Legends of the Bore

Some people hear their own inner voices with great cleanness.

            And they live by what they hear.

            Such people become crazy, or they become legends ...

4000 acres (1620 hectares) 250 cows, 235 calves, 10 bulls and 8 or 9 “Legend” cattle.

As I was educating weaners at “Riverside Station” Charles kindly invited me to witness a typical helicopter muster. The terrain varied from hostile rock strewn mountains through dense eucalyptus forest to some more open pulled brigalow scrub. Visibility changed from around 30 metres to 300 metres and water was available in one natural stream, a bore and a couple of fenced water squares.

The cattle were first calf, predominantly brahman heifers, brahman bulls and some wayward “Legend” cattle. There is a station in the district, which shall remain nameless, whose cattle invariably find their way out onto the “long paddock”, living on roadside grass. As surface water is scarce these cattle find their way into the neighbouring stations and have developed a reputation for being difficult to muster. So much so that anyone who succeeds at this venerated task earns the Legend status.

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Charles and the Legend team

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Charles, Jim, Netta and Claire

The Robinson R22 has a fantastic reputation for finding cattle in tough country ‘though its ability to muster depends on the stock handling skills of the pilot and the ground crew. It is also a machine and requires maintenance. Charles got the call early in the morning that the 10:00am plan was now extended to 12:00 pm. A management decision was made to press on through the first paddock of a couple of thousand acres as the water had been, strategically, shut off about a week before. We picked up 6 cows with their calves at the gate to the water square and set them on a course for the second paddock. Charles, the KingQuad, and his dog team, lead by Wump and Choko ,looking like Brad Pitt coming back from a stint in New Guinea, ran along the Southern fence looking for cattle and tracks while Claire and I checked the Western and Northern fence-lines. If we wanted to view into anywhere but the boundaries of this paddock we would have to wait for the Robo, but, we were confident that shutting off the water had moved the herd in the desired direction.

As this Burton Station is a relatively new acquisition for the Williams family Charles thought it prudent to invite the manager, Jim and his wife Netta to advise us on the lay of the land.

“That eastern boundary of this second paddock runs around to an impassible bluff. Rumour has it that there is a sidecut but I haven’t located it yet.” Jim explained, “The centre road goes down through some more open country to the bore and natural creek water. That’s where those “Legend” cattle were last seen but you’ll need more than those fat dogs to get them. A chopper and a .308 Winchester might be what you need.” Jim told us. “They’re not fat, just loved” Netta calmed the conversation as Charles worked out that I would take on the Bluff in Claire’s Viking while they mustered the bore and Jim and Netta left us to it. The R22 had now run out of daylight and would be here by early the next morning.

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Gnarly terrain

The Eastern fence-line of this paddock of about 1200 acres is an interesting easy run on a well graded track bounded by thick tree and shrub ground cover. The bluff was indeed impassible to the Viking but the sidecut was where you would expect so after following some reasonably fresh cattle tracks I moved quickly to our pre-determined meeting place.

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Claire showing great leadership

Charles cast his dogs around eighty head of cows, their calves, some bulls and half a dozen “Legends”. The few cows that felt they needed to protect their sappy big calves were quickly reminded by Choko and his mates that the way to attain relief was to follow Claire on the Grizzly. A couple of the “Legends” used a half-hearted break by a bull getting away from his compatriots to mount their own challenge to authority. They picked up the concept of gaining relief in the mob when Wump and Amy pressured them to return and then checked their progress by guiding the cows through the trees and onto the road. When my team joined the group my dogs held the mob while I offered water to Charles’s dogs and then we moved uneventfully to the next water square and the beginning of the third and final paddock. The old bull which had been getting a hiding from his mates tried a couple more tangents but met his match when Clancy kept him out of the overflow by tracking along at his eye level in the mob.

Charles was checking his watch when I asked him for the size of this last and final paddock. “800 acres of more open country and it’s 2:30pm whatdoyareckon?” ”

l think it was the bear's voice he heard deep inside him.

            Growling low of dark, secret places.

