Extreme Mustering

Host: Liveringa Station
Written by Jed O’Brien – Manager, Liveringa Station.

Last week we embarked upon our first muster for the 2014 season. We usually start with the paddocks closest to the homestead yards; we are on high ground here, the access is good. We do a few paddocks here while we wait for the rest of the station to dry out a bit and get a chance to grade tracks and trucking roads.

We had a lot of rain in the Fitzroy catchment in January and as a result the river rose and spilled out into the Liveringa river flats. We needed to then muster all the cattle from the river country, ahead of the flooding water. So three days with three helicopters . . . and about $15,000 later . . . all the river cattle are on to the ridges and higher ground. Some are mustered out to the east of the paddock/area and the rest to the west, towards the homestead yards (Inkata).

The river creates a real management dilemma when it floods early in the wet. The river flats, with heavy black soils and productive high value pastures, have a high capacity to feed large numbers of cattle. By comparison the higher country has red sandy soils, lower value pastures, and much less cattle carrying capacity. So you end up with large numbers of cattle in paddocks on poorer country and as a result the stock doesn’t hold their condition or perform as well. You also end up putting pressure on pasture and risk range land degradation.

UntitledInkata during a ‘big’ wet season.

The river eventually went back into its banks, but being only two months into the wet with hopefully three more to come, I was reluctant to let the cattle back down to the river country for fear of having to muster them out again with the next big rain event. So they stayed, high and dry and bluntening their teeth on spinifex grass.

Here we are three months later in April. The helicopters clean any stragglers out of the river, they are pushed into the paddocks where the existing cattle are and they are all then mustered to the yard.

2.2Josh in his chopper bringing cattle in from the far reaches of this paddock; horses are used to help keep the mob together and yard up at the end.

2.3Approaching the yard.

When the dust settled it seemed like there was a massive number of cattle in the yard that day. I had no idea there were so many cattle in that paddock and I don’t think I have ever seen so many breeding cattle in one yard. It was all a bit daunting really, with a real potential for a wreck. The cattle needed to be drafted quickly and bushed out of the yards (drafting is the separation of different classes of cattle, lactating cows and calves, “dry” cows, weaners, sale cattle etc).

We started drafting this mob on the Tuesday and the weather was very hot and humid. At the end of the day’s drafting it looked as though we had made no impact at all on the sea of cattle in the yard, the only consolation for a disheartened stockcamp was a guessing competition as to how many head were there.

2.4The ‘sea’ of cattle at the yards.

That night I lay in bed thinking, planning, worrying about the large mob of cows in the yard . . . how many mis-mothered calves will we end up with? How long will it take to draft them and get them out of the yard? Will I need to feed them all? Who’s managing this show and what kind of a monumental class A stuff up is this? Well it’s too late now, we’re committed.

Then it rained . . .

I reckon the ideal size for a mob of breeder cows in this country is about seven or eight hundred head. This way you can muster and walk into the yard the first day, draft the cows and brand the calves the second and have all the cows and calves out of the yard and into the paddock by the third day. The next few days are spent branding and processing weaners and trucking. Then you move on to the next mob. At least that’s what a good manager might do, and luckily I’ve never said that I was one of those. They say the difference between a good and bad manager is only two inches (of rain that is . . .). Liveringa has trended toward a little more rain than average in recent years, hopefully adding some extra luck in this regard.

Good luck or not? The inch of rain we received this night was good for the grass but not so good for the yards. The next day in the yards it was hot and humid and the back yard guys had to contend with nearly a foot of mud. This slowed the process down considerably. It was hard going in the heat and mud of the back yard and the sludge made it very difficult to get out of the way of any argumentative cows. But the sea of cattle to draft was slowly turning into something more like a big lake.

2.5Zarrah, Georgie, and Katy working at the ‘clean’ end of the yards

2.6 Yep, looking forward to him bringing this washing home . . .

The following day’s drafting was probably tougher as the mud was sticky; the gates were hard to push and slow to close. Any encounter with a cantankerous cow often meant leaving your boots stuck in the mud as you made haste (as if in slow motion) to the fence or just out of the way. We finished drafting the mob on the afternoon of this, the third day, then walked the cows and calves out of the yard and on to grass. We fed hay to what cattle were left in the yard, and then the team spent the next five or six days processing them; drafting and branding weaners, processing sale, and agistment cattle.

We now know that during that week we drafted 5,017 head through the yard. At the end of the draft we “bushed” about 1,700 lactating cows plus 300 calves, 650 “dry” cows went out to be pregnancy tested the following week. There were 550 spayed cows to be drafted for market, 300 weaner bulls to go to the south west on agistment, 250 ready for the ship, and 1200 weaners to brand. Also 20 feral bulls, a few strangers (cattle that belong to the neighbours), and about 100 randoms that went back to the river.

