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The well-managed pastures and landscapes of the Kimberley’s Jubilee Downs are testament to decades of careful stewardship.
STORY + PHOTOS MARK MULLER | OUTBACK MAGAZINE
Quiet conversation punctuated by occasional laughter lifts through the dappled midday light filtering through rustling coolibah leaves to paint shaded patterns on the pindan sand. Kelly Smith smiles as her young colleagues discuss the morning’s work and sort through the tasks left to complete as arms are twisted and caramel slice is handed around.
Kelly has spent most of her life here on Jubilee Downs, 400km east of Broome in Western Australia’s Kimberley. She and her husband Adam now manage the property that was for more than 30 years the abiding passion of her parents Keith and Karen Anderson, and home to Kelly and her siblings Bonnie and Darcy. It is now part of the Harvest Road group of properties, and the regenerative agricultural practices and superior Droughtmaster herd established by her parents remain central to the operation today. “Dad always said that you’re not just looking after cattle,” Kelly says. “If you don’t look after the land, you don’t look after your livestock.”
The holding is made up of 2 leases – Jubilee Downs and Quanbun Downs. Together they comprise 221,408ha of Fitzroy River flood plain and pindan country and the blacksoil alluvial plain of Alexander Island. Jubilee Downs homestead sits on the northern bank of the Cunningham River, itself a branch of the Fitzroy. Between the 2 rivers is Alexander Island. These waterways contribute to the property’s 90km of river frontage.
As well as being home to Kelly, Adam, and their 3 children Jimmy, 12, Matilda ‘Tilda’, 8, and Billie, 6, Jubilee is running 9 staff this season, and currently carries some 10,500 head of cattle. The property is divided into 54 paddocks punctuated by 9 sets of yards and multiple watering points that are generally never servicing more than 95 head each.
The stations were pioneered by the McLarty and Rose families in the 1880s. Texan billionaire Edward Bass bought the Quanbun lease in 1975 and took up Jubilee in 1987, which is where Keith Anderson enters the story. “Dad and Mum were managing Jubilee when Ed Bass bought it and asked them to stay on,” Kelly says. “They were keen and also asked to be able to earn shares in the business. Ed agreed, and so we stayed on Jubilee and the arrangement worked very well for all of us.”
A small mob of Droughtmasters is quietly moved from a
holding paddock on its way to larger yards.
Keith set about putting his ideas about regenerative agriculture to the test. He carved the property up into smaller paddocks, fenced the river off and developed watering points in order to better control stock, and particularly to control the impact of stock on the landscape. To this end, he eventually reduced the herd to about 5,000 head – almost halving his cattle numbers – with the capital generated by the sale of cattle compensating for the reduced revenue from lost weaner sales.
As cattle numbers decreased, the country regenerated and the quality of feed for those that remained steadily improved, such that the calving percentages rose to approximately 75–80% and turn-off weight targets for steers were reached a year sooner than had previously been the case.
A string of good seasons in the mid-to-late ’90s also aided the process, but there was no doubt that both land and livestock responded exceptionally well to the management practices and eventually enabled the herd to be built back up to a sustainable number of about 10,000.
This sense of practical conservation was a large part of what attracted Andrew and Nicola Forrest (owners of R.M.Williams) when they paid some $30million for Jubilee and Quanbun in late 2020, adding them to their existing Harvest Road portfolio of pastoral properties in the Pilbara and Kimberley.
Richie Malo first worked on Jubilee with his uncles almost 27 years ago; Slow and steady is the order of the day as cattle are moved towards the yards.
“We are humbled to be able to continue the legacy Keith and Karen Anderson have built,” the Forrests said at the time. “We are passionate about the unique environment of the Kimberley, and the precious waterway and life force that is the Fitzroy River. We strongly believe in the principle of balancing the need for sustainable agriculture and job creation for local communities with the need to preserve culture and heritage sites, while restoring the land and its original fauna to its natural habitat.”
The Andersons had to sell when majority shareholder Ed Bass decided to divest his stake. There were more than a dozen interested contenders, including the Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara people who are the local native title holders, but for the Andersons, Harvest Road was the right buyer. “We have selected who would do justice by looking after the river system, and the rangelands here – that’s been a priority for me,” Keith Anderson told the ABC after the sale process.
Adam Smith stands in the thick grass that covers Alexander Island and looks around. He came over to the Kimberley from Cessnock, NSW, at the age of 16 in 2000. He spent 2 years on Larrawa station with the Brockhurst family and met Kelly at the Fitzroy Rodeo, moving to Jubilee soon after, “and I’ve been here ever since!” he says. “Back when Keith started, everything was watered off the river – cattle actually went into the river to get water. There are a couple of places with access still, but most of the river is now fenced off.”