Charles and Claire sent me up into the rough stuff again while they started the main mob along the flat. The Viking has the turning circle of the Queen Mary and is nearly as long but it was able to pick a way through the iron bark maze, cross a couple of steep gullies and find a power-line track to the front of the paddock. About 50 or 60 pairs were grazing about the water square so the dogs softly dominated them to a point where they found relief by walking through the long wire gate. Upon shutting that we followed the gulley back towards the others.

Claire and Charles had the main mob drifting along at a slow pace with a few heifers still challenging the authority of the dogs. Charles said he asked his dogs to back off to avoid confrontation so I suggested we allow the dogs to judge this for themselves as they are all bred to be fair and offer relief when it is necessary. After a few minutes of readjustment the mob stepped up to a good rate, the cows stopped challenging and a happy truce ensured. There are many times when we just have to acknowledge that our furry panels know more about stock handling than we do.

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Starting to feel like success

From the water square Claire got out on the highway to protect cattle and dogs from any rapidly moving mining traffic while my crew feathered the mob towards the gate so Charles could get the count. “12 cows short” beamed Charles. I think he was already considering the accolades he was now entitled too for getting most of those “Legend” cattle. We moved the herd about 500 metres along the roadway, over a bridge and then sent some dogs up to roll them through a gateway into a lane on the other side of the road. To watch natural stock dogs roll livestock through gateways is one of the joys of the job and for some of these dogs it is a real craft. While Claire and I rebuilt a damaged wire gate Charles was busy cancelling the chopper for the next morning.

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The Viking with dogs and water.

I volunteered to look for the missing 12 cows and 12 calves first thing in the morning while Charles, Claire, Jim and Netta started drafting and branding the main mob. Jim and Netta turned up with some very nice looking horses to help yard up and they gave me an inquiring nod as I drove passed in the Viking.

Four cows with their calves were just above the bore and one black heifer would rush out 20 metres to challenge the dogs so I planned a move towards the natural creek water in case the re-education process required some fresh dogs. One more cow and calf were at the creek and after fifteen minutes we had an agreement where the cows walked and the dogs guided. The water square yielded up a further five cows with calves so we started a steady drive across the open country. At the end of the big flat I could see two more cows with calves but the red cow with a hooked horn was already on the move heading for the high ground and thick timber. A hurried call to Chief and Suki cast them out of sight and after a couple of brief barks and a bit of dust rising the two groups of cattle and dogs became one. The red cow carried the “Legend” brand and she was your classic rogue cow. When ever she thought she had enough cover she’d break and I was excited to see young Zoe (12 months old) adopt the drift section of her eye and prevent her from breaking through the couple of kilometers of brigalow scrub country.

Two more pairs had drifted to the final water square and so the dogs calmly moved the 14 cows with their calves out onto the highway and into the lane-way leading to the yards.

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Legends of the Bowen Basin

Earlier that morning Claire explained how the three steers out on the road were typically some of the “Legend” stock in the long paddock and if possible muster them in but the chances of success were low. That sounded like a challenge. The standard of the fence on the northern side of the road could best be described as ordinary so the dogs stayed in the Viking as we just bumped the bubble of their flight zone so as not to burst it. They went passed the gate on the first attempt and then galloped through it on the second. I allowed them a bit of time to settle with the cows out of sight, over a rise, and then approached, carefully, until the steers started to run. The dogs pulled them up and explained the benefit of seeking relief in the mob which they continued to challenge, along with their compatriot, the red cow, until we came to the yards whereby they calmly walked in. All fourteen cows, their calves and the three “Legend” steers.  Proving that strong but compassionate dogs which quickly offer relief to uneducated or spoilt cattle gain their trust and achieve success.

Jim said as he recognised the red cow and the steers, “Looks like you did alright” Looks like it Jim, fat dogs, no chopper, no .308 Winchester just some clever dogs and a bit of knowledge.

Charles, Claire, Wump, Choko, Amy, Mary and Boss. Indisputable Legends of the Bowen Basin.

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Riverside Beef, Coal and Gas.

Driving into the Williams family’s Riverside Station we were imposed upon by a massive artificial horizon. The ugly overburden from our insatiable appetite for coal towered 140 metres into the dying rays of sunset such that the pristine brigalow cattle country to the east was blanketed by the black dust of darkness.

