Rolling with the punches at Rawlinna station

Rolling with the punches at Rawlinna station

Sheep
Rawlinna station manager Jimmy Wood grew up on the Nullarbor before returning in 2018, and enjoys the challenge of overseeing one of the largest sheep stations in the world.

Rawlinna station manager Jimmy Wood grew up on the Nullarbor before returning in 2018, and enjoys the challenge of overseeing one of the largest sheep stations in the world.

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For Rawlinna station manager Jimmy Wood, overseeing Australia's largest operating sheep station - which spans across 1,011,714 hectares - is everyday life.

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Imagine managing a sheep station, which covers an area roughly the size of Sydney, on pure jackaroo country.

To most on the outside looking in, it would sound like a pretty gruelling gig.

But for Rawlinna station manager Jimmy Wood, overseeing Australia's largest operating sheep station - which spans across 1,011,714 hectares - is everyday life.

Jumbuck Pastoral Company developed the station from infancy during the 1960s, when the previous director HG MacLachlan first placed a survey peg in the ground.

Mr Wood grew up on the Nullarbor at Madura Plains station (known as Moonera until 1987) and three years ago, after some time away, returned to his family roots.

That is when he followed in the footsteps of father Ross and threw his hat in the ring to become manager at Rawlinna.

His father was managing the station from 1998-2007 and for six months in early 2018.

As could be expected, such a role has served its fair share of challenges.

So how has Mr Wood overcome them?

He said he and his team have "done what they can" by simply rolling with some of the punches, instead of fighting the ones they couldn't.

And from drought and wild dog problems, there's no denying Mr Wood has been thrown some hefty punches during his time farming on the Nullarbor and Goldfields-Esperance regions.

But Rawlinna has not been defeated and Mr Wood said they were "well and truly winning the battle now".

"I came to Rawlinna because I thought I may enjoy the challenge," he said.

"It is the most challenging job I have ever had, but also the most rewarding by about 100-fold on both accounts.

"I like the Nullarbor and I don't regret coming (to Rawlinna)."

To cope with the drought, Rawlinna lightened stock numbers, spread sheep out and used all the country they could.

Mr Wood said they tried to run numbers as low as possible in every paddock and minimised handling by combining lamb marking and ewe crutching processes together.

He said while it was a bit of a compromise on most fronts, it let them "stir the sheep up for one less time during the year."

"Instead of three musters, there were only two.

"Just by leaving them alone in the paddocks I think we did them a lot of favours."

A total of 30,117 sheep were shorn this season in comparison to 26,500 in February 2020 and 860 bales of wool were produced.

A total of 30,117 sheep were shorn this season in comparison to 26,500 in February 2020 and 860 bales of wool were produced.

Rawlinna finished this year's shearing season in March in less than three weeks and produced strong figures, which were up on last year.

A total of 30,117 sheep were shorn - in comparison to 26,500 in February 2020 - and 860 bales of wool were produced.

Mr Wood described the microns in this year's wool as slightly broader than last year, due to the good feed on the ground.

He said Rawlinna was up around a 20 micron average now, compared to just under that as an average last year.

"I think the yield was up around 65 per cent, getting up to 70pc in some of the mobs.

"In terms of bale numbers we ended up with 860 bales this year, off 30,000 sheep.

"As a direct comparison of a very good wool cut, we had 26,500 sheep last year and only got 520 bales.

"We didn't nearly double it, we got an extra 60 per cent or something like that from basically the same number of sheep.

"What we did end up with this year that we didn't have any of last year was a lot of very highly valued weaner wool and lambs wool.

"In the 2020 shearing season we ended up with two bales of weaner wool, I think I had two bales of weaner wool on the first day this year.

"By average standards at Rawlinna it was a little bit dismal, but in terms of bouncing back we are well on our way of getting there I think."

Rawlinna produced more than 2000 bales back in the early 2000s, following a run of good years.

Mr Wood described the dry, teamed with the direct predation of wild dogs on the flock, as a "big killer" of stock in 2020.

He said wild dogs took lambing percentages in 2019 down to about three per cent.

"In a good season we could get 100 per cent lambing, no worries at all.

"Obviously it was quite dry in 2019, so half the impact there was drought and the other half would've been dogs.

"That's where you see the impact, it is in the lack of lambs."

Rawlinna station is Australia's largest operating sheep station and covers an area roughly the size of Sydney.

Rawlinna station is Australia's largest operating sheep station and covers an area roughly the size of Sydney.

Mr Wood labelled it a "textbook series of events" with lambing percentages dropping off rapidly when a wild dog makes its way into the property.

