Third Installment: Same, Same but Different!

Host: Country Downs Station

WOW! It is already 2016, and we whilst we didn’t get our blogs to you in 2015, I cannot believe how quickly time flies by. Despite the fact that we didn’t host a week on Central Station in 2015, it certainly was not due to not achieving anything or not having anything to write about. As per usual, life has a tendency to throw you the curve balls when you think you can finally take a breath and maybe even relax a little. No, no, that is simply not allowed in this industry!

So we left you in September 2014 reliving and describing the devastating effect that a massive bushfire had on our property and on our lives as a whole. In August 2014, a bushfire razed our property over a 6 day period and burnt out what we estimate to be between 90-95% of the property. With help from DFES (Dept. Fire and Emergency Services) and the Broome Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade, we managed to save the homestead and the surrounding 250 ha diversification area where we have our improved pasture crop trials. There was also an approximate 10,000 ha area on the north eastern part of the property that was not burnt, however, this area was not previously developed.

2014 was always going to be a big year for us in terms of development, but we never envisaged what actually eventuated! Quite simply, since September 2014 we literally had to implement a 5 year development plan within a 4 month period – which we did and have just been getting busier and busier throughout 2015. As it usually happens at the end of each season, our intrepid employee’s, Jenna and Josh, moved on from Country Downs and have continued to pursue their dreams to wherever it takes them. Jenna is back in Finland, teasing us with images of snowboarding and reindeer, and Josh is back in the cold country of WA (not quite as frosty as Jenna however).

Despite them leaving us, we have, during 2015, been very lucky to have made use of the ‘WWOOFing’ allowance in the Working Holiday Visa (WHV) 2nd yr application, before it was all changed by the government and is now no longer available to us. What this meant was we could ‘employ’ backpackers on a volunteer basis (provide food and accommodation) and they could spend up to 3 months if they wished to gain an experience that they would have never before been able to experience as well as obtain their 2nd Year WHV.

Once again over the 12 months we have met and continued to keep in contact with some absolutely wonderful people who have been happy to become a part of our family for a time and help us out for not much but good food, a roof over their head, and a good old-fashioned outback experience. Every single one of these people gave us a hand for various intervals and all of them have provided us with sorely needed help in 2015 by enabling us to continue to undertake the everyday and seasonal jobs that have to be maintained regardless of what is being thrown at you.

As I mentioned above, we made the decision to try and complete most of our 5-year development plan before the wet season fell upon us. In the 4 months, from September to December 2014, we completed the following activities that were a part of our 5 year plan:

  • 2 new bores drilled, equipped and running.
  • 4 dams were constructed and were full or filling with stock watering at them.
  • Another two bores equipped and infrastructure (i.e. yards) completed. One of these was with a solar pump setup which is pumping from 110m! Both were stocked with cattle by November 2014 to alleviate stocking pressure in the existing paddocks after the fire in 2014.
  • 15 km of new boundary fencing (including the clearing of) completed.

In short, we have managed to complete about 80% of our 5-year plan within 4 months!  We would not have been able to achieve this without the help and support of our families and friends who would give up a weekend or week here and there to come out and ‘slave’ for us. Since then a 3rd bore was drilled in mid-2015 and is now equipped, running, with a new dam dug and stock watering on it. We still have more fencing to do, yards to build, and of course the never-ending maintenance and livestock programs that require completion each and every season.

1.1 Drilling the first out of 3 bores

1.2First solar bore test run. 110m depth to pump and it’s just so odd to see water come out of pipe, but no sound to be heard!

So we moved into 2015, thinking we had pretty much been through the worst and could only go up from there. Well in some ways that was so very true. Overseas markets improved with the demand from new countries vying for Australian agricultural products, both processed and live export, increasing. The price per kilo was higher than anyone had ever predicted, let alone seen. The 2014/15 wet season was also very good to us with the native pasture and improved pasture coming back in abundance and the cattle were fat and happy despite having a pretty rough trot after the fires – we were on a roll towards furthering our herd structure, our infrastructure on the property and towards generally making life a little bit easier for us. Well that was the aim anyway.

