Challenging times on Goldfields station

29 May, 2011 03:00 AM
Paul Axford with some of the cattle herd run at Sturt Meadows.
Paul Axford with some of the cattle herd run at Sturt Meadows.

STURT Meadows station is one of the few stocked properties left in the Goldfields.

When the Axford family first bought the 400,000 hectare property north-east of Leonora in 2000, it was running 11,000 Merino sheep and 158 Shorthorn cattle.

Being a wool man, Peter Axford liked the high tensile strength of wool in the region which he said was matched only by North Queensland's Blackall area.

Peter, his wife Flora and their son Paul, used to run a station in the Gawler Ranges and farm at Melrose in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where they shore 12,000 Merinos.

They also grew about 350ha of barley and lucerne, mainly for stock feed, and ran about 100 commercial Herefords, not including calves and heifers.

Paul suffered badly from asthma, hay fever and allergies and this started getting worse at a time when there was a highly-publicised asthma death in the media because of shortcomings in the rural telephone service and the family thought it was time to start looking for an alternative place to live.

When a tuna farmer made an offer on their property that was too good to refuse, Peter and Flora decided the time was right.

After looking for a suitable farm in New South Wales, Queensland and other parts of South Australia, they chose Sturt Meadows for its abundance of shallow underground water, good quality stock water and large floodplains to take advantage of water run-off.

Paul has not had any problems with asthma or hay fever since being at Sturt Meadows, although he does avoid travelling through the WA Wheatbelt at the worst times of the year.

While there have been no problems health-wise, wild dogs are a problem.

After two years at Sturt Meadows, the Axfords noticed the wild dog problem increasing and they lost 95 per cent of their sheep over the next two years.

The dogs ran the sheep into bushes and mauled them, leaving them to get flyblown before dying.

With only 600 sheep left, they decided it was unviable and made the move into cattle.

In 2003, they put their last sheep onto agistment, shore them and sold them off.

They now run about 1700 cattle and a small herd of 50 goats.

The goat herd started after the Axfords kept the pregnant goats from about 1200 feral goats which were mustered and removed.

"The goats are smarter than the sheep because if there are dogs around, they know to come around the house," Flora said.

However the Axfords will not be increasing their goat numbers or going back into sheep unless something is done to fix the dog problem.

"We would like to keep it going but it's too hard unless we do something with the dogs," Paul said.

"It's a shame because, really, a part of Australian heritage is disappearing.

"If anyone thinks they'll be running small stock in the next 20 years in this area, they're kidding themselves."

The larger cattle are usually safe from dog attacks as long as the dog numbers are controlled with baits so they do not form large packs.

However Paul said they did attack calves, biting their ears or tails off and cows did get bitten on the udder.

"We're controlling them but they are still a huge problem," Paul said.

"You don't see dog tracks for months but when there's rain, there are more tracks, especially in autumn and spring."

Paul is one of three people in the area with a licence to inject 1080 poison into baits for use on his own property.

He said there used to be more licensed people but everyone left after a few years due to the difficulties of earning a living under the circumstances.

Paul said even if the State Government's promised repairs to the existing dog fence went ahead to protect agricultural areas, he was on the wrong side.

When the Axfords changed over to cattle, many people thought the area was unsuitable for cattle but Paul said you just had to be careful not to overstock.

Cattle were run on Goldfields stations in the 1920s but management practices have had to be adapted these days, as there was less labour.

A system of using water trap yards to help rotate stock had been delayed due to the dry seasons but 250mm of summer rainfall halted work on the land, allowing time for welding trap yards.

Paul said the yards would also help with other cattle management practices like mustering as helicopter mustering at $500 an hour was too expensive.

He should finish installing another 15 trap yards this winter.

The changeover to cattle has also delayed their fencing program which Paul said would take another 25 years to develop properly.

The existing fencing was erected in the 1950s and the priority was to complete boundary fencing.

"We've got about one-third up at present and about 40km to go," Paul said.

Because part of the Canning Stock Route ran through Sturt Meadows, there were about 32,800ha that needed rehabilitation.

That will have to wait until the seasons improve.

Paul has supplemented farm income during the drought with contract bulldozer work for mining companies.

Although he prefers farming, for the last three years he has worked about three months a year off-farm with one seven-month stint constructing a mine site.

"We need another good season to be out of drought," Paul said.

"We have not had to sell any stock so far but calving rates over the last four years had been 20 to 30pc or less."

He said this meant they were not replacing stock and herd numbers were going backwards.

"We've just been concentrating on keeping the cattle alive," Paul said.

Hay has been bought in every year and more windmills are working so cattle can be spread thinner.

A muster has not been done for several years mainly due to the condition of cattle during the severe drought but they are having a clean-out this year and will be selling stock.

"I am hoping to muster approximately 1600 to 1700 cattle," Paul said.

"We haven't sold any for three years but that's just how things are in this area.

"We'll be selling some steers and cull cows and bulls."

Paul said it was not just the cattle that had been a problem during the drought.

"The pastoral lease rate went up 200pc last year but we have since appealed that increase and are still waiting to hear a result," Paul said.

They could not apply for hardship funding as income earned off farm excluded them.

Paul believed there was a stock theft issue in the area also.

"We keep finding the heads, feet and guts and everything else is gone," Paul said.

"The Pastoral Lands Board should kick some of the absentee landlords and investors out or force them to run stock," he said.

"We've just become an island.

"If everyone had stock, it would reduce the problem."

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This is a disgrace but what can you expect from a Liberal Government that insists on making