Water can, of course, be a blessing and a curse, with flooding a regular aspect of the Jubilee environment. Still, no-one was expecting the extent of the flooding that occurred at the beginning of this year when ex-tropical cyclone Ellie brought exceptionally heavy rain to the region, swelling the Fitzroy River to a peak of 15.81m – almost 2m higher than the previous record. Adam, Kelly and the kids were away when the river was rising, with head stockman Freddie Jamieson and his partner Olivia Brown on-station preparing for their second season.
Managers Adam and Kelly Smith have spent most of their lives on Jubilee Downs.
“We had a bit of early warning and prepared for it as well as we could and moved cattle to high ground,” Adam says. “Basically, the whole island went under, with only bits and pieces of land above the waterline. That’s where all those cattle were stuck. We flew hay out to them. A lot of cows wouldn’t drink that water running past them. But if you don’t feed them then their gut bugs all die, and they never come good.
“We were flying around, and everything was under water,” Adam says as he looks up at one of the solar panels next to a bore. “It went over the panels and over the boxes. The only way we knew exactly where this was, was the top of the old windmill sticking out of the water. In a normal flood like 2011, this will still all go under water but you can get the cattle down off here and swim them across the river onto higher country. This time it all went well and truly under.”
There’s a lot of fencing to do now, but the legacy of the flood – apart from a new high-water record – is all around Adam as he speaks. “This is what the pasture looks like after a decent flood and a good wet season: a good cover of a range of pastures. We’ll now spell these paddocks until October and then put cattle back.”
Freddie Jamieson, who’s from Bolac Plains in Victoria, and Olivia, originally from Quairading, WA, smile ruefully when talking about the lengths they took to get everything in the homestead out of harm’s way. As it turned out, the water only reached the bottom of the floorboards in the homestead and surrounds, so no real damage was done. “It was pretty surreal,” Freddie says. “The water came up the road from the main gate slowly – not from the river side. We could see it rising but had done what we could.” It was later that night that the flood joined the river. “We had gone to bed,” Olivia says, “but got a call from Adam in the early hours to look out the window – it had been okay when we turned in, but by morning we were sitting above what looked like an ocean.” The couple, who met working on Harvest Road’s Minderoo station, was soon airlifted out, and Adam later came in by boat, with Kelly and the kids staying down south on the farm where Kelly’s parents and siblings now live.
“The water went down in about 5 days, and the solar pumps started working again!” Adam says. “As far as the solar pumps go they’re great, and we don’t have a working windmill on the place now, but I reckon you’ve got to keep them simple. There’s a lot of new technology available but there’s still a lot to be said for a good solar panel and a basic Grundfos pump. I’m not sure that a higher-tech set-up would have kept going after it had been completely submerged.”
The transition to working as part of the wider Harvest Road group has been both rewarding and challenging for the Smiths. “It’s a big adjustment,” Kelly says. “But it’s been really great as well – and we love that we’re still here. We’re so lucky that Andrew and Nicola bought it, and the support has been great. We knew a lot about actually running the place in the paddocks, but Dad looked after everything on the books side of things – and he basically did everything by hand in ledger books, so that’s been a learning curve for us. We’re being trained and given the skills we need to do what we have to do.”
Adam and Kelly report to Hamish Lee-Warner, who’s based on Minderoo station and is the company’s general manager extensive agribusiness as well as being the manager of Minderoo station itself, along with his partner Katrina Weir. “They’re all really positive and committed to helping staff and managers as much as they can,” Kelly says.
For Harvest Road’s part, chief operating officer Ben Dwyer says that the company is very fortunate to have secured Jubilee Downs, and the experience and expertise of the Smiths. “Each property becomes a business unit for us and has a specific role to play in the integrated supply chain of Harvest Road,” he says. “We have a real commitment to long-term generational sustainability for the people, the livestock and the environment. The main function of Jubilee is as a breeding operation, and we’ve got a real focus on productivity, fertility and consistent quality of the animals being turned off there and into the supply chain. They go down for backgrounding in the Pilbara, then to the Koojan Downs feeding facility and finally to processing at Harvey Beef.”
Jubilee is renowned for its Droughtmaster herd
This integrated philosophy flows through to the rest of the staff on Jubilee and, along with a commitment to regenerative practices, traditional methods of stock handling are still well utilised. “We use horses for all the mustering, and we do coacher mustering,” Adam says. Most of the horses used are station-bred. “As long as they’re bred out of a good quiet station horse, we’re happy,” Adam says.
