Thinking outside the box

22 Dec, 2005 07:00 PM

THERE was a time when Brian and Mary Wake looked beyond the station gate to survive during times of low wool prices and drought, but today their Hamelin Pool property near Shark Bay is brimming with its own diversity.

Brian, one of five brothers from a family of pastoralists and farmers in South Australia, started his working career as a school teacher on Kangaroo Island.

It was a time when wool was worth nothing, the grain industry was burdened with wheat quotas and his father believed a university education would give them a better future away from farming - at least until they could afford to resurrect their farming dreams.

The close-knit brothers pooled their resources to get a leg in the rural door.

"Individually we had no money but combined we could afford Hamelin Pool, a run-down sheep station that also ran a few cattle," Brian said.

The lack of reliable rainfall in their early years meant the brothers looked off-farm to gain a consistent cash flow business, settling on a caravan park in Karratha.

It set them on the road towards a successful business partnership that included such diverse businesses as a 250-bed nursing home, a crayfishing boat and properties in South Australia running 40,000-50,000 sheep.

When the arrangement finally and amicably dissolved, Brian and Mary took on the station and although they continue the Merino tradition they are also tapping the opportunities offered by goats, aquaculture and tourism.

Hamelin Pool is a 200,000ha station bounded by the Shark Bay world heritage-listed marine park along its vast stretch of coastline.

Its 17,000 small stock unit carrying capacity is based on a Merino flock incorporating The Grange, Eastville Park and AMS bloodlines but there is a growing herd of managed rangeland goats.

Through the Gascoyne Murchison Strategy they implemented a plan to set up the entire station with trap yards and laneways so the station could be mustered from the ground.

The ease of mustering, the minimal requirements in meeting WorkSafe standards in the shearing shed and the ability to call upon a good and reliable shearing team has kept them in the wool industry.

This year the property emerged from five years of below-average rainfall when they reduced stocking rates from 18,000 head to 7000.

They recorded 250mm of rainfall to the end of June, well above their annual 200mm average.

The couple are hesitant about introducing African sheep breed alternatives saying they may have their heads in the sand but, on paper, wool and meat are more profitable.

"It is a big work effort but reasonable well-bred Merino lines give us a good wool type and our country is reasonably productive and with good wool cuts and reasonable yields it is more economic to be shearing sheep," Brian said.

"But if costs go up as much as they have in the past without the corresponding price increase then we will consider switching to something else."

Most of their stock goes to live exporters but unlike most pastoralists Brian has a policy of finishing sheep and goats on the property.

They truck in lupins, pellets and hay and although it is a cost Brian says the advantage is they retain control over the stock.

"You can either sell or if the price is not right you can open the gates and let them out," Brian said.

"You don't have to accept a price just because the animals are in the yards.

"They don't stay on feed for long, usually 7-20 days, and it gives them a chance to acclimatise to the feedlot environment, put on weight and present attractively to the buyer."

The feeding area is set up in specially-built paddocks that are well-shaded and vegetated with good water.

The method works particularly well for goats, which are harvested en masse by most pastoralists in a seasonal turnoff that deflates prices as the animals hit the market.

They have electrified 4000ha, enabling them to put selected mobs such as does with kids or a line of small billies so they can sell them when prices are better.

They have three other similar size paddocks ready for electrification but from their experience in confining goats behind the usual two electric wire configuration (as part of a six-line fence) they realise they must use ringlock to make sure they stay put.

"It is more secure and the only way you can get serious about upgrading and adding more Boer blood to the herd," Brian said.

"It has been very much a controlled harvest here for quite a few years.

"There are no old billies and the does are productive and have high kidding percentages."

They have used Boer bucks but Brian says to give them a chance it is important to work harder at improving management.

All their goats are handled and fed hay and the extra management has made the animals as docile as their sheep.

"They will walk through gates," Brian said.

"Before they would just run through the fence."

Brian is adamant the best way to progress rangeland goats into the future is through better husbandry skills and alliances with other growers prepared to run them similarly and achieve a consistent year-round turnoff rather than a seasonal harvest.

With traditional sheep and goats offering a good lifestyle, especially in recent years, they have been slow to change but Mary says station life is constantly under threat, if not from conservationists opposing the idea of running livestock in a fragile environment, then from rising costs and now a mining company that has bought out neighbouring Coburn station.



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