$180m plan for a viable Woolnorth


THE WEDGE-TAILED eagle soars effortlessly then swoops earthwards, sucking up the fierce air currents in a majestic dance across the big Woolnorth sky.

This wild North-West tip of Tasmania is probably as close to paradise as it gets for the giant bird of prey.

High over Australia's biggest dairying operation the eagle plays with the gales that buffet the state's West Coast uninterrupted by land since Argentina and the raw winds from Bass Strait.

He is an unexpected distraction from what is going at ground level on the oldest royal charter land grant still operating in the world.

Woolnorth, the 2012 jewel in the crown of the Van Diemen's Land Company established by King George IV in 1825, is about to embark on one of its biggest expansions so far.

Like the rare wedge-tailed eagle that has made his home on this isolated, weather-swept point, the company wants to spread its wings with a $180 million development to secure a financially viable future for Woolnorth.

It is already an impressive and intriguing operation.

There is its size - about 19,000 hectares of mostly cleared pasture land with the ocean as its boundary on two sides.

Once Van Diemen's Land Company holdings stretched east down the North-West Coast as far as Burnie.

It's still big enough to lose the land for the state's first commercial-sized wind farm to Hydro Tasmania and not miss it.

Clusters of wind towers have been constructed in two locations on Woolnorth's west coast at Bluff Point and Studland Bay.

There's Woolnorth's history - the Van Diemen's Land Company headquarters was for many years at the heritage-listed Highfield House at Stanley, but the first settlement was at Woolnorth at a peaceful inlet around the corner from Tasmania's north-west tip that shares its name.

Blue and white china scraps can still be found just above the water line where the first cottage was built in the early 1820s when the only access was by sea. Woolnorth's modern history is equally as intriguing.

The giant property's owners are the ratepayers of the forward- thinking New Plymouth Council on New Zealand's North Island.

New Plymouth Council's Taranaki Investment Management company owns 100 per cent of Tasman Farms Ltd, which owns 98 per cent of the historic Van Diemen's Land Company that runs Woolnorth.

New Plymouth, with a population of about 60,000, was a major shareholder in Powerco, the New Zealand-based company that won the contract to build the infrastructure for Tasmania's natural gas pipeline.

When New Plymouth pulled its investment from Powerco in 2007, the council set up its own investment management company to run the $300 million it made from the portfolio sale.

Van Diemen's Land Company started a major capital-raising venture for the proposed $180 million Woolnorth expansion soon after its new chief executive Mike Guerin took on the job 14 months ago.

Negotiations are down to four parties believed to include the government-owned China Investment Corporation and New Plymouth Council on who might invest and who might be willing to be bought out to make the capital- raising target possible.

Meanwhile, back on a large chunk of North-West Tasmania's fertile agricultural land, Woolnorth's day-to-day operation continues at a cracking pace.

Van Diemen's Land Company development manager Brent Antsis proudly shows off Woolnorth's newest dairy unit - one of the 12 individual dairy farms so far within the Woolnorth boundaries that operate as separate entities.

They each milk about 1100 cows off about 350 hectares.

Woolnorth's expansion proposal would see the number of its dairy farms grow to 23.

Cape Barren - named for the Cape Barren geese that are frequent visitors - was transformed from traditional Woolnorth beef and sheep pastures to a dairy operation in just eight weeks.

"It was basically paddocks on January 1 (2012)," Mr Antsis said.

"We built a brand spanking new dairy and the first cows were milked on March 24."

Smithton contractors and Woolnorth workers also constructed two new houses for the farm manager and support staff as well as laneways and other necessary infrastructure."

The $4 million project is the first new dairy built at Woolnorth since 2001 and sets the standard for another 11 planned as part of the proposed $180-million expansion.

With a little help from some New Zealand technology, Cape Barren is an innovative energy and cost efficient dairy.

A converter plays with the heat from the cows' milk so that it is used in turn to heat the hot water used in the dairy.

Effluent from the rotary dairy is processed through the farm's own effluent pond to remove the solids, which become fertiliser.

The liquids are treated and used as recycled water for the dairy in an efficient use of one of the most necessary commodities in a dairy operation.

A feed pad has been built alongside the dairy for more efficient winter feeding than in wet paddocks.

Power cuts are facts of life on the windswept Woolnorth pastures but they are costly for a dairy operation where cows and milking staff are geared to strict schedules.

Cape Barren's dairy design included a back-up generator to overcome power cuts.

Woolnorth rears its own heifers for milking herd replacement on a separate heifer operation at the south-western end of the property.

The operation runs 10,500 heifers when fully stocked.

Some bull calves are held back for breeding.

Woolnorth runs about 80,000 milking cows, as well as about 500 beef cattle and more than 1500 breeding ewes as remnants of Woolnorth's traditional sheep and beef operation.


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