CARBLA station at Shark Bay isn’t short of an anecdote or two.
The most well-known is that of business visionary Rick Fenny who only took on the property relatively recently, but not before he found himself at the centre of the tale known as ‘Red Dog’.
The book turned-family movie, is based on true events and tells the story of a roaming red kelpie that wandered the Pilbara, meeting plenty of people willing to help him along the way.
One of these people was 20-something-year-old Rick, who in 1975, after five years of working as a government vet in the west Kimberley region, opened his first private veterinary practice in Roebourne.
Working out of an historic stone house, Rick conducted regular clinics in Karratha, Tom Price and Paraburdoo, as well as visiting other small towns, cattle stations and horse racing meetings before building a new veterinary hospital in Karratha.
It was during these years on the road that Rick would often cross paths with Red Dog and give him a lift from town to town, treat him in his practice and, in 1979, euthanise him following suspected strychnine poisoning.
Since then Rick has founded the Rick Fenny Group which operates a range of businesses in the tourism, veterinary, property and pastoral arenas.
He is still working as a vet doing what he likes best, visiting stations and small towns, pregnancy testing cattle and encouraging his team of young vets.
Rick is currently involved in a TV pilot based on his life story called ‘Desert Vet’ which is due for release in November.
As well as being a passionate proponent for animal health via his Pets and Vets-branded clinics right throughout the State, Rick is also a fervent advocate of the live export trade and fiercely passionate about the long-term future of and investment in WA’s north.
Putting his money where his mouth is, Rick purchased the Carbla station pastoral lease in November, 2006.
Buoyed by his love of farm life garnered on the family’s Albany cattle farms while growing up, one of Rick’s seven children, Sam, decided to go farming.
Born in the North West, Sam finished his high school career at Scotch College and planned to study agricultural science at university.
However more hands-on pursuits ensued and he found himself loving the work he was doing on a sheep farm at Kojonup and cattle farm at Mt Barker following high school.
“Farming has always been in my blood despite not actually living on one as a kid,” he said.
“Dad’s vet work took our family all over the State and his love of agriculture was infectious.
“He always worked on a lot of stations and Carbla was the perfect opportunity to throw myself in the deep end.”
Ten years ago Sam and his now-wife Ali were just 21 when they left Perth to run Carbla.
Two kids and plenty of learning curves later, Sam and Ali have certainly hit their straps on the 101,175 hectare station.
In 2008 the Fennys took on Woodleigh station (222,577ha) which joined Carbla’s eastern boundary and then another adjoining station, Yalardy (101,175ha), in 2015.
Today Sam and Ali oversee the day-to-day running of the entire 424,927ha patch with help from Sam’s sister Julia and her partner Josh Woods, who moved to Woodleigh in 2015.
When Sam arrived at Carbla, it was home to a 4000 head Merino flock which he continued to run for a handful of years.
But wool production became uneconomical due to poor prices; drought conditions in 2012, 2013 and 2014, as well as rundown existing infrastructure.
A switch to Damara-cross and Dorper-cross breeds for meat production was made by selling the bulk of the Merinos after three or four shearings and introducing Dorper rams to the station’s existing 4000 head Damara flock to encourage an entire breed-out of Merino genetics.
The same thing happened at Woodleigh when about 5000 Merinos were sold in one fell swoop.
“The Damaras were supposedly running separately from the Merinos in the north of Carbla but the unreliable fences meant the Damaras and the Merinos were jumbled up – it was a big mess – so it made sense to streamline the overall program,” Sam said.
“In 2009 we bought 1500 purebred Dorper ewes.
“Since then we’ve been buying in Dorper rams to put over the Damara-cross and Dorper ewes.
“Initially rams came from Kojonup and now they’re mainly bought from commercial North Hampton producers.
“We usually buy about 100 at a time.”
Between the three adjoining stations Sam conservatively guesses there are about 10,000 ewes roaming the rangelands but can always get a better idea come the October/November mustering season when trap yards are used to fill road train-sized orders before the summer heat sets in.
Plenty of hay is brought in to supplement stock in the yards and subsequent holding paddocks thanks to the fact it takes up to a week to trap enough sheep to fill a truck or delayed export boats cause a supply chain hold-up.
Depending on the market the sheep are being sold into, those not suitable are simply drafted off and returned to the paddock.
Last year Sam and his family sold 5000 ram lambs but have since found themselves castrating more sheep than ever before due to the fact more of their stock is entering the domestic market.
“Just like broadacre farmers, the quality of the seasons dictate how many ewes we hold onto,” Sam said.
“This year has been a pretty tough so we’ll need to wind right back and sell a lot of ewes.
“Most of the time ewes go to the butcher – last year most of our stock was sold into the local market.
“But we do still also rely very heavily on the live export trade.”
With a yearly rainfall average of about 200 millimetres, this season has been a mixed bag and the 100 kilometre spread between the Fenny family’s three properties has seen productivity range dramatically.
Carbla has been below average while Woodleigh’s production is up thanks to 200mm of summer rain and some follow-up.
Ewes generally start to drop their lambs when the first green pick emerges in May and Sam is kept busy keeping wild dogs at bay – tracking, trapping and shooting about five a year since the 2010/11 season.
Today Carbla continues to survive on sheep production, as well as the domestic goat trade which allows Sam and his family to capitalise on the feral goat population while allowing for the regeneration of the rangelands as an added bonus.
“It’s also a great management tool – in poorer seasons we can sell more goats and in better years hold onto a few more,” he said.
“The past three years have been relatively good and we haven’t needed to sell many of the 5000 breeding nanny goats – mainly just the billy goats of which we sold about 5000 last year.
“But just like the sheep, we’ll have to sell more this season.”
The sale of goats makes up about half the enterprise’s average annual income and is carried out using trap yards as well.
Goat meat is also bringing in more money on a per kilogram basis, with the Fennys receiving about $7/kg for a lot of their goats last year.
The money was so good at one stage that they were trucking them to South Australia to be processed.
Since then the WA market has bounced back so the majority of the station’s goats are now sent to Beaufort River.
“My outlook for the sheep and goat meat markets is very positive,” Sam said.
“There’s plenty of opportunity for us, especially in recent years given how much of our product is now being sold into the local market.
“It’s very encouraging and the process is slowly weaning our dependence off the live export trade, given how much of a mess it’s all in.
“We, like everybody in the north, were really badly affected by the live export ban and couldn’t sell our sheep.”
In 2015 the family decided to try to safeguard itself against lost markets by buying another 1400 hectares at Dandaragan.
The farm was purchased with the view to finish station sheep before market, lighten the load off the stations and to fatten young sheep that don’t quite make the grade.
“It has already been a pretty big success for us,” Sam said.
“It has all been a huge learning curve but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Just like his dad, Sam has plenty of belief in the business and the continuing prosperity of WA’s northern agricultural regions.