I thought I’d walk you through todays muster, so I took my notebook and jotted down what happened as I puttered along.
We muster through the dry season, that means we capture the cattle from each individual paddock, process them and return them to their paddock.
We need to muster to remove the young unbranded animals from their mothers, vaccinate all animals and generally manage the herds overall health and quality. We remove the young animals to wean them, allowing the cows to maintain body condition by not feeding an animal that will sap its reserves. Good body health and condition improves the cows ability to become pregnant again. We remove unwanted bulls, introduce new ones with preferable genetics, we cull animals that we don’t like for body type, fertility or temperament. We vaccinate for Botulism and jump the animals through a dip to control tick. We sort animals into various groups that may need to be placed in other paddocks, ie steers that will be sold the following year are grouped together for easier access to sell.
Prior to the days muster the four wheeler bikes are prepped and readied, there will be 5 of us on the ground, my husband, myself, our son and teenage daughter and a worker. Today our worker is a German female backpacker who has never worked cattle in her life. She made the comment only the day or so ago that the animals looked nice in real life, that about sums up her experience with cattle, zilch.
The paddock is a shade over 40 square kilometres shaped into a sort of rectangle with a significant creek system right through its centre. The main creek itself has a number of water holes that are permanent or very nearly permanent with an untold number of small creeks that feed into it. The topography of the paddock is dominated by the creek system being the lowest point and the areas north and south being the highest, with a significant hill region in the south.
Figure 1. Diagram of the paddock. Mustering will start from the left and work the cattle to laneways which move around the paddock, to then lead to the processing stock yard at point 11.
The land system is made up of undulating bedded sandstones which tend to have shallow soil, native grasses and soft spinifix. Some areas have moderate tree coverage of gumtrees and small woody acacias. Moderate meaning that you can drive a four wheeler bike comfortably at a pace of 20 km an hour among the trees without having to smash and crash through scrub and over large rocks. Termite mounds dot the area but they are not covered densely by vegetation, In other words you can see them. You can see some distance of about 300m comfortably and can generally move in a straight line if you need too over that distance without climbing or descending hills or crossing gullies.
Figure 2. Good open going for four wheeler riding. The dangerous termite mounds are small and hidden by grass. Most will break at the tops if you run into them but are solid at the base and can easily roll a four wheeler if your wheels ride up onto them
Unfortunately most of the paddock is simply not this accessible and other parts are rocks, gullies, thick scrub and densely covered grass areas. Spear grass makes riding a bike extremely dangerous because you simply can’t see more than a few metres in front of you, other times due to thick small woody trees or the topography is too rugged for bike access. If we can’t move a bike freely across the ground then we haven’t got a hope of chasing cattle across it.
Figure 3. Speargrass coverage over a black soil area. There is a creek about 1m wide and 1 m deep just before the tree line, you won’t know until your in it. Then if you get across that you can’t get through the scrub.
Due to difficulty in moving across the terrain on bikes we hire an experienced helicopter operator. It would be simply impossible to achieve a reasonable muster without helicopters in this area. They may seem expensive to use but operated well they make cattlework efficient. They catch cattle you would never catch on bikes or horses irrespective of how many people you could afford to have on the ground.
Honestly the figures we put back in a paddock have no real resemblance to what we will get back out 12 months later.
We had a particularly ferocious wet season downpour that took out the floodgate fencing on both sides of this paddock of the main creek and a number of other smaller creeks that are also along the fences. We know bulls fighting damaged a gate and allowed steers and other animals to enter, as well as the paddocks herd to vacate.
We have no real idea of what calving percentage occurs, survival or mortality of animals born, or how many are killed by wild dogs. Death rates of cows or adult animals who may have died due to injury, disease or natural causes is a guess.
Between musters we pump water, supply supplement, provide dog control and maintain fences as best we can, we have no contact with the cattle unless we happen to see them coming in for a drink while checking a water.
The paddock currently has two bores, one in the north west corner, Bull, and another to the east, Tank, both have cattle traps, barbed wire holding yards and lanes which connect them and allow us to walk cattle through scrub with some semblance of control and prevents cattle escaping.
Laneways make walking stock efficient, over the years labour has become increasingly expensive. Years ago 10-12 people once did a muster on horses now 4-5 do it on bikes. Where the 10-12 would have all been extremely experienced and knowledgable of the lay of the land with no communication between them now we have 3 plus the chopper who know what they are doing. Mustering years ago was genuinely people rounding up cattle on horses now we rely heavily on the chopper to bring the cattle and we sit behind the tailenders. The chopper captures and does 99% of the real rounding up, we keep them together and moving in the right direction.
