Northfield Laboratories and Research Centre

John Radcliffe

(This article, provided to the Agriculture History Project in April 2007, was edited lightly for the website.)

Although the Department of Agriculture had used experiment farms and research centres from the early 1900s, it had never had a central research facility. The then Director of Agriculture, Sir Allan Callaghan, sought to secure land for this purpose at Bedford Park, but this ultimately became the site for the Flinders University of South Australia. In 1959 the Department was offered the farm of the then Northfield Mental Hospital. This had been purchased by the State government in 1917 at £38 per acre from Leopold Conrad, and the adjacent Erskine Lodge from Johnny and Sarah Hannah Williams for £34 17s 6d per acre. The Department’s Northfield land (PDF 200.8 KB) was located amid a range of other institutions, including the Yatala Labour Prison, the Morris Hospital and the Northfield Wards of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Later institutions included the Strathmont Centre, the Royal Institution for the Blind, Enfield High School and the Gilles Plains Field Station of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science.

A laboratory complex (PDF 211.9 KB)  was developed at Northfield. The main laboratory building opened in 1964, and was soon added to with glasshouses, a potting shed and several relocated school buildings to provide additional accommodation as the number of staff grew. The Department was successful in securing additional support for research through the availability for increasing levies from the Rural Industry Research Funds, financially matched 1:1 by the Commonwealth government. The laboratories housed agronomy, plant introduction and breeding, crop variety testing, soils science, entomology, plant pathology and dairy technology staff.

Another 618 acres (250 ha) of land was taken up by the Northfield Research Centre. The land and herd were rehabilitated. The Centre’s land (PDF 608.8 KB) was subdivided into numerous experimental paddocks of similar size for field research. Dairy scientists undertook a wide range of dairy research (PDF 823.6 KB) encompassing fodder conservation, dairy cattle husbandry and nutrition, calf rearing, dairy genetics and its relation to milk production and composition and the problems of mastitis, a serious disease of cows lowering their milk production and affecting milk quality and composition. A new dairy with associated laboratories was built in Folland Avenue, and subsequently the old hospital dairy at Pine Drive was rebuilt as a herringbone dairy. At its height in the 1970s, a team of 12 scientists was working on programs for the dairy industry, which despite its environmental and geographical disadvantages compared with the verdant pasture areas of the eastern States, still maintained some of the highest levels of production in Australia.

The scientists developed a wide range of extension publications (PDF 142.4 KB) to help farmers think about changes they might wish to introduce to dairying practices, for example in calf rearing. Handbooks were prepared with additional detail, an example being that on silage (PDF 2.3 MB) by Dean Brown (later Premier of South Australia).

Many farmers’ meetings were attended. A popular example was when hay samples were collected locally, a sub sample was sent for analysis at the Northfield Laboratories and then the results taken back to the Agricultural Bureau branches from where the samples had come. Farmers could examine the hays and compare the results. A popular visitor to such meetings was the fistulated sheep ‘Quincey' (PDF 670.0 KB) who as well as supplying the rumen organisms for the digestibility tests, also became adroit at climbing the stairs of country halls and standing out the front of the audience on a table while the analytical method was described and the hay results discussed.

South Australia was noted for its cheese production, and from the 1960s, the Department of Agriculture had supplied cheese starters for the factories from its small laboratory in the old Simpson’s stove factory where the Department had been located. During the 1960–90period the South Australian cheese industry (PDF 61.1 KB) underwent major change. Factories amalgamated and grew larger and fewer, and the factories progressively assume primary responsibility for managing their cheese cultures.

The pig industry was supported by the Northfield Pig Research Unit, located on the northern side of the Department’s land. The unit comprised a pig production research unit which built up a strong research team in pig nutrition and pig reproduction, and an isolated pig health research unit. A pig physiology building was added in later years, but by the time the Department was ready to vacate the land at Northfield, the decision had been taken to build a completely new modern research piggery on the Roseworthy campus of the University of Adelaide.

Horticultural research requiring accredited quarantine facilities for the introduction of new genetic material from overseas was also based at Northfield. Virus testing was a particularly important part of the unit’s responsibilities. A comprehensive suite of controlled atmosphere rooms for fruit storage was also established at Northfield – a role later transferred to the Plant Research Centre on the Waite campus.

A detailed summary of 21 years of research at Northfield (PDF 387.5 KB) was published in 1986. By then it was apparent that the land at Northfield had become too valuable as real estate for the Department to continue to use it for research. The broad acres devoted to dairying were replaced by a new research centre purchased at Flaxley in the Adelaide Hills, while the majority of the research based in the Northfield Laboratories was transferred to the Waite campus as part of the University of Adelaide–SARDI–PIRSA–CSIRO–Australian Wine Research Institute co-location (PDF 700.9 KB) in 1993.