Mustering and Mexican Standoffs

Host: Hodgson River Station
Written by Jo Bloomfield – Manager, Hodgson River Station.

Our property is relatively small in size to the average property up north, with most of our activities governed by the weather being mainly the wet and the dry season. What makes mustering difficult is the ruggedness, scrub, and volume of natural surface water still available through springs and soaks even through much of the dry season.

Our usual way to muster is to use a combination of yard traps at a water point and a hired helicopter with us on motorbikes to take up the tail. Cattle are creatures of habit and while cunning in that they know exactly what the bubble bee in the sky is, they will tend to follow well-worn routes into water and other areas if this is their normal path of movement to and from that water point.

Traps are like swinging gates in a small holding paddock at a water, there is usually an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ trap. The animals walk through the ‘in’ to get a drink and when they like they can walk back ‘out’. When we muster we close the ‘out’ trap so that when the animal walks in they are actually captured. This method of capture relies heavily on the animal not having available other water sources so it must use the bore site to get a drink. This method relies heavily on the animals having respect for a fence, should the animal decide that they wish to vacate, it doesn’t require any great effort for them to go through a fence and escape. This is very common with clean skin bulls (bulls that have not been handled yet and may be somewhat wild) and old steers.

2aThis is a typical trap system; there are two in this set up to allow access to two different paddocks. The ‘out’ trap is the one on the far left; the ‘in’ trap is next to it and then a normal double access gate for cars and vehicles. The water tank and trough are in the far left top corner to which the animals are going to get a drink. This holding paddock would be about 1km2.

Mustering generally means sending the chopper up early in the morning. We use an extremely experienced chopper pilot who has worked this area for many years and knows the country well. What makes a good pilot? . . . besides the obvious of cattle handling skills and flying ability.

A stand out requirement of a good pilot is a very controlled temperament, to be able to stay calm and focused when everything on the ground is going to absolute hell. Being the eye in the sky they can see and anticipate things happening long before the person on the ground is even aware, this includes seeing people get hurt because of hitting things on bikes and people just generally getting in the pilots way. It is for this reason that the chopper is the main mustering tool and the majority of the times actually work on their own.

They sweep the paddocks, working in sections moving back and forth to steadily move animals in the direction they require to a muster point. Skilled chopper work is an art, a highly dangerous one at that but it is absolutely vital to the economical gathering of cattle over large areas.

Normally the chopper will go up for several hours before we even start to assist on bikes. The pilot will start in the furthest sections of the paddock to start to move the animals they see towards the waters. The four-wheelers that we use are intended to only come up the rear of any mob, keep up stragglers, make sure lazy bulls or small calves don’t lie down, and generally keep a mob moving as the chopper may fly off to gather up more cattle in their constant movement of sweeping the paddock.

2bThis is the helicopter pilot doing what he does best. He is getting cattle out of the scrub that we can’t even see and yet only a few hundred metres from where we are.

We do have some rogue cattle, generally old clean skin bulls, and if they are particularly difficult or dangerous to deal with and refuse to co-operate or stay with the mob, they are shot. Being on the receiving end of a cantankerous animal on a bike, in heavy rock area is not a pleasant feeling and as our kids are our main workers we simply don’t bother with these mongrel animals. Even at $600 a beast if we could sell them they are of little value if they hurt people, machinery or other animals.

A muster of an area of getting the cattle together usually happens over a full day. Cattle tend to work well for three to four hours, require a break and are then co-operative to be worked again. So we muster for several hours and if the paddock is large or the water point a long way away we will put together a ‘tailing mob’ (literally a group of cattle).

By mid-day we aim for a cleared or open space and hold the cattle within an area that they can have a rest, sit down, allow calves to rest and drink, and generally have a break from walking, many will snooze. People need this break too, bouncing around over rocks and gullies can be tiring and a drink of tea and lunch is usually had by a small camp fire. The chopper will land, refuel, and beast and machines take a few hours break. Should any animals attempt to walk away someone on watch will gently ride around at a distance and put the animal back in the mob. Tailing is one of the oldest methods of holding cattle since cattle work began it is also the best way to teach a herd that quietness and calmness are the order of the day and that galloping or not staying with the mob is hard work and not accepted.

