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Changing direction a matter of survival

Changing direction a matter of survival

When wool prices collapsed in the 90s, Rick and Jo Gates nearly lost everything. By switching from sheep to goat production they found a new way to profit.

Burndoo is one of those vast, remote stations people picture when they think of the Australian outback. Its main homestead is four kilometres from the front gate. Which is 46 kilometres from the Ivanhoe turnoff. Which is 20 kilometres outside Wilcannia in far-west New South Wales.

What is different about this otherwise classic Australian station, complete with working dogs and the endless buzz of flies, is the goats.

Rick and Jo Gates and their son Ross have up to 10,000 saleable goats on their 160,000 acres at any one time, some harvested from their own paddocks and some bought from suppliers up to 200 kilometres away.

Change born out of necessity

Burndoo used to be an actual sheep station, but the wool price collapse of the 1990s, which left Rick and Jo under financial pressure, sent them looking for alternatives.

“We caught yabbies, and did contract mulesing and lamb marking to try to keep going,” Jo says. “We were able to switch our loan to interest only, which not everyone was able to do, and we’re forever thankful for that. If not for that, we wouldn’t be here today. The month before Ross was born we didn’t even have money left to pay for food.”

In 1997, Jo and Rick started selling their sheep. As each paddock was emptied, they re-fenced and brought in goats.

These days they sell 150,000 head of goats per year, mustering two or three times most weeks. A few years back they purchased a neighbouring property where goats too small for immediate sale can grow out to saleable size.

Preparing for hard times

The goat venture hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but the Gates do as much as they can to ensure that if tough times do strike, they’re in good shape to get through them.

“We try to keep our stock numbers down a bit and make sure our country is sound, with good groundcover. It’s really important not to stock up too much, especially in summer when the goats are walking to water – it can really damage the country and then it takes longer to recover from dry periods.”

In 2002, drought became so severe they shut down the operation for 12 months, but when the drought broke they bounced back fairly quickly.

“The beauty of this sector is that when the drought breaks and the feed cover is adequate we can start trading and making money again,” Rick says.

Looking ahead

For Gates Goats, business is in a transitional phase. Their son, Ross, was eager to get back to Burndoo after finishing school and seeing some of the world and over the past several years he has taken more of an active role in the operation, with plans to continue the transition over time.

For their part, Jo and Rick are pretty happy that Ross is getting a handle on running the business so they can take some time out, and they’re keen for him to make his own choices and build his own future.

“Now we are at a point where we can leave the property in his hands while we are away and we want him to have the opportunity to try things out in the business. After all, that’s the whole reason we’re here: for the kids. You want your kids to have more than you had for yourself,” Jo says.