FOR Sam Ditri, life in farming exists in two different worlds at Northcliffe.
One is run with the constraints of a family farm and the other borders on the corporate world with big plans and a generously fair budget.
The background of both enterprises are poles apart, yet both are linked by Angus cattle.
The Ditri family’s connection with Northcliffe goes back to the post-war era when many Italians immigrated to Australia, worked hard to make new and successful lives for themselves.
Sam’s parents Nick and Filomena carved out a dairy farm in the dense South West forest, forging firstly a small landholding that grew, as did the young family, but not enough to employ the children in the family business.
Sam and brother Felix established their own timber milling business, South West Timber, while the other siblings moved elsewhere.
Even as a kid, hand-milking cows before school Sam liked the look of black cattle, so it came as no surprise that when he and Felix started share farming the family property it was out with the old and in with Angus.
It was a decision that has stood them in good stead.
Angus offered a complete package and abounded in good genetics and easily-sourced cattle from top herds virtually on their doorstep.
Sam likes Angus because of their good muscling and the preference that lotfeeders and butchers have for the breed, meaning he is half way there in terms of meeting the market.
It was an easy switch 10 years ago and the line of mature cows from the renowned GB Bendotti & Co herd at Pemberton formed the foundation of the 100 head breeding herd, putting them in easy reach of the quality needed of vendors in the prestigious annual Independent Rural Agencies (IRA) AuctionsPlus sale at Pemberton.
They have been building herd quality and numbers by keeping the top 10 heifers every year, as well as putting up an annual line of both steer and heifer weaners at the November sale.
Sam said they had had a great rapport with Strathtay stud master John Young up until he dispersed his Angus stud.
“They were cattle that had everything good about them and great temperament,” Sam said.
“They have given us some lovely, big frame females over the years and we would like to keep that.”
They have since switched to Lawsons Angus for their past two sires.
Currently the property is relatively understocked compared with the 200 head it is capable of carrying.
It was devastated by the 2015 Northcliffe fire and there is still a lot of work needed – they have completed more than 11 kilometres of fencing – but have to reseed all the paddocks before it is able to be fully stocked.
It is happening steadily but with limitations.
The entire episode is traumatically etched in the family’s minds and culminated in the snap decision as the fire headed closer towards them to save the cattle they had locked in a laneway and leave the homestead undefended.
They were forced to backburn grassland and use water hoses and while the fire left the house untouched they managed to save the cattle, losing a few animals but it completely destroyed all their pasture and fencing.
It says a lot about how they regard their livestock and care for their highest welfare.
Share farming has been a part-time role for both brothers.
Felix manages the herd through most of the year but it is Sam who is hands-on at calving time and he incorporates it into his other role as farm manager on a new property owned by Perth doctor John Love.
Trading as JCC Love Family Trust, John added a former west Northcliffe blue gum plantation to his existing Pemberton landholding three years ago and found a perfect manager in long-time friend and fellow cattlemen Sam.
The 607 hectare property in four separate blocks had been devoted to agriculture before it was planted to trees and was a blank canvas except for 607ha of blue gum stumps.
With wall-to-wall (there were no fences) stumps, production levels sat at zero and it has been a totally consuming occupation to get it up and producing.
Again, the Angus breed proved its value with the fledgling herd already at a satisfactory quality level thanks to previous diligent buying and breeding decisions.
This has left John and Sam free to concentrate on improving the land and facilities, allowing the herd to expand in numbers as the improvement occurs.
It is an enormous task and Sam said it was to John’s credit that he had taken such an all-encompassing approach, looking at every aspect of increased production from soil fertility upwards.
The trees were harvested two years before John took possession and the mammoth clean-up has been something of a race against time.
John has invested in the heavy machinery needed to remove the stumps and kill regrowth, blackberries, bracken and other weeds.
In the meantime, a good thatch of kikuyu is regenerating and spreading and the first paddock was sown in 2017 with productive winter and perennial ryegrass and a mix of clover varieties suited to the wet climate marking a giant step in progress.
They have invested in a 4000 litre Hardi boomspray to knock down the major weed infestations but once pastures are established they are limited to spot spraying to protect the perennials.
Sam said John had not skimped in getting the farm back into production.
There was not a fence, shed or set of yards in existence when he bought it and so far, they have completed all the boundary and much of the internal fencing and laneways, put up two large multi-purpose sheds for hay and machinery and completed two of the three required sets of cattle yards.
The entire clean-up was scheduled to take five years and is not a project for the faint hearted.
Sam has met a few farmers who regretted their decision to allow plantations based on the amount of work required to bring the land back into production.
For him it is something of a challenge.
“I’m on track to meet the deadline and in 18 months’ time there won’t be a stump in the ground or a heap on the property.”
Apart from the ongoing clearing they still have to put in more watering points so paddocks can be divided into smaller areas.
“We have minimal equipment but what we have is essential such as an excavator, tractors and a spreader and John doesn’t hesitate to invest in machinery or fertiliser because he knows if he wants get the returns, he has to spend money and he wants it to be done right.”
While Sam spends plenty of time on a bulldozer or excavator, he also manages the cattle and said they were seeing the results of their efforts.
This year was the first calving with just 117 heifers on the property including a line that Sam and Felix had bred and sold at the 2015 Pemberton AuctionsPlus sale.
They were bought by mated heifer specialist Dennis Barnesby, Pemberton, and resold the following year at the same sale and bought by John.
Sam said it was testament to Angus genetic selection for low birthweight bulls that only three of the 117 that calved needed assistance and even then, it was easy to make excuses for their problems.
“They were pretty fat,” he said.
From last year’s drop they kept all the heifer calves for building breeding numbers and sold a line of 48 vealer steers at the most recent IRA AuctionsPlus sale.
The line averaged a pleasing 388.4 kilograms.
Other heifers and a small line of older cows came from John’s Pemberton property.
Sam said the older cows played a role in settling the heifers and leading them as they learned to access some pretty rugged and unfamiliar country.
It is also clearly evident Sam takes the time to familiarise them with people, ensuring they are quiet and easy to handle.
Next year Sam said they would calve about 200 head and were aiming for 350-380 breeders at full capacity.
The property is just 7km from the coast and has a rainfall of more than 1000 millimetres, with soil type varying from red karri loam to black sand and deficient in selenium and cobalt.
The rainfall pattern gives an extended growing season, but it also makes fodder conservation difficult.
Taking it into account and looking at the economics Sam said the advantages in buying weed-free export quality hay outweighed the alternative of locking up paddocks and investing in hay making machinery and labour to make their own.
The rainfall has also caused some soil erosion on newly-cleared paddocks and paradoxically Sam has tree-planting on his 2018 agenda.
This time he will plant peppermint trees because they are fast growing and will provide shelter in paddocks that don’t have a skerrick of shade.
Beyond the immediacy of clearing, revegetating and improving soil fertility there is still scope for other projects to improve productivity.
Sam is hopeful John will consider a bore with the capacity to irrigate with a sizeable centre pivot that could boost cattle numbers and another possibility in the future is a synchronised artificial insemination program.
He said some commercial cattlemen were doing it successfully and it helped when presenting an even line of calves and means less bulls are needed.
“When you are paying around $7000-$10,000 for bulls it would be a cost saving, you can use proven bulls and you can have all your calves dropping in a four to five-week period.”
John is part of the Pemberton/Northcliffe contingent who descend upon the Lawsons bull sales and seek advice from IRA principal Colin Thexton, who has been great promoter of the stud’s lengthy use of objective measurement in gaining a high degree of breeding predictability