The basis of the direction of the cattle mustering will be to start at the furtherest area from the bores and work back to their watering points, they tend to move along pads and to these areas when herded.
Its isn’t an early start and we’re not expecting a long day.
Day of Muster.
• Generally a cooked breakfast, any excuse to have bacon and eggs, but also because you’re never quiet sure when lunch may be.
• Organise water bottles to be carried on the bikes and lunch to be stored in the car with the trailer that will cart one bike.
• Chopper arrives and the usual chin wag and general plan of attack is agreed on. Our chopper pilot has flown this area for many years and while the basics of the paddock haven’t changed we may have added fences or altered some aspects he needs to know about.
• Chopper refuels and takes off to make a start mustering in the paddock 20km from the house
• We ride our bikes with someone driving the car that towing the trailer. The car carries extra water, tools,fuel, tucker box, lunch and stuff!
• Car and trailer are left at point 6, the bike is unloaded.
• There’s a general discussion on the UHF radio’s of where it would be best to place the bikes to keep the tail enders moving and we go to sit where the pilot wants us. (read that a mostly out of his way for now)
• Husband, daughter and myself are sitting at point 1
• Son and back packer are waiting at point 2.
• Chopper is starting generally far west (bottom left) and sweeps the paddock in sections heading north east (top right) not unlike a broom sweeping a floor so that in generally everything ends up in the same place. Depending on where he spots cattle will determine where and how he moves. In general the chopper will move back and forth in a large arc progressively working different areas so the cattle are continually walking and moving in the direction towards the water points (3 & 6).
• The importance of a pilot with skill, patience and knowledge can’t be underestimated. They need to pressure the cattle firm enough to make sure they move in the right direction and keep moving,. The pilot also needs to be knowledgeable of how their movement in the air sounds to other animals as they fly about, approaching and moving away to work different mobs. If they push too hard the cattle will trot and soon become stressed and often sulky, they’ll start to hide in the scrub, duck back into gullies. The chopper needs to maintain the cattle at a walking pace. When the cattle walk they are rewarded by the pressure being released by the chopper moving away, they learn to keep walking away from the chopper. They go the wrong way or stop, the angry little bee in the sky will pressure them until they do it right, sometimes just with changing noise through rotar pitch, sometimes by using the air wash downdraught to create dust and disturbance. Sometimes if the scrub allows the pilot will get down to ground level and literally eyeball the animal. The animals learn the chopper means business and generally will walk together in groups to the waters.
• Chopper has been busily going back and forth
• We’ve done absolutely nothing.
• I sit back, look at the scenery, admire the trees, wonder if I’ll ever figure how the heck I’m going to learn any grass names when I can only remember one or two.
• My husband and I scheme, or he plans building infrastructure and I tell him what it will cost. Our daughter sits expectantly on her new bike, at the ready, bright pink helmet, waiting for the command, hoping today will be the day she’s given the responsibility to round up a few. She listens for the chopper and will tell us exactly where he is, stuffed I can see it.
• A small mob of cattle have been moved into the holding pen at Bull yard (3), we move there with the bikes to take them along the laneway, we’re the tailenders. These cattle are the slower ones who may have some smaller calves, older cows or just cows that are cunningly slow and drag their hooves every chance they get.
• Walking is one of the greatest animal welfare practices a producer can do, it calms cattle, it teaches them to respond to a bike without being paniced. It is an extremely important educational tool for cattle handling.
• I have trouble with a 1st year heifer that is determined to go the wrong way, maybe she last saw her mates at some point behind and has now lost them in the movement of coming in. I have an arugment with her, including physically to try to force her to join the mob. I loose, she beats me to a fence and I curse (I do that a lot). It is a fine line between working hard enough to get the animal back against how much risk you take. At what point do you smash gear, including yourself to get her back. I tried a few times to wheel her (turn her) but it wasn’t enough to bring her back so then I try to physically push her using my bikes bullbar to force her around to the mob, this is done while also dodging trees and termite mounds. Some I can run straight over others I have to go around. I wasn’t good enough to turn her, simple as that, there’ll be another time. She has gone into the paddock which we need to muster next week anyway.
• Cattle, only a handful of about 20 head are in the laneway now moving from Bull yard along the laneway (4) to an intersection of another laneway and then onto Tank (6).
• Our son and backpacker are walking cattle along a fenceline on the eastern side, they sat and waited at point 2. As they move along the fence heading north the chopper will feed them cattle to add to their mob and any others inbetween us and them will be walked directly to tank bore by the chopper’s sweeping motion.