1.3Jan 2015 – who would have thought that 4 months prior this scene was one of a wasteland. 

As always, there were a few bumps in the road. We once again got hit by bushfires – not one, but two that had us fighting fires for weeks on end, instead of doing what we were supposed to be doing – cattle work!  In addition, on a personal level 2015 was really a very low point for me. I struggled to find someone who was willing to take on the governess role and spent the year (including Term 4 of 2014) teaching my own children, doing the administrative role of the business, working on the station, as well as all the standard stuff required to keep a household running in some semblance of sanity and order! I was not a happy person. I was (and still am to some extent) run down, overworked and heading in a beeline towards anxiety and depression.

It all came to a head mid-year and I just knew I couldn’t teach my own children anymore. I needed some head space to catch up on the administrative duties that were becoming increasingly chaotic and to just generally get my head back to actually thinking straight. So the boys and I moved into Broome for Term 3 of the 2015 school year. For 11 weeks we lived in town during the week with Will going to mainstream school and Rory and I spending some quality time together as well as a couple of days in day care. Then on the weekends, we would all traipse back out to the station for some family time. This was successful in the sense that William improved immensely in his motivation and educational level in school and that I got some breathing space from trying to be mum/teacher/disciplinarian/rule-maker as well as trying to find the emotional strength to actually want to spend time with my own children.

It was also during this time that everything went to custard with two separate bushfires (deliberately lit); once again we extended our resources beyond what we could ever have imagined. The first one hit us from the east again, and took us about 10-12 days to fight. During that time, with the invaluable help from DFES and the Broome Bushfire Volunteer Brigade, we put in a brand new 30 km cut line as a firebreak, back burned a 40 km stretch in one evening, burnt more than 60,000 ha and continued for another 5 days fending it off on the eastern boundary, meanwhile using and abusing our machinery and forgoing any cattle work that was supposed to be going on. We only lost 40% of the property, so we thought we were doing ok really. Better than last year anyway!

Then in October, another fire was lit on the coast to the NW of our property about 25 km away. Within three days, we were inundated with such uncontrollable waves of destructive bushfire that even the experts were, to say the least, in awe!  The weather conditions for the second fire were unbelievably perfect for a massive fire! With dry, hot, strong winds pushing the fire south-eastwards, this fire really became an entity of its own. It crossed the Cape Leveque Rd about three days after being identified and proceeded to annihilate great tracts of the country, not just our property, but all the way down to the Great Northern Hwy where it crossed with ease and continued on for weeks.

The worst part was that 4 days before this one started, our grader broke and was completely out of action and then the dozer caught on fire and became out of action in the field trying to put in a fire break. That was a little stressful until Kurt managed to put the fire out and park the dozer in a clearing. Once again, we couldn’t have done what we managed to achieve without the manpower, resources and support from DFES and the BBFVB. However, this fire proved to even stretch those resources to the limits, with DFES staff from Perth being flown up to give respite to the local fire-fighters.

This second fire was so intense and unpredictable that it was even outstripping the ‘worst-case-scenario’ estimations on DFES’s fire prediction software program. Each morning the crews would get out here to find that it had already overtaken the latest prediction that was predicted for the end of that day! How do you fight something like that? The reality is that you just don’t. You deal with what you can by cutting breaks and back-burning portions each day in the hope that you contain it and it goes out overnight. Each day, we managed to achieve this on our property, however the next morning would see a spark up in a burning log or some such and then with the north-westerly pushing it, jumping the break and heading off on another run and merry-go-round chase for the day! This fire burnt so fiercely and so hot that it melted the galvanising off gate posts and gates and for the first time ever, we actually had to euthanise livestock as it raged across to the land so quickly that some animals were trapped and burnt.

