The fifth generation of the Robertson family is finding new ways to grow sheep on the challenging mallee and saltbush country of South Australia’s Riverland.

Story By Judy Taylor

Chowilla, according to local folklore, is an Indigenous Maraura word for ‘good camping place’. This has certainly proven true for the Robertson family, which has been farming sheep at Chowilla Station, near Renmark, SA, for five generations.
The mallee scrub and saltbush of Chowilla Station currently supports 18,000 sheep, with the sustainable capacity for the property, including adjoining New South Wales’ interests, peaking at 20,000.
There are no lush grasslands on Chowilla. Any bore water available is too salty to be useful and the average rainfall is about 200 to 250 millimetres a year. Chowilla, however, has one major asset – the Murray River forms the southern boundary of its 94,000 hectares.
Initially the river was a godsend with floods on average two out of every three years, creating lots of feed. However, by the 1930s, irrigation and dams affected the natural cycle and now flooding is more like once every 15 years. However, the river is still vital to the success of the business, with water piped to the arid back country.
Jock Robertson and his son James and their wives Lis and Kerrie manage Chowilla. They are passionate about the land their family has owned since 1864, battling intense heat in summer and below-zero winters. Jock’s father told of a two-week heatwave at Chowilla, in which 13 of the 14 days were 45 degrees Celsius or hotter and the last day was 49 degrees Celsius. “There are not many businesses where your asset can die in a couple of days,” James says. “You don’t get a second chance. You can’t afford to be lazy.”
The recent drought was the most prolonged in the station’s history, lasting 10 years, but it wasn’t the worst. “The drought of 1943-45 was worse,” Jock says. “In two years and seven months we had less than 10 inches [250mm] of rain but 2002 was our driest single year.” When asked about the best times in the station’s history, Jock laughs and says, “They are still to come.”
Chowilla has a long, proud history of Merino wool production. “In the past, while wool prices were low, we used terminal sires (White Suffolk rams) to produce cross-bred lambs from our older ewes,” James says. “At one stage we were producing up to 2000 cross-bred lambs but with wool prices on the rise, this year we will return to a pure Merino flock. Growing wool is what we do best, so it makes sense to stick to our core business.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #82

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2012