Riverside Homestead

Riverside Homestead

The Williams family is still smiling, even under the glacial encroachment of mining on their land and they have a lot to smile about. Their aggregation comprises about 158,000 ha and runs 10,000 hd of quiet productive brahman and brahman cross beef cattle on what is arguably some of the most efficient beef production in the world. Claire keeps the water flowing, Charles makes sure the nutrition is available while Holly, Allan and Jeanette keep the well oiled machine rolling. Allan tells us that he, his father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather have been developing their farming system since the mid-1800’s. The experience is evident from the infrastructure in cattle yards, fencing and dams as well as their oasis, the Riverside Homestead.

Behind Charles’s endearing smile there is method.  He informed us on Thursday evening that he had 240 head of fresh weaners to be educated by the clinic participants. “There could be a few ‘rail-shiners’ in the mob” he quips. Perfect, day one is all about stock-handling and so is weaner education.

After expelling some old habits the group used the minds of the livestock to achieve calm, steady flow around a yard and then from one yard to another. Sarah, cleverly, used our brain to trigger the release of a hormone called ghrelin to move us to the very well appointed smoko shed.

IMG_9537bWatching the video from the days successes, and otherwise, was useful and much appreciated by many who waited up late into the night. Thank you to the camera girl, Sarah.

Day two and we found Sarah on the barbeque expertly wielding the tongs over the bacon and eggs. Charles must have been there somewhere. We lost Edward Williams to the call of a bridal party but Claire and Holly started to believe there just might be some value to all this knowledge and became very enthusiastic.

Allowing our dogs to assist with the previous days exercise seemed an obvious move. But first we checked that they understood how to influence a mob to walk a figure of eight pattern. Some of the handlers led there dogs astray and some dogs needed reminding that the parts of the eye are crucial for efficient livestock movement, but, by days end, the three minds were working in unison. Human, Bovine and Canine together, a symphany, well a few cymbals falling off the stage is to be expected IMG_9541at the start of rehearsals.

Barbequed Riverside beef, salads inspired by Master Chef, more late night videos, some inappropriate jokes, a bit of a camp and more of Sarah’s bacon and eggs readied us for a day of pup starting, training cattle to handle the pressure of moving correctly through a race and the education of the last of the weaners with pressure and relief with and without dogs. One group, who shall remain anonymous, but may be in one of these photos, discovered that if they remained IMG_9544totally silent and concentrated on getting themselves into the correct position their dogs also made position. Michelle felt that she now had the tools with which to apply a lot of the concepts she had learnt from previous experience. Charles, with three of his dogs, let the weaners out into a large cooler just as the sun was setting through dust and the enlightenment that proceeds hard work and diligence.

I have some video of the weaners moving out into a kilometer long grazing laneway where they settled for a couple of hours while Charles was swearing at some machinery.

The credit for the calmness in these weaners goes partly to Alan for selecting for temperament in his cattle for many generations but also to the clinic participants who adopted a different pattern to their normal approach to working livestock. IMG_9559 Yes, we had a few excuses when the old mold was challenged but in the end the result speaks volumes.

Charles kindly drove me around part of the water run where he demonstrated his good nature by firing a warning shot at a visiting dingo. His cows are magnificent, infrastructure impressive and buffel grass abundant. However Clancy would have been disappointed because instead of:

“And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

We were rudely interrupted by concrete trucks, water spray rigs, powerlines and utes with flashing lights and I’m told the thumbnail has well and truly been dipped in coal and soon, a good dose of gas.

IMG_9562Perhaps we could devise a system to train our society to value the irreplaceable fertile clay and clay-loam soils of the bowen basin. After all, beef production is 100% renewable, coal mining is not. The local councilor, Peter Freeleagus, said when he was Mayor of the now defunct Belyando Shire  “. If we can’t build a house at the end of an existing residential street because it is earmarked for mining, does this mean that our families can look forward to a mine going up a few hundred metres from their homes? We work in the mines – we know what they’re like and we don’t want our families exposed to those sorts of environments, day-in, day-out.” Where is his concern for the Williams family, their house, their history and their livelihood?  Jeanette informed us that the recent, also defunct LNP Qld Government, changed the distance a mine can operate from rural water infrastructure from 700 metres down to 80 metres. Shame on them.

