In the initial settlement of the mallee land no sheep were run because of lack of feed and fences. Wheat was the only farming operation with some oats grown for chaff to feed the horses which pulled the farming machinery. Any sheep brought to the area had to be shepherded by day and yarded at night to protect them from foxes and wild dogs. Stock water was a problem if the farm was a long way from a well.
As early as 1916 Mr JE Hood presented a paper – Would sheep be profitable in our district? He considered sheep necessary to destroy weeds, fertilize the soil and provide meat for farmers.
Sheep became part of most farmer’s operations during the 1920’s and requests were made to the railways to build holding yards. Combined sheep and cattle yards were eventually built in several locations. Boring technology improved and farmers were able to sink their own bores by the late 1920’s.
Sheep numbers remained relatively small and wool prices were low. Native grasses were still not very palatable and were choked out by the mallee. Stubble and self-sown cereal were the major source of sheep feed.
Droughts, Depression and World War 2 had run the mallee down. Previous farming methods of fallowing to grow wheat were not appropriate as they led to the soil drifting, farms were too small and many farmers had been forced off the land. The first 10 years after the war were boom years. Wool prices increased as sheep numbers were growing. This gave the farmers the chance to pay off debt and upgrade plant, properties and houses.
Barley began to be grown successfully and didn’t require the fallow period of wheat. Export markets were available for barley and prices were good, also stubbles were more palatable for sheep. Tractors had replaced horses so there was not the need to grow oats for hay or for the horses to compete with sheep for feed. Cereal rye was grown on sandhills, the greater use of superphosphate and the introduction of medics improved the quantity and quality of pasture in the 1950’s, all of which increased production in the mallee.
Most sheep were run for wool and larger areas were needed to graze sheep. Farms were amalgamated. Most sheep were sold to farmers in wetter areas for breeding fat lambs. Since the 1950’s there were eight properties breeding stud rams. (for more information see on past and present studs see ‘Karoonda East Murray A History to 1986’ page 453 and ‘Karoonda East Murray 1986-2011’ Chapter 2 Alan Jones)
Despite mallee soils being light and sandy and more prone to drift they have two advantages over the heavier soils of better areas – they are easy and cheap to cultivate and they make more efficient use of rainfall. Improved farming practices have limited the damage to the soil.
With the increased numbers of sheep came the opening of four stock firms in Karoonda. There are now two. Annual sheep sales were held until October 3 2008. In August 2021 the first sheep sale in 11 years was held in Karoonda.
In the last 40 years there has been a move away from sheep towards continuous cropping by some farmers. Others consider this too risky and retain some sheep in their enterprise with both merinos and crossbreeds being run.