He said with the flock ageing, there was nothing to replace the older sheep with.

Rawlinna sold a few sheep in 2019 for commercial purposes and culled others for age.

"We had some pretty incredible losses both due to the drought and the dog predation, it just never rained in 2019 for us," he said

"It was certainly the driest I ever remember on the Nullarbor and I grew up out here as a kid."

Rawlinna recorded a dismal 43mm of rain for the whole of 2019, in a series of smaller, sporadic rainfall events.

That is well below its annual average of 250mm at the top of the station and 350mm down the bottom end.

Last year, conditions started to turn with more rain recorded in the first couple of weeks than that of 2019.

However, the station still faced a reasonably dry winter and coming off such a low base they struggled to push back to pre-drought figures.

"We got up to 35 per cent lambing last year, of which, 95 per cent of them made it through to shearing," Mr Wood said.

"Our flock is definitely building again and the wool cut this year was magnificent.

"I think the sheep were in better condition than I've ever seen them.

"We had a reasonably good finish to last year and a lot of the adult sheep or ewes didn't actually have lambs.

"We only had 35 per cent lambing, so 65 per cent of them didn't have a lamb over summer and were in extremely good condition coming through the shed.

"It was certainly massive."

Mr Wood described the microns in this year's wool clip as slightly broader than last year, due to the good feed on the ground. He said Rawlinna was up around a 20 micron average now, compared to just under that as an average last year.

Mr Wood described the microns in this year's wool clip as slightly broader than last year, due to the good feed on the ground. He said Rawlinna was up around a 20 micron average now, compared to just under that as an average last year.

As for this year, Mr Wood said it had started with promise, following some decent rainfall events in January.

And while they haven't seen much more since, those events set the team up for "very easy shearing" with a substantial amount of feed in the holding paddocks.

"The likelihood of getting rain is about the same in any month farming on the Nullarbor," Mr Wood said.

"We don't have a specific wet season and dry season.

"But what we do find is that if you get the rainfall at the right kind of year being the start and middle of winter, you can grow a lot of spear grass with it.

"While a summer rainfall event gets you out of trouble, it doesn't have as much benefit as a rainfall event in April-June."

Mr Wood said the station relied on winter rain to grow native spear grass for sheep feed.

However, this was something they had been lacking on the Nullarbor for a few years now.

"That said, 2017 was a pretty decent year out here and the start of 2018 was magnificent," he said.

"2018 was a very good start to the year, that's when my father Ross returned to Rawlinna for a six-month period and they recorded something like 300mm in January or February.

"If we recorded 300mm right now, I think I'd give everyone the day off tomorrow."

In terms of farming on the Nullarbor, Mr Wood said the semi-arid plain produced good vegetation for feed and big supplies of brackish water, which was "OK" for the sheep.

Rawlinna used deep bores as a source of water, which range from about 30m up the top end to over 130-150m down south of the station.

About two-thirds of those sites are powered by windmills and a few solar sources were being installed.

Mr Wood said while brackish water was OK for sheep, it was not well-suited to cattle and either are the rocks.

"The sheep aren't too concerned about the rocks and the Merino being such a good forager, does very well on the native herbages and whatever else grows here.

"It is pretty rare that the adult sheep will ever starve.

"I have a pet sheep that walks around the homestead here and that thing nibbles on everything that grows, be it green or brown or whatever and the adult Merinos are no different out in the paddock.

"The lambs suffer a lot in the dry times, but the adult sheep mosey along no worries.

"In fact, they will probably do better than the kangaroos most of the time.

"In the really dry times and the hot weather, the Merinos do fine and the kangaroos get knocked around really badly."

In 2019, Mr Wood estimated anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 kangaroos at the station.

He said numbers would be down to 10 per cent of that now, after the drought "knocked them for six."

"There's not a heap of 'roos on Rawlinna anymore.

"We had a few camels that got through the netting, but we sort of dealt with all of those.

"Camels are a bit of a feral pest out here, so if you can do anything to maintain your fences and water infrastructure you do.

"They certainly give your netting a bit of a hard time."

As for the battle against the wild dogs, Rawlinna has the upper-hand, after investing a substantial amount of money and time into its netting fence.

The station had previously been surrounded by a dog proof fence, however Mr Wood said it was in a state of disrepair when he arrived with about 60 holes in the netting.

"Without a doubt we might as well had just left the gates open and I am not even kidding when I say that," he said.

"You cannot operate like that."

Mr Wood said Rawlinna station had worked hard to get the 380 kilometre dog proof fence back up and running again and had even resorted to walking beside it to inspect the netting.

