Can you imagine hand feeding 20,000 mouths in a drought?

Continuing our Lessons Learnt from the Drought series with Young Farming Champions Peta Bradley and Bessie Thomas

Firstly some background for this story.  In Australia, a large land holding used for livestock production is known as a ‘station’. Most stations are livestock specific – classed as either sheep stations or cattle stations depending upon the type of stock raised – which is, in turn, dependent upon the suitability of the country and the rainfall. The owner of a station is known as a grazier, or pastoralist and, in many cases, Australian stations are operated on a pastoral lease. Australian sheep and cattle stations can be thousands of square kilometres in area, with the nearest neighbour hundreds of kilometres away. Some stations have over 20,000 sheep in their care.

All stock workers need to be interested in animals and handle them with patience and confidence. They need the skills to make accurate observations about livestock like judging an animal’s age by examining its teeth, and experience in treating injuries and illnesses as well as routine care requirements such as feeding, watering, mustering, droving, branding, castrating, ear tagging, weighing, vaccination and dealing with predators.

Those caring for sheep must also deal with flystrike treatments, worm control and lamb marking. Pregnant livestock need special care in late pregnancy and stockmen may have to deal with difficult births.

Apart from livestock duties, a stock person will also to inspect, maintain and repair fences, gates and yards damaged by storms, fallen trees, livestock and wildlife. Source

In the first two instalments of our drought series we talked to Young Farming Champions predominantly involved in cropping operations. Today we speak to Bessie Thomas and Peta Bradley who represent sheep and wool, and discover the strategies they have employed to survive, the changes drought has enabled and the importance of mental health and family.  Bessie and Peta’s family farms are both in NSW but very different in terms of topography , sheep carrying capacity (10:1)  and acreage  (20:1)

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The last two years have reminded both urban and rural Australia that drought is an inevitable part of the Australian landscape and its impacts are wide reaching.  Both Bessie and Peta’s families know their first priority is their families and the animals in their care and its imperative to access drought response resources promptly and maintain wellbeing.

Team Thomas

Bessie and husband Shannan from Burragan Station, 100km east of Wilcannia* in western New South Wales, run a merino operation in partnership with Shannan’s parents.

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Team Bradley 

Peta comes from Armatree, 100km northwest of Dubbo where her parents, Jenny and Craig, run a Border Leciester Stud and commercial merinos (with cereal and pulse cropping).

For both properties 2017 and 2018 were years of below average rainfall. “In 2018 we had 83mm for the year which is less than 30% of the annual average, and the year before was also only about 60% of the annual average,” Bessie says. “It has turned the countryside to dust and dried up dams, and the heat waves have cancelled any moisture from showers we have had.”

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Feeding sheep at Burragan Station 

Similarly Armatree has been reduced to a 300mm annual rainfall (down from the average of 520mm). “This equates to our farm being relocated to Broken Hill,” Peta says. “2019 has commenced with January being the hottest on record and zero rainfall recorded on the chart.”

Strategies common to both operations are reducing sheep numbers and feeding stock they have identified as drought resilient. At Burragan they have de-stocked by 50% and sold all of their 500 cattle, while at Armatree stock have been reduced by over a third.

“We’ve been feeding for more than 18 months which affects finances, creates time pressures and puts pressure on vehicles and trailers. It becomes mentally and physically exhausting,” Bessie says. “Feeding out hay in heat, wind and dust is some kind of torture.”

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The Bradleys ( Jenny and Craig pictured here in 2014 ) are looking forward to seeing barley crops like this one when the rains return Source

“Our farm stores enough fodder to feed all stock including finishing lambs for a full twelve month period, well beyond a normal drought,” Peta says, “but we used all stored fodder in 2017 and have had to purchase fodder for 2018. To accommodate this cost we have maintained selected breeding stock only. We have also sold lambs as early as possible after weaning, undertaken measurements on stud stock lambs as early as permissible and selected the stock we want to keep  well ahead of normal time frames.

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Some lambs getting ready to be weighed through the automatic drafter/scales at the Bradley’s farm.

The measurements the Bradley’s take before they decide which animals they will keep include:

  • Body weights (weaning – 12 weeks of age, 5 months and 7 months)
  • Ultrasound fat and muscle measurements
  • Scrotal circumference on rams

In total an animal that is retained as a breeding ewe on the Bradley farm has in excess of 50 measurements recorded in her lifetime. These measurements are taken to be put into the genetic evaluation for sheep – allowing them to choose the animals that are genetically the best to breed from.

Weaning early, utilising confinement feeding and drought lots and always remaining flexible in our management decisions have been ways of dealing with this drought.

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The Bradley’s select their sheep for productivity. Every now and then you come across a special sheep. This ewe is having triplets again – for the fourth year in a row! She has reared 9 lambs in three years. 