Surprisingly we only ended up with about 12 poddies, or lost calves, to be reared at the station on milk powder. You will often get a few poddy calves after a muster; when cattle are calving all year round it is inevitable. There’s no real financial value in rearing poddies but we owe it to these calves to take them home and give them a chance. After all we created their predicament. There’s a bit of tough love though; one bag of milk powder and then they are out “cooking for themselves”.

2.7Emma feeding the poddies.

It was a big effort from the team that week, especially the new staff on the first yarding. Surprisingly nobody decided to leave. I’ve had worse weeks though, I worked in a yard full of sheep once . . .

Soon after the first muster, around ANZAC day, the weather seemed to change. The humidity and the clouds are going and the days are just starting to cool a little. I know this by the behaviour of our kids. The days must be cooling because the other day I came home for a late lunch to find the kids playing outside. If it’s under 35 degrees they’ll be out on the swings or riding the scooters. If it’s over 35 degrees they will be in the house, trashing the school room, or trying to make their eyes square.

When the Kimberley eventually cools down it can provide a great environment for work and play (hence all the caravans on the highway in July). Ah yes the West Kimberley dry season, best two weeks of the year . . .

And so the dry begins and with it comes the mustering program. The weather is cool, the roads are dry and the season is in full swing. On ANZAC day we trucked out the first four road trains for the year: 450 cows to market and 250 weaners to agistment.

2.8Road trains almost loaded and ready to leave.

2.9Four Mitchell’s Transport road trains leaving at once.

In last year’s Central Station blog I spoke about the dipping and trucking process. This year we will have a similar program. With a percentage of cattle coming from our other station, Nerrima, we expect to send over 3,000 cows and 6,000 young cattle to abattoirs or grass in the south west. In May, around 700 cull heifers and 600 steers will go direct to Indonesia via Broome. We plan to put 2 or 3,000 weaners through the feedlot at the station with a view to sell them through Broome this year also.

Currently the northern cattle market is the best it’s been for many years and we are keen to sell cattle while the going is good; as recent history shows you never know what might happen next. The sale and trucking program takes place at the Station yard. The big job is out in the rangeland where Chris and the team will, over a period of three months, muster the 13,000 breeding cows plus followers. They will muster the cows and draft, brand calves, and bush cows. Truck sale cattle and weaners to the station and pregnancy test dry cows. Around this operation the roads need grading and the station road train is almost constantly trucking. And of course the farming operation is busy planting, cutting, and baling hay and silage for the cattle in the feed yard and in the breeder yards.

After all the breeders have been through the yard (probably by the end of July) the team then muster and walk home all the weaners they branded. We will draft out next year’s sale cattle and any heifers we need to keep for the breeder mob.

We will then start a second mustering round where most of the 13,000 breeders will be yarded again to wean those calves that were too small in the first round. We will pregnancy test these cows and segregate them according to time of next calving. And a whole bunch of other fun stuff along the way.

So it’s no surprise that I don’t get to see the family a lot around this time of year. While I’m in the cattle yards or out in the rangeland Karen stays tirelessly at home raising the brats, maintaining the house, coordinating the station kitchen, and cleaning and helping out around the school room. In the big scheme of things, raising the kids is a far more important job than raising a few cows. On occasion I look do look after our kids for a day or a weekend off. With three boys and a two year old girl I usually find that it’s a pretty tough gig. I feel much more in control in a yard full of cows than a house full of kids; I’m no match for them. Keeping track of them all at the same time is a bit like mustering cats. And getting them all in the same place together at once, well let’s just say it’s almost like getting the stockcamp to do the same.

I was the youngest child of seven – five boys and two girls, and I reckon I now know why my dad always came across as an ornery and irritable old coot. It was probably (but only partly) my fault and I totally get where he was coming from . . .

2.10Extreme mustering . . .

Well there you go; I have a picture of our year. We’ve made a start and I have the plan; let’s hope the goal posts don’t move too far. I need to fill the yards, but not too much, work long days through the dry and get all the mustering, drafting, dipping, trucking, feeding, and general maintenance done. But I need to remember that at some stage I should go home for a bit to see how big the kids are, but try not to get to cranky at them . . . Oh yeah, and call my Dad and Mum. You never know I might even get time this year to give the wife a cuddle but with all the 5am starts and 6pm finishes, I’ll probably end up passed out on the couch by 9pm, as usual.