This was devastating to us. We are responsible for the health and well being of these animals and the truth is that in situations like these, there is nothing that we are able to do except do our best to contain it, put it out or guide it into areas that won’t burn (i.e. previously burnt country, back burn areas etc). It was so disheartening and yet infuriating to see some of the animals that had been trapped in the fire. All of them would still be alive today if someone had of been a bit more thoughtful about what they were doing when they started that fire 10 days prior. This is the stuff that disappoints and depresses me more and more.

The fact that so many people have no thought about the consequences of their actions or worse, know and just don’t care about the detrimental effects their actions are having on the environment, the flora and fauna, the soils and the organic bio-systems and processes that link everything together in order to achieve the delicate balance that is nature. I cannot and will not forgive any person who involves themselves, knowingly or ignorantly, in these kinds of activities. It is just not acceptable.

1.4DFES crew out to help in the first fire, August 2015.

1.5This was the scariest moment this year. The black smoke in the background is our scrap heap and dump area going up in a blaze. This was 6.30am and the fire front had trickled about 2km overnight to cross over a fence line and spark up again about 500m from the house. We then had to start a back- burn about 100m from where I took this photo to save the homestead.

Nevertheless, we spent 10 days hard yakka fighting it and then another 4 days attending to the occasional flare ups or jumps that inevitably occur. During this second fire we actually had a yard full of cattle that we had trapped for a sale job, so despite the fire taking up two of the three weeks we had to get a line of cattle together to sell. As a result, we had to transport food and water to them 30 km away, through fire fronts and past DFES crews doing back-burns etc. Then, when the threat to homestead, livestock and infrastructure was lessened, we had to truck them back to main yards for transport off the property. This was while the fire was still meandering around the south east corner of the property. Talk about stress levels and overwork – by the time the fire was no longer a threat to us or the property, all of us were exhausted (including the DFES and volunteer fire-fighters), utterly depleted and just a tad jaded about the whole situation. BUT despite all of that, we still managed to save about 40% of the property and we got a load of cattle into the sale yards, so all was not lost!

All too quickly, the end of the year rolled around and despite having achieved so much in the last 12 months it really felt like we had got no further than the same time the year before. We still have our weaning program to complete. We still have the fencing and yards to build and so much of our maintenance program to complete/catch up on. On the up side, however, we have managed to convince a very experienced and close friend of ours to come out and give us a hand for a while!

In addition, we have finally found a keen and lovely young lady who is happy to take on the governess role and look after the boys and supervise their education. It must have been the letter that William wrote to Santa. He asked for a rabbit for himself and Rory, a new waterslide and some more chooks and in his final sentence he asked if Santa could also ‘please get Mum and Dad some beer and wine and a governess’! I could have cried when I first read that, how gorgeous is it that a 6-year-old has the empathy to understand when things are tough and also the humour and wit to understand that all it really takes is beer and wine to overcome some of life’s adult problems! Hilarious really, so his wish came true and we started 2016 with a new govie and new and improved ideas and plans to take our business to the next level.

This week we are going to introduce to those of you who haven’t heard of the term, Rangelands Self Herding, and how we can envisage it being implemented on our property. We will also talk about fire and new and challenging ways to mitigate and plan for the debilitating effects that dry season fires have upon our land system and our enterprise. Kurt will take you on his journey to Indonesia and Vietnam when he attended the Market Insights tour hosted by DAFWA in April 2015. You will also meet a couple of our intrepid backpacker friends, Brandon and Maike, who willingly wrote about what they got out of their time with us.

We hope that you find what we have to write about this year interesting but also thought provoking. We once again, feel privileged to be a part of Central Station. We endeavour to provide the growing number of readers of the Central Station blog a variety of information that allows you to have a better insight into some of the specific activities that we do with our livestock and our land in order to protect it, keep it sustainable, and at the same time provide those of us who immerse ourselves in it, the richness and sense of fulfilment that keeps us going on and doing it.

Welcome to our week as host on Central Station. Sit back, read and enjoy.

Ciao, ciao from all of us at Country Downs Station.

1.6“Shakin’ the sillies out”. Loading cattle during the October fire to keep to the cattle job deadline…. Always loving a challenge!

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