Weaning early in drought is important as lambs are competing with their mothers for grain. This allows the ewes an opportunity to get back into condition faster and also removes the competition for grain and fodder from the breeding ewes on the lambs.

Even the wool clip has been negatively impacted. Heavy, dust-laden wool sells for fewer dollars per bale.

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But surprisingly the drought has had upsides. For years the Thomas’ had been discussing keeping Burragan purely as a merino property and transitioning Shannan’s parent’s property into dorpers, and that is a vision the drought has enabled/forced them to do. The drought has also highlighted the need for planning and flexibility in plans, and the critical need to put people first.

“Ensuring that we make time for ourselves and the family whether it is maintaining exercise routines, weekends away or taking family holidays are as important, if not more so, as practical farming,” Peta says, “as is the importance of networking to ensure we are operating at best practice.”

Bessie copes with the drought by downloading her thoughts and images through social media and this compilation of her 2018  year has led to the family being offered a week’s holiday at Port Stephens, courtesy of the huge generosity of Alloggio.com.au owners Will and Karen Creedon, the Port Stephens Council and Hon. Scot MacDonald MLC

And although the constant raised dust is destructive to the land – filling grids and yards, blocking gateways and covering fences – Bessie can still find joy.

Dust

“The dust storms are ominous and interesting, I quite enjoy the dramatic skies that come with them – as long as I am safely in the house!” Bessie says

*Think it’s hot at your place? A property near Wilcannia broke the record for Australia’s highest overnight temperature in mid-January, reaching a minimum of 35.9C.

Thanks Bessie and Peta we know that by you sharing your stories you will give hope to others facing similar challenges

#StrongerTogether #YouthVoices19 #ThisisAusAg #YouthinAg

See Andrea Davy’s wonderful story on Bessie in the Rural Weekly here 

Read Peta’s story in The Land here

Visit the NSW DPI Drought Hub here for more information

Meet Peta Bradley whose world of agriculture is taking her to the cutting edge of technology

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Today’s guest blog comes from Peta Bradley whose journey into the world of agriculture began at a very young age, perched in the front of a work ute with her “Wiggles” tape on repeat checking lambing ewes with her mum on a frosty winters morning.

Now she is now studying Animal Science at the University of New England, Armidale

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This is Peta’s story………………….

I was born into the world of farming, along with my younger brother Jack. My parents are second generation farmers owning and managing a mixed enterprise farming business near the small village of Armatree, approximately 45 km north of Gilgandra, in the Central West of NSW. clip_image004

Our farm business consists of two enterprises: sheep and cereal cropping on 3,500 acres. Both my mum and dad studied agriculture at what is now known as Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. Dad was an agronomist so naturally he is the manager of the cropping side of the farm, while mum is a passionate stockwomen. This is where my passion also lies. However both the enterprises and the farm planning is truly, a family run unit.

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Our Family with the 2012 drop flock rams (and Penny the dog)

Growing up I’d spend countless hours checking lambing ewes in winter with mum or learning to drive before my feet could touch the peddles drought feeding sheep or scooting around the woolshed during shearing. From a young age I’d always loved sheep work, or anything to do with stock in general. With this thirst for knowledge and a million questions just bubbling from my lips mum and dad would do their best to answer the thousands of questions that were asked on a daily basis.

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Merino Ewes in for Drenching – December 2013

The sheep enterprise consists of a registered, performance tested Border Leicester Stud that sells stud and flock rams with a breeding base of 350 ewes. All sheep have a full pedigree and are registered with Sheep Genetics Australia. Along with the Border Leicester Stud we also run 1500 commercial Merino ewes that are joined annually to Border Leicester Rams. The ewe portion of the 1st cross progeny are sold to repeat buyers while the wether portion are sold over the hook through the Tooraweenah Prime Lamb Marketing Co-operative.

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Flap, the champion dog, with young flock rams

For my primary education I attended Gulargambone Central, a small school 10km away. Along with my passion for sheep, I relished any opportunity given to play sport whether it is cricket, football or netball. It was swimming however where my greatest sporting passion lay and in 2005 I was given the opportunity to swim at state level and since then I have swum at state level every year since. The desire to improve and work hard at something was an ideal that sport installed in me that has since given me the same drive in all other aspects of my life.

However it wasn’t until high school did my life really turn into a direction where I could see that my future lay in agriculture. My high schooling began and was completed at Gilgandra High School. An hour each way on the bus made for a long day, but I loved being able to come home every day and being involved in farming business. In Year 9 I selected agriculture as an elective subject. This is where I saw my career path begin to lay itself down in front of me. I was involved in every opportunity that I was given from Junior Judging, Sheep Showing, Development Days and Steer Shows.