Perhaps Alan Williams summarised it best when he said “The effect hasn’t been felt yet but it’s the effect later on when people wake up and realise that all this country’s gone. And the ability to feed our population as well as anyone else, is diminishing.”

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the draglines and the dumptrucks making hurry down the street,
And the stratagem uninviting of the miner people blighting,
The landscape and the brigalow in the pursuit of compressed peet.

Starting Pups on cattle

We just enjoyed a fantastic clinic at Konjuli, hosted by Sean and Evonne Barrett. For three days the instructors and wingmen, including the ultimate wingman: James Green) challenged all participants to consider their principles of stock-handling and dog management.

This was a particularly diligent team of men, women and children who rose to the occasion amongst heat, ‘hammer & tongs’ hangovers and camera shyness to adopt new concepts and achieve amazing results.

Peter may have won the trial by 6:00pm Sunday evening but we were all winners for the experiences of the weekend.

By the end of day one we all had a better understanding of position and hydration. Harden up crew it was only 38 degrees C in the shade and if you won’t run around there why should your dogs?

Day 2 brought the genetic makeup of our dogs into the spotlight as we now knew about the importance of being in the right position. We started these two young Kelpies, Brutus and Zoe on the cattle trained for them by the clinic students. Have a look and please comment.

Do you need “rougher” dogs for rougher cattle?

A while ago my northern neighbour changed lessee’s. Usually that would be a simple enough operation: Old lessee (Bob) musters his cattle into the yards, trucks them out, new lessee (Johnno) trucks his cattle in.

The property is about 2500 acres of steep, heavily timbered country hiding about 70 head of cattle. The usual practice of cattle management  relied

on the age old use of “Black gold” Amamoor lodge Strategically placed troughs of Molasses entice the cattle into portable yards where calves are branded and the whole mob is released until next year. It turns out that a few of my cows were running on the block and communication of this fact from Bob was non existent. Allegedly, a few extra cows bolsters the calving percentage considerably.

After half a dozen years the “Black Gold” had lost its sheen so Bob employs one of the local guru contract musters (Lancelot) with his fast horses and about 10 hard, heel biting Collies. From the stories told in the truck, on the way to the muster, Bob was feeling extremely confident. In the yards by lunch, a couple of loads trucked out by Dinner, Bobs your uncle.

Bobs report of that fateful day wasn’t as pretty as he had imagined. Cattle ran rings around the 3 men and 10 dogs for 8 hours. “Those bloody Collies followed my old black dog around all day and he is f%@#ing useless on a good day.” This wasn’t a good day. By nightfall 9 head were yarded, none were trucked and differences of opinion were being expressed over payment for services rendered.

Time for plan C.

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Mustering Rig

Johnno rang me, said he was paying for agistment for cattle owned by Bob, another neighbour and about 10 of mine. ‘Do you reckon your dogs could muster the remaining 60 head into the portable yards?” He gave me a bit of their previous history, including a bit about Sir Lancelot and  the hard biting dogs debacle.

As most of these cattle had lived their lives as wild animals they hadn’t had much education. A lot of their experience with humans and dogs involved them seeking relief through escape. A large percentage of the property is overgrown with weeds ranging from Casuarina regrowth to Lantana, both offering these kind of cattle good cover. Casuarina’s offer food and habitat for the beautiful, if noisy Black cockatoo.

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Black cockatoo

With 5 experienced dogs, Chief, Suki, Storm, Force and Clancy and 1 19 month old bitch, Swift in the Ranger I picked up Johnno at the portable yards and set out for a look about.

The cattle were living in small mobs between 5 and 20. Some we could only find tracks leading into the undergrowth but each time we asked the dogs to “look” they would find, make it uncomfortable for the cattle where they were hiding and give them relief following the Ranger.

This education process averaged about 10 to 15 minutes for each mob and then we would set off for the yards, hold them at the gate until they decided the best relief offered was into those yards. Every beast we encountered we yarded except for a cow, with a week old calf, we elected to leave behind. Continue reading