Funeral Pyres of the Dry


I write this article for those I know are doing it much harder than me at the moment and face the following situations on a much larger scale, my heart goes out to you and I hope you receive rains soon.

As the dry season progresses to its hopefully final stages before rain is received, there is a period which is difficult for the animals to combat. It is most lethal at the time from about October to December prior to normally seasonal rains in the semi tropics which are usually received late in the year.

The final stages of the dry season means natural pastures have hayed off to the point of having little nutritional value and most palatable feed has already been consumed. The animals have declined on a nutritional plane which means they are either losing body condition or have lost so much body condition it is critical to their health, some are dying.

As a producer it is our responsibility to balance the amount of animals we graze on an area so that the fodder load is able to sustain them through the whole dry season. We always ensure clean, fresh drinking water. So we have a balancing act of what we can sustainably carry environmentally pasture wise from season to season. This is how many animals are in the paddock at any given time. The long term stocking rate of what the paddock can hold, is what the paddock can provide in fodder as long term grazing over many years. This allows its grasses to regenerate and not have the land degrade to a point it can’t recover and allow the palatable grasses regrow.

While we are able to sustain the majority of the herd and keep loss of animals to a minimum it is inevitable that some animals die. This can be due to a number of reasons, old age, sickness, injury, and attack by other animals and sometimes from starvation.

As try as we might not all climatic circumstances can be foreseen and while most producers are generally well prepared and plan for normal seasonal fluctuations, severe droughts and floods are not able to be prepared for by anyone. Deliberately lit fires for us are a huge issue of grog runners going through our property, often lighting long distances of many kilometres along our access roads.

We are in the ‘hard’ period of the dry season, it’s relatively normal this time of year. It’s the build-up, personally I love it as there’s the promise of storms to come, the rain thunder heads are beginning to build and the humidity increases.  The animals though face a battle, their fodder is diminishing, and it’s constantly hot, often over 36°C. It’s tiring, the humidity drains you as it fluctuates between 60% – 80%, and it can be unrelenting. You can’t seem to drink enough and when you sweat in the build-up, it literally pours off you. You are constantly thirsty and you will drink 5-6 litres of water a day, easy, and that’s without any physical work.

The cattle become lethargic, they don’t walk out from water as much or as far, they stay around the waters all day, seeking shade, drinking and then feed out at night. This is good, they are smart, rest when it’s hot; exert themselves at night when it’s cooler. Due to the diminishing nutrient availability they are also becoming weaker as they eat less sustaining fodder.

Brahman cattle and their genetic crosses are climatically adapted to heat as they originated from India. They sweat through their skins better than European breeds, they have more sweat glands and sweat freely through it, other breeds rely on panting like a dog to disperse body heat. Brahman skin being so loose and abundant gives a greater surface area, even their short thick shiny coats are thought to reflect radiated heat better than other breeds.

Even with these adaptions the greatest threat late in the dry is to the older cattle. The ‘old girls’ the mature breeders who have worked for you all their lives, reared a calf probably every second year since the age of three and are now 10-12 maybe older. They may have had a calf weaned, which we do in the muster so to not have the calf draw down the mothers’ resources. They may have had all their inoculations but they are losing condition. It has all just become too much and they lay down and can’t get up. Other females of all ages are having a calf now, which is not ideally desirable due to the lack of feed but as we run bulls all year, not something we can always control. Best management is to have calves born when it fodder is plentiful, in the wet, this can’t always be timed.

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Figure 1. This cow is at least 7 years old, she’s in fair condition by my estimate what is called a 4 score, the lower the number the worse their condition. She’s strong and has had a new calf, her ribs aren’t quiet visible so she still has some condition and will withstand the dry period continuing for a while yet. For this time of year (November) this is a suitable condition. The mother is able to provide for herself and the calf. These animals of around the 5-8 year age are our greatest asset. The old hands who know the country, and have proved they can thrive in it.


Figure 2. This poor cow is a ‘downer, see her feet marks, she hasn’t even been able to lever herself up to sit up to get up. She can’t even lift her head off the ground. Once an animal gets to this stage they are beyond the point of return. Sometimes you can sit them up and once they have absorbed some of their full belly of water they will stand and survive. We know this is an old cow; she is still alive when I took this photo. My husband put her out of her misery and shot her. If we had left her and she didn’t get up the likely chance of wild dogs attacking her would be very high, they don’t attack the head though they kill by eating and tearing at their rear. If we’d sat her up it was likely she would have simply fallen on her side again and there she would have stayed until she died.

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Figure 3. She hasn’t made it, and has died a few days ago. Already animals such as pigs and dogs, even other cattle have started to tear at her. We had this animal at a bore with adequate feed and water. For some reason she just hasn’t been able to make it through. It’s possible she was ill, snake or even a bull tried to mate her and injured her. We don’t know. It is difficult to tell what body condition she was in when she died. Reason of death would likely be current conditions of feed and heat. She just hasn’t been able to go on, so has died.

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Figure 4 – This is the dead cows’ teeth, I know she was an old cow of at least 10 years by her brand, but teeth are also an indication of age in a cow and this old girl has what’s called a full mouth, 4 pair or 8 tooth. Her teeth are very worn, indicating she is quiet old.

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Figure 5 – The funeral pyres of the dry. We try to burn carcases because the other cattle due to phosphorus deficiency will try to eat the bones and could spread Botulism to unvaccinated animals.

Many of the cows in these photos we would have unlikely sold as they are good types of cattle and we would have let them live out their lives on the property. It is not feasible to cart hay to all these animals to feed them as you would have to isolate the weaker ones and keep the stonger, much healthier cattle from hogging the feed given. We supply phospherus all year round.

These fires or burial holes which some use will be happening across North Australia at the moment and paricularly in areas of severe drought. Please show compassion for the producers who are enduring these circumstances because most have done everything in their capacity to provide for the welfare of their animals. No-one sets out to see their animals suffer but death is as much a part of livestock production as life. I would estimate in any one year we have an attrition rate of 6-10% across the herd depending on the seasons and the problems they may encounter.

It is difficult to shoot your animals, it is even more so when you have to do it repeatedly. Here’s hoping for rain soon for everyone.

Categories: Advocacy, Animal Welfare, Beef Industry, Cattle work, Dry Season, Northern Territory., Property operations, Wet Season | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Funeral Pyres of the Dry

  1. sara

    Thanks for sharing the cycle of life with everyone , as it happens .

  2. Richard Adams

    Thank you for an insight to part of your struggle with nature.

  3. Thank you for sharing and I hope others see this with compassion and new knowledge. Hard circumstances mean hard decisions, nobody likes it but it is part of the life.

  4. Yvonne

    Once again, a great explanatory blog on the reality on a cattle station. Good on you!!!

  5. Emotional, honest & real.

    Thanks so much for your incredible educating blogs.

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