THE Dell’Agostino farming operation at Telina Downs, east of Esperance is a true example of a mixed enterprise.
Cropping, cattle and sheep are run on close to 10,000 hectares in a business that spreads the farming risk.
And in year like this, where grain prices are down but sheep and cattle prices are up, the family is in a good position to capitalise.
Lino and Maria Dell’Agostino moved their family to Esperance in 1998 after the farming partnership Lino ran with his two brothers on the original family farm in Mullalyup was split up.
Despite a long history of the Dell’Agostino family in the Mullalyup area, Lino decided that it was time to sell there and look to expand the number of acres that he could run.
“My family settled in the Mullalyup region in 1925,” Lino said.
“My brothers and I worked hard on the farm, we were in primary school when our father died so we had to help mum with the work.
“Our original farm was a good property, it was prime cattle country and we ran a dairy and also grew apples and potatoes.
“My brother and I also worked off-farm, in packing sheds and so on to make some extra income and that enabled us to buy some more land and keep expanding.”
The Dell’Agostinos built their Mullalyup property up to more than 800ha plus a few lease properties and were mostly running sheep and cattle.
In the 1990s one of the brothers decided he wanted out of farming and so Lino and his older brother kept going until 1997 when they decided to also split up and go into their own ventures.
At that point they decided to sell the Mullalyup property and look elsewhere.
“I initially wanted to move north of Perth,” Lino said.
“I looked at country around Dandaragan, Moora, Miling and Coomberdale because I thought it was good value country at the time and wasn’t too far from Perth.”
While Esperance was suggested as a possible area to move to, Lino wasn’t that keen as he thought it was too far away.
“In the end, I couldn’t get the properties I was after up north and I had seen a property advertised in Esperance for a while so one day I went and had a look at it,” Lino said.
“Land in Esperance at the time was valued about the same as what I was looking at up around Dandaragan – at $400 an acre – so I thought I would go and check it out.
“I didn’t buy the property I initially went to have a look at, but while I was there they mentioned the property we are on now was on the market and would I like to have a look at it.
“So I did and we ended up buying it.”
For the Dell’Agostinos, it proved to be a good move.
The operation is now a true family affair, with Lino and Maria joined by their son Paul and his wife Terina and their daughter Kym and her husband Gary.
They have implemented a large-scale cropping enterprise and are running 1100 Angus and Angus cross breeders and 3100 Merino ewes.
The cropping program consists of 3000ha of canola, 200ha of lupins, 150ha of oats for hay, 600ha barley and 850ha of wheat.
“Canola has been the main crop we grow here because it yields well on this country and prices have been pretty good in recent years,” Lino said.
Of the cattle herd, 85 per cent are pure Angus with the rest mated to a Euro, usually a Simmental.
In terms of the sheep operation, Lino has been buying Wattle Dale rams for many years, from when the stud was based in Kojonup, so it was quite convenient when it was bought by the Vandenberghe family and moved to Scaddan.
“We were using Wattle Dale rams when we were running sheep at Mullalyup,” Lino said.
“The Wattle Dale sheep have always had good wools, which are soft-handling and very white.
“They produce a nice fine wool, which is the reason we keep buying them.”
The sheep at Mullalyup had to have quality wool that could withstand the water from an average 100cm (40in) rainfall.
And while Telina Downs average rainfall is 60cm (24in), they still get enough rain that wools have to hold up well, particularly with quite a bit of summer rain in recent years.
While current wool prices are the best seen since he moved to Esperance, Lino said they almost got rid of all their sheep in the early 2000s.
“I have threatened many times to get out of Merinos,” Lino said.
“The wool on our sheep is the only reason that I have stayed with them.
“We have established a good flock of sheep with nice white wools, so it would have been a shame to see them go, but I have been close to selling them over the years.
“If wool prices hadn’t gone up to where they are I probably would have got out of them by now.
“I am glad we have stuck with them, wool prices look like they will be like this for a while now.”