Mr Wood said Rawlinna station had worked hard to get the 380 kilometre dog proof fence back up and running again and had even resorted to walking beside it to inspect the netting.

Mr Wood said 110 dogs had been accounted for inside the netting, which did not include anything that died from a bait.

It is a number he described as "absolutely catastrophic" to the flock.

He added, they had been working hard to get the 380 kilometre fence back up and running again and even resorted to walking the netting.

"It was built in the 1960s and was obviously getting close to the end of its life, but we rejuvenated a significant part of it.

"We probably spent $1.5 million on it so far in the past couple of years.

"There is no option to run small stock if you don't have a dog free environment, it just doesn't work.

"No one else in WA has managed to do it, so we don't think we can do it either, which is why we invested in the fence.

"We walked every metre of the netting and probably 50 per cent of it we have walked twice now, with people looking for holes behind bushes and weak spots that we wouldn't otherwise pick up from a vehicle.

"It is paying dividends now, dog sightings are down to almost none."

Mr Wood said as a result of dog proofing Rawlinna, lambs were hitting the ground and staying alive.

He said strong, healthy lambing numbers were seen at lamb marking last year.

"In 2019 we were flat out getting six or seven lambs out of a paddock," he said.

"It speaks volumes that the last three sheep stations left on the Nullarbor all have a netting fence, you look at Madura Plains, Arubiddy and Rawlinna.

"We are the only ones left running sheep with any significant numbers and we are the only ones with the netting, which is why we can do it."

Mr Wood said ideally the netting should do all the work in keeping vermin out and they wouldn't need to use 1080 (poison) anymore.

He said they could then use traps to catch the odd one or two that did find their way into the property.

They also rely on a contract dogger every couple of months to sort out anything that's made its way inside the netting.

The netting is the main thing that controls dog numbers and allows Rawlinna to operate inside a dog free environment.

"By having that netting fence there, we have very good control over who lives inside and who doesn't," Mr Wood said.

"At the moment we are actively baiting and I'd like to get to a spot where we don't have to bait anymore."

Another challenge the station faced last year was the impact COVID-19 had in sourcing workers from the Eastern States amid border restrictions.

But Mr Wood said they battled through it and used a few "unusual tactics" to find workers.

"We were forced to source people locally, which probably wasn't so bad for the Western Australian economy.

"You put an advert on Facebook or something and half the people applying for it are from the Eastern States, that's where the population density is and most of your respondents come from."

Last year due to difficulties in finding staff, Rawlinna was down to about five jackaroos or jillaroos during lamb marking.

That is compared to between eight and 10 during lamb marking in any normal year.

Low numbers made the season a "pretty tough gig" for those who were on the ground.

Rawlinna's shearing contractor fortunately was able to eventually source all workers locally within WA.

"Shearing went for about three weeks and we were aiming for 2200 sheep a day," Mr Wood said.

"It rolled out pretty well and we sort of got around 2000 a day most days.

"That was running with 12 shearers, every now and then you'd cut back to eight or 10 or something like that."

So are you - or anyone that you know - up for a challenge, the experience of a lifetime and keen to head to Rawlinna?

"We are always looking for bright young people to come out and give it a go," Mr Wood said.

"The pastoral industry is certainly in need of enthusiastic young people with a head on their shoulders.

"Gone are the days that we want a couple of dog bodies, we want smart people, who can figure out these solar bores and do a fairly complex job.

"Sitting back, thinking about it, we ask these people to do an extremely complex job, everyday of the week.

"It is no surprise they come home, scratching their head and wondering what they are doing out here some days."

Mr Wood added that agriculture was a key primary industry where work and endeavours could be seen first-hand, in a clear light and measurable way.

"It is very rewarding," he said.

"At Rawlinna we breed, nurture and take care of Merino sheep to produce wool.

"That is what we do and we see the results of our work every day.

"In contrast to say corporate finance or speculation on the share market trading derivatives and options where success may be a matter of opinion, our successes and failures are shown clearly every time we do something in the fact that our animals are safe, healthy and happy."

Mr Wood said Rawlinna was in a phase of rebuilding, following a period age-induced decline, a few poor seasons and relentless pressure from wild dogs on the flock.

He encouraged anyone interested to give the outback farming lifestyle a crack.

"If you want to be part of something bigger, more consuming and more challenging than you can imagine, come and work here," he said.

"You too will feel the reward of rebuilding one of the largest sheep stations in the world.

"On top of that you will start some great friendships and certainly have a few stories to tell your mates and kids one day."

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