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Sheep showing with the School (I’m far left in the back row)

The school had a relationship with our Border Leicester stud where we would prepare the sheep at school and show them on behalf of my family’s stud, New Armatree Border Leicesters. This relationship allows the school to house sheep during the early half of the year at the Ag Plot. Working with sheep gives students the confidence to work with stock prior to preparing steers in the latter half of the year. I began the captaincy of the show team in 2010 and continued this role until I completed my HSC last year. It involved organising 3 meetings a week and working with the younger students to develop their animal husbandry practices.

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The 2013 Show Team Ewes

I began Junior Judging at the age of 11, mainly competing at a couple of local shows. When I was 15 however I was old enough to qualify for the state finals held at Sydney Royal Easter Show. My first year I successfully qualified for the meat sheep judging, this was my first major judging competition and I initially found it quiet a daunting task, competing against people 10 years my senior. However I finished in 5th place- but more importantly gained a wealth of experience. In this same year I competed in the sheep handler’s competition, sponsored by a fellow Border Leicester Stud. I finished 1st in this competition.

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1st in the Junior Handlers – Sydney Royal 2011

Following my success in the handler’s competition, I began work for another Border Leicester based in Temora. In this role I was given the opportunity to travel to some of the biggest sheep shows in the country to prepare and show sheep on behalf of the stud including the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney Royal Shows.

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I’m pictured here with the Supreme Prime Lamb Sire at the 2012 Sydney Royal Easter Show with Wattle Farm Border Leicesters Stud Principle Jeff Sutton

With this continued exposure to sheep and the industry I once again competed in the NSW State Junior Judging Finals at Sydney Royal in 2012 in fleece, meat sheep, merino and cattle judging. I walked away as the NSW Reserve Champion Junior Judge in the Merino and Meat Sheep Judging as well as finishing 3rd place in the Fleece Judging. This success continued with me to Bendigo where I was announced as the 16 years and under Australasian Corriedale Judging Champion. I continued to compete in Junior Judging Competitions in the following years with my most recent success being at the 2013 Rabobank National Merino Show where I achieved the following results: 1st in the Merino Sheep, 1st Merino Fleece, Best Oral Presentation and Overall Champion Junior Judge.

In 2013 I was appointed as the youngest member onto the Australian Stud Sheep Breeder’s Association (ASSBA) NSW State Longwool and Short Wool Judging Panels. Since then I have had the opportunity to judge the meat sheep at a number of local shows. This year I also was the Over-judge in the Junior Judging Competition at Armidale Show that drew more than 80 entries. I also had the privilege of helping steward in the Merino section of the show.

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The Merino Section at Armidale Show

Last year I completed my HSC at Gilgandra High School. My passion for agricultural was apparent in my results finishing within the top 99.96% of NSW students in agriculture. I have now entered my first year studying a Bachelor of Animal Science (Livestock Production Major) at the University of New England, Armidale.

When I complete my degree I hope to continue onto further research within the Sheep Industry. My ultimate aim is to research, develop and implement new technology as well as maintain traditional breeding values and techniques to boost the production of Australia’s sheep and wool industries.

The area of arable land worldwide is decreasing, however the population is continuing to expand – the food and fibre needs of this growing population have to be met, Australian agriculture and the next generation of producers and researchers hold the key to boosting production.

To increase my knowledge of sheep and wool production in Australia I have also worked for 2 merino studs preparing and maintaining Housed Show Sheep for one and recording fleece weights at shearing for another. Along with my understanding of ASBVs (Australian Sheep Breeding Values) from our own Border Leicester Stud this has allowed me to generate a plethora of background knowledge that I wish to apply into my future career. Our stud is involved in some cutting edge technology in the sheep industry that include DNA blood carding young sires at 6 weeks of age to correlate DNA markers to their ASBVs, sires being used in semen projects at research bases around the country, as well as a number of PhD and masters projects being carried out on our ewe base.

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Arena Testing Border Leicester Ewes – To observe the correlation between behaviour in the arena and there mothering ability

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The lamb on the right is a ram used in the blood carding project and since has been used as a sire at 7 months of age to shorten the generational gap. He is one of the progeny from an Artificial Insemination program carried out last year.

Farming, as we know it is changing, shifting, evolving. Producers and all other partners of the agribusiness sector are required to be flexible and adapt to the ever changing global climate. The passion that the land imprints upon you will leave you longing for the rolling hills or the flat, open, golden plains. We must harness this passion and combine it with the new technologies to prepare ourselves for the promising, productive future of Australian agriculture. I am proud to be part of these young producers and researchers that must look into the future, educate others and implement cutting edge scientific methods in combination with the traditional values upon which the Australian agricultural industry is built to ensure the continued success of Australian agriculture..