In fact, the Dell’Agostinos are so happy with wool prices they are thinking of running wethers through to five-year-olds.
“We run 1500 wethers at the moment, through to 2-3yo,” Lino said.
“Given where wool prices are, it is worth getting two to three clips off them and if wool does stay up we will consider carrying them through to 5yo.
“Our ewes are cutting 6-8kg of wool depending on the season and our wethers should do 10kg, so it is a pretty handy wool cut at current prices.”
In addition to lambs dropped on the property, other lambs are also bought in as stores and fattened on grass in good seasons.
“The sheep fit in well with the cropping program as we use them on stubbles and to clean up summer weeds,” Lino said.
“We don’t want to be on the boomsprayer all the time so the sheep, and the cattle, help with that.
“While cropping has definitely increased in this area, we think it is critical to have livestock in the mix as well.”
Given the history of running cattle in Mullalyup, they were always going to feature in the mix at Telina Downs.
“We were feedlotting in the South West and we kept that going when we came here,” Lino said.
“Cattle have always been a part of my farming history and I have been feedlotting for 40 years and marking calves for 60.”
A large feedlot was established on the property and the Dell’Agostinos feed their own calves and also buy in cattle.
“Feedlotting is going well at the moment, with the price of cattle,” Lino said.
“There were a few years there where we didn’t make anything out of the feedlot.
“But we produce our own grain for feed and we know it pretty well so we will keep doing it.”
Another benefit of having the feedlot is that paddocks can be rested over summer.
“We get to Christmas time and pull all the cattle off the paddocks and run them in the feedlot,” Lino said.
“Down here you can run a lot of sheep and cattle during the winter, but summer can be tough.
“By being able to put the cattle on feed, we can ease the load on the paddocks and spread the sheep out a bit more across the farm.
“In a good season here you can run a lot of stock. I remember one year we ran 240 cows and calves in the same paddock for six months because there was just a heap of feed that year.”
The family does plant pasture every now and then but mostly relies on annual grasses.
“Ideally we like to crop a paddock for two years and then give it two years off,” Lino said.
“It doesn’t always happen because we do get excited every now and then if grain prices are high and put extra crop in.”
The ewes lamb in early April and Lino find this works well as usually there are summer weeds still around if it has been a wet summer or the season has broken.
This year summer was significantly wet, with 275mm (11in) falling over a six-week period starting in February and it kept raining right through March and into April.
About five years ago the Dell’Agostinos purchased 2500ha of bluegum country and converted it to pasture and cropping land.
“My brother bought a further 1000ha about three years ago, which we now lease, so we converted about 3500ha of land in total,” Lino said.
“It took us about two and half years to convert the whole lot and get it all productive again.
“We chained it all, pulled the trees down, windrowed them and burnt them.
“As a bit of a trial we actually cropped 1000ha in the windrows in the first year with wheat and it went really well.
“Mostly though once it was all windrowed and burnt, we went in with a Grizzly disc plough and levelled it out and put it into crop.
“There was an option to woodchip it, but having come from the South West where a lot of country has gone to trees over the years, I was able to speak to a few guys over that way and they said it was better to pull them out and get something back off the land relatively quickly.”
The Dell’Agostinos were able to put 1700ha of land into canola immediately.
Some of the other land they rested for two years and then put into canola and then let it go into pasture for two years.
Lino said they didn’t have to do anything too special to get the land productive again.
“We gave it a dose of copper, zinc and moly and used the normal cropping fertilisers at seeding,” he said.
“It was pretty amazing what grasses came up. The land had been in trees for 13 years and we cropped some of it for two years, yet after 15 years with no production there was a good amount of grass that came up and we didn’t have to re-seed.
“Probably the best thing to do with it after the trees come out is to level the country and just leave it so there is a full germination of seed.
“Because we wanted to get some money back off it quickly we cropped it for two years first but even after cropping there was still serradella coming back.”