We tend to muster towards areas that have fence lines or lane ways being even better. The fence lines have roads along them while the lane ways have two fences very close together to act as a long paddock. Animals will follow these structures as the fences and roads act as guides for the cattle to follow.

2cThis is a view from my bike walking behind a small mob of young steers, we are in a laneway, the cattle have a fence on their left. The person in the lead is making sure the cattle only walk and therefore not letting the leaders rush off. We’ll follow a series of lane ways to the main working stock yard about 5km away.

We’ll move the animals off camp at lunch and if required the chopper will continue to scour for more cattle as we proceed to a water point or stock yard.

After the initial excitement of capturing animals and keeping them in hand, by midday most animals are placid and co-operative.

‘Yarding up’ is the term used to actually get the cattle in behind closed gates, normally strong steel yards not just a barb wired paddock. Depending on a multitude of what can go wrong will, yard set up, Murphy’s law, plain luck, and how aware everyone is at ‘yard up’ it can be completely uneventful with every single animal entering the yard and the gates closed without any person so much as raising a sweat. Or other times, well let’s just say it can be a horror comedy of errors.

Bulls, herd bulls at that, are normally the worst to yard up and instigators of most problems. They suddenly become territorial in gates and will block a gate by simply standing side on in it and picking fights with any other bull trying to move past. This stops the flow of animals coming in and confuses the tail enders as they have bikes pushing forward but no-where to go. The animals in the yard become flustered with all the activity and may start to come out of the yard, confusing the herd even more as the nice ‘flow’ that may have been occurring a moment before is suddenly altered and the forward momentum lost.

Sometimes it is simply a Mexican standoff, couple of hundred animals facing the wrong way looking back at several bikes. Lucky cattle aren’t good at maths and most don’t realise they outnumber us 200 to one but when they do realise, and it only takes one to test their nerve, then all hell breaks loose as they try to go in either a massive surge as one or split in several directions. If the mob rush back at you  there really is not much you can do but stay on your bike, get around the lead, block them up  and go start ‘yarding up’ again.

If we have some cattle in the yard a person must rush forward to close and capture what we do have while others on bikes go back and hold the ‘breakers’. The person in the yard will move the captured animals into other yards to lock them in leaving a vacant yard for the ‘breakers’ to come back into. Normally this works well and given room there’s not normally another escape. Should the yard space not be available, a person has to hide at the gate and keep the ones in the yard getting  out with the gate open while others are bought in. It looks quiet ridiculous actually, I’ve never been called small or dainty but I can hide behind a rail way iron post 6” wide and attempt to be very still so as not to spook incoming cattle in the hope that after the last one enters I can close the gates. Of course if the last ones coming in are cranky and looking for a fight you’re always ready to shoot up the top rail to get out of their way and close the gate at the same time. I’ve got absolutely no agility or pace about moving but even I can find wings when something’s blowing snot all over me.

On occasion you’ll get a few feral’s (misbehaving cattle) when yarding up, they have become flustered, hot, or simply cracked the shits. They refuse to follow the other cattle and won’t look for the gate. They see their only escape as past you and to the scrub to which they generally aim, or they become fixated on attacking the bikes. There are times when we literally shoulder these animals around. Using the bikes we will physically have two to three bikes surround the animal and push the animal into a yard. One person will be up the side steering at the shoulder while the others push at the rear, nudging if required to keep moving the animal forward. Should the animal move away from the steering person, then the person at the rear then takes the other shoulder and steers the animal back. Generally by reasonable persuasion we can walk an animal back to the yard and capture them. It sounds very rough and no doubt if a larger animal can be rough but if a weaner or cow most times the animal is walked back in and once they see their herd are happy enough to join them. Most times we win sometimes the animals do, and escape.

Yard up is only finished once those gates are locked and the chains are tied down. It is surprising how many animals have figured out how to lick gate latches and let a whole mob out to have us return to a yard the next morning to find it empty of cattle and a full days muster and chopper expense wasted.