All staff go through a horsemanship school and a farrier school as part of their induction. For more experienced hands like Richie Malo, Jimmy Mahoney and Courtney Lee, this is as much about brushing up on skills as helping out fresher colleagues. Richie is a Gooniyandi man from nearby Fitzroy Crossing and has been working on Jubilee on and off for almost 27 years. “My uncles brought me out here when I was a young bloke,” Richie says. “It’s always been good work and a good place.” Jimmy, from Goulburn, NSW, is in his fourth year on Jubilee. “I was working near home, doing a welding apprenticeship, but got laid off when the work ran out. I saw an ad for contract mustering in the Territory and applied for it and have never looked back!” Courtney grew up in the south of WA, near Mingenew. “I love working here,” he says. “I spent a year in the Pilbara and my old manager there said the Kimberley was unreal – he wasn’t wrong!”
This attitude rubs off on the others, like Lucas Butcher, from Perth, who at 16 is the youngest member of the crew. “I’m definitely enjoying it – it’s fun. I’ve not really had much to do with horses, but I’m figuring it out and getting better.”
This is also the case for Kimberley Mannion, also from Perth. “I finished school last year and now I’m up here,” she says. “Through school, I was working at the Boyup Brook Saleyards. I’m getting there with the horseriding. Feeling good, otherwise. I’ve always wanted to do it. I like everything about it.”
Adam Smith points to a solar array that was fully submerged in the most recent floods; Jimmy, Billie and Tilda Smith in their classroom with governess Hannah Wilson; head stockman Freddie Jamieson came to WA from his home in Victoria back in 2017
It’s a dynamic system, with plenty of moving parts, but the success of the sum total is plain to see. “Our average weaning weight was 190kg last year,” Adam says. “It comes down to looking after pasture and cows. We’re looking at a 92% conceiving rate now. We always used to be at about 75–80%, which was good, but 92% is better again.”
Basically, all the stock now on Jubilee are breeders. “We preg-test and then send them out to pasture, keeping an eye on the pasture itself,” Adam says. “They get good condition on good country. If these cows don’t have that condition on them, they don’t get into calf.
“We work on segregating – we’ll bring breeders in and group preg-test into 3-month groups. Most cows should be in the October/November line. Seventy-five per cent of our calves will be in that trimester. Then we’ll also have a January/March group.” The aim is to brand everything as calves, and then put them back with their mothers to nurture them through the process before they’re weaned. “Animal welfare is a leading focus,” Adam says. It’s important that weaners are maintained on a rising plane of nutrition in order to maximise meat eating quality and drive fertility in first-calf heifers. “It’s also important that the next property in the supply chain can maximise kgs in the shortest period because we’re also focused on reducing the time required to reach slaughter rates from an environmental sustainability perspective.”
For the Smith children, life continues much as before. They have their regular chores – feeding and watering animals, including the stallion and the pigs. And there is school. Jimmy is in Year 7 and studies through the School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE), which is run by the Perth-based Western Australian Department of Education. The girls are both in primary school, being taught via the Kimberley School of the Air (SOA).
(Back row) Olivia Brown, Jimmy Mahoney, Billie Smith, Richie Malo,(front row) Kimberley Mannion, Lucas Butcher, Courtney Lee, Jimmy, Tilda, Kelly and Adam Smith, Hannah Wilson, Freddie Jamieson and Shireen Rad.
Governess Hannah Wilson, from Toowoomba, Qld, lives next to the school room. “The SIDE and SOA teachers run the classes, and I’m there to help and supervise the kids. I also try and help around the place. Cleaning and gardening. There are always lots of guests coming and going – lots of sheets and beds!”
Kelly Smith dusts off her hands and gets ready to head back into the yards. “It’s certainly been a challenge and a massive learning curve, but it’s been really great as well,” she says. “And we’re very grateful to still be here, particularly being able to bring the kids up here. We were planning on taking over from Dad before he realised we had to sell. So when Andrew and Nicola came up and spoke to us about it all, that was great.
“Dad and Mum do miss it, and we miss them, but Mum was ready to move and have a bit of an easier life. Adam still talks to Dad a fair bit as a sounding board. And also to Ben and Hamish, and to Aaron Land who’s on Springvale, which is also a Harvest Road place now.
“In the end, it all ties in – everyone has their place. Everyone has to do their thing to make it all run successfully.”
Billie, Jimmy and Tilda Smith take a little time out from their afternoon chores.