this season they have been lucky to receive reasonable falls putting their pasture and stock water in a good position before summer.

"Sometimes you get lucky out here; not often, but sometimes."

Topics:  humour rural characters sheep wool


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