Sometimes opportunities come along and you just have to grab them while you can. I was headed to Winton QLD (see Bucket List #30) when I saw a housesitting opportunity on one of the Grey Nomads websites I follow. The brief was to care for mini dashounds, pig, lawns and garden. Sounded simple enough. It turned into much, much more!
I arrived on the Monday morning after getting directions that included “Turn right off the highway when you get to the hills, then turn left at the sweeping bend and the Station will be on your left hand side down that road.” Country people have a unique way of giving directions. Like “just down the road” means 100 yards (yes they still talk in yards) or it could mean a few miles. Or many miles.
The difference between a farm in Australia and a station is simply size. This “farm” was 30,000 acres. So a Cattle Station not just a farm. I was to look after the homestead where the mum and dad live. They recently sold their 3 stations to their son and daughter in law and they still live on the main property. The son and daughter in law live on the adjoining 30,000 acre station. There is also a 20,000 station about 120km west towards Boulia, just to the north of Middleton. They breed mainly Droughtmaster cattle.
The daughter in law (Mrs J for ease of writing) runs the properties pretty much singlehanded as the son is away much of the time with their mustering business. She was truly an amazing young woman. Being a farmer I guess you have to be fairly versatile but there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Or attempt to do. I spent most of my days helping her with a diverse range of activities.
The day I arrived a cow had an awkward birth and for the duration of my stay I had to bottle feed the calf twice a day. Two days later, the day the mum and dad left, one of the dashie’s had a litter of 6 pups. The following week another bitch had a litter of 4. Sadly 2 of the puppies from the first litter died in the first couple of days.
My typical day started around 7am when I let the 2 dashie mums out for a run while I refilled their water bowls, topped up their biscuit bowls, checked on the puppies and gave each a bowl of milk with some calcium syrup. I would then put some sprinklers on. Some are on 15 minute timers, most not. Then I would head over to the big silver shed to get a bag of pellets for the weaner calves and pellets or a food mix for the donkey. I’d then head back to the house to mix the milk formula for the calf. After rearranging the sprinklers (several times) I would take the buggy and go and feed Darcy the donkey, then bottle feed the calf (Tammy) and then give the weaners their food.
Back to the house to wash out the milk bottle (which is actually a 2 litre fruit juice plastic bottle with a teat mounted on top), move more sprinklers around, give the 2 dashie mums some meat and then go over and feed Alfie the Pig either pellets or the contents of the scrap bucket. There are a couple of younger dogs that are kept separate because of their lack of social skills that I then let out and take for a walk to expend some energy. The dogs and mine! There are 2 other house dashies that trot along as well. I then usually pick the produce from the garden. Copious amounts of tomatoes, most of which I have frozen for the mum and dad. There is also carrots, spinach, broccoli, capsicum and zucchini. Then it is time for a cuppa and some breakfast.
Around 5pm I again bottle feed the calf and also feed some other older calves and the pig again. Then all the dogs get a feed with the 2 mums getting another bowl of milk with calcium. And the sprinklers get another run.
During the daylight hours in between I usually help with other duties. This can be anything from do a water run. This involves driving the buggy around the various water tanks and troughs to ensure they are all working correctly and checking on the cattle and calves along the way. Other days I have helped with spraying prickle trees. This involved mostly driving along dry creek beds and water ways while Mrs J did the spraying from a tank on the back of the buggy. Other days we have driven around dropping off lick blocks for the cattle. These blocks which look like concrete and weigh as much, give the cattle the additional proteins and nutrients they need to get by while the drought is on. We built a shed over a couple of days. Well Mrs J did while I helped. It was onto the side of an existing shed to give protection to a fuel tank from the weather. We took a run out in the truck to the other station near Middleton one day to check on the cattle, drop off lick, some fuel drums and pick up some steel needed to build the shed. We also checked on the water and found a leak between two of the tanks. The water is artesian and can be up to 70 degrees so fixing a broken pipe can be hard and hot on your hands.
We serviced 2 farm utes and the buggy one day. I was able to watch branding of cattle, pregnancy testing, castrating and dehorning. Some of it sounds harsh but it is all done with the least amount of trauma to the cattle in mind and much of it is mandatory for the cattle to reach the market. I learnt that you don’t stand behind a beast when the dehorning process begins!! I learnt to drive a tractor and a bobcat.
Because of the drought conditions many of the cattle have been sold. My experience gave me a good insight into the fine line that farmers tread between flood and drought. The property borders the Diamantina River. This 900km long river starts north of Winton and eventually, when it runs, empties into Lake Eyre in South Australia.
We went “into town” a couple of times while I was there. Being 7km from the main gate, another 14km along an access road before hitting the Kennedy Development Road it was another 60km into Winton. Freight is such a big cost out here. Some things are delivered by trucks or road trains like a semi load of poly pipe one day or the materials to build a 36×18 metre shed another day. A lot of things though are picked up in Winton. We took the truck in one day to drop things off and pick up various items from the different farm supply stores, do some grocery shopping and have a counter meal at the pub. It’s also a chance to catch up with different people to get “the news” of what’s going on in the district.
One day we went to Longreach to pick up a trailer and get one of the motor bikes serviced. Over 500km in the day it was a full days trip, leaving the station at 6.30am and not getting back until just on dark.
The one day I went into Winton on my own to sightsee, I took the farm utility and had a tyre blow out on the way in so the first job when i got to town was to go to the tyre place to get that fixed. One thing I learnt from my station stay was that each day is different and things don’t always go to plan. On the way to do one job there is always something that happens or you see that needs immediate attention. Whilst a “To do list” is an essential daily tool, it must be flexible enough to expect the unexpected. And something unexpected happened every single day.
All rubbish must be disposed of onsite so what can be recycled or repurposed is and what can be burnt is put into a 44 gallon drum and burnt. Obviously with the drought conditions, burning off must be done on days of no or little wind and it needed a constant eye and a hose at hand to ensure no accidents happened.
Most nights I went to bed exhausted. Whilst I didn’t get paid for the work I did, I had access to power, water, shower and toilet. I was able to use the food from the homestead’s extensive pantry and cool room, including unlimited meat. I was also supplied with my favorite beer. How good is that? It was a great experience to not only be on a cattle station but to be involved in the day to day operations. I have always had a respect for people on the land. People like Mrs J, who works from sun up to well past sundown (meals still have to be prepared and cooked, accounts paid, quotes done, things ordered, record books kept and phone calls made) have my utmost admiration and respect.
I also learnt that the station I was on has a remarkable history. It was once owned by RCC Scot-Skirving, the son of renowned Australian surgeon Robert Scot-Skirving. He was a decorated serviceman in WW1 and married the daughter of Australia’s first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton. The original homestead was burnt down in 1970 and RCC passed away in 1976 and in accordance with his wishes, is buried in the grounds of where his homestead once stood.
The other claim to fame is that the property is also where footprints of the best preserved Sauropod Dinosaur tracks ever discovered in Australia were found in 2017. Dinosaur bones have been found on the property as far back as the 1970’s and in 2014 five separate digs were undertaken but it wasn’t until 2017 that the Sauropod tracks were discovered in a creek bed. The tracks were painstakingly removed intact over the past 3 years and will form part of the next major display at the Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton. I was able to walk around the dig site which was pretty amazing. The new display is due to open in April 2021.
My 5 week experience on a cattle station west of Winton was one of the special highlights of my trip around Oz.
** I have not named the Cattle Station/s or owners out of respect for their privacy.