• This lane is only about 3km, its warm, even a bit humid, temperature 25 degrees and very still, with no cloud the sun is feeling good, it’s a really a lovely day to be outside.
• Usually there’s a bit of talk on the UHF radio, as the pilot communicates where cattle are, what or where he needs a bike, it’s very quiet today. That can either mean the cattle are behaving really well and walking where they should or there’s no bloody cattle, now that’s a worry!
• So I spend the next hour worrying about where have the cattle gone and extremely worried they have all disappeared.
• While your mainly looking at the wrong end of a cow walking , you look at the other animals, you look for dog bites on calves, torn ears, try to figure which calf belongs to which cow if they are a little calf and should you take the calf off when drafting if the cow looks like her body condition is low. You look at bulls, are they walking ok, are they damaged in any way, are they behaving, if they are giving you a hard time you remember them to be removed to be sold.
• Slight breeze has come up, drink of tea would go down well, I chew gum and basically every one bludges my stash of lollies they know I carry when ever on the bikes.
• See that a smoke plume has started up again on our far eastern boundary, an environmental vandal has haphazardly lit a fire and just let it rip. No way to control it way out there and unless it crosses a main river and heads west isn’t of any real concern. Fires are so hard to pinpoint, we use internet to track to some degree but the accuracy of location of hot spots is fairly unreliable. I guess this one is burning hard because it is crossing heavily grassed black soil flats and burning along the edges of significant creek systems with lots of woody growth to fuel it.
• We’re within radio contact of the other bikes they are at the tank bore and have a good mob of cattle, we move our little mob along towards them which is only another couple of kilometres ahead. By this time the animals have become very docile and are content to walk steadily in single file. Daughter has sole responsibility of keeping them walking, a job she takes very seriously. Dad has to cough up and pay for ipod music as way of wages today.
• We are moving at a good steady walking pace.
• We’re starting to look like lounge lizards on our bikes, both legs one side, one with a leg up on the rail, one sits cross legged
• We put our cattle with the main mob in the tank holding paddock which has a pain in the arse creek through it and lots of small scrub. Knowing we always have trouble moving the cattle towards another laneway gate we decide to not have lunch and move into the next lane, we intend to pull up a little latter at another dinner camp.
• Daughter really needs a ‘snack’ which Dad says is Ok, so we go off and start to move the cattle while she eats.
• The mob of now about the 400 head isn’t compacted together in the yard which is about 2 square kilomtres in size so we have no real control in moving the mob as a whole until we do get them together. The gate we need to get the cattle too is not their usual gate, they use another one to feed out when leaving the water so they are always reluctant to move to the laneway gate. As the bikes now do the sweeping to move cattle the leaders have turned and coming back, their natural inclination is to head to the trap gate which is opposite to where we need them to go. Some pretty serious back and forth of the bikes is occuring as we work as a team to keep the animals going to where we want and back each other to stop the animals who are turning in the wrong direction going that way.
• Daughter has pulled up for a 3 course meal I think. When called to assist she tells us she can’t remember how to start the new bike, she’s told to wait, we’re busy. She must have figured it out as she turns up in a few minutes, more likely she can hear us zooming around and doesn’t want to miss out on the action.
• Moving well down another laneway now (7), the backpacker is having an absolute hout of a time. Usually after a chase some either collapse as nervous wrecks or can’t wait to do it again. She has good sense and is doing really well, she’s not afraid of the cattle but not out to destroy the bike either. It can be very hard to know what to tell someone when they have never worked cattle. We give a basic introduction of how to move animals on foot but often you don’t want to flood them with information or circumstances, because they simply need to learn sometimes while doing the job. We give a lot of instructions on the wireless, not unlike training a dog stop, go left, go right. Stay at the back. Our main advice is stay away from fighting bulls and stay with us.
• One of the bikes starts to play up, can’t find reverse, hubbie has to fiddle and fix stuff only men seem to be able to fix.
• I go back to tank bore, load my bike, drive car to where cattle are in the lane.
• No sooner we get one bike going and another one throws 7’s. The old Polaris, prior EFI, fuel blockage. We dismantle most of the plastic to get to the carbi, use the ageless if nothing else works tap the carbi and stuff me dead the bloody thing went.
• I’m getting hungry and I don’t run well when caffeine levels drop, hubbie asks do you want lunch at the intersection, ‘about time’, soon he says.
• Get to an intersection of laneways. 4 Bulls pick just this time to have an all out blue and push each other over a fence into another paddock, Son and hubbie go through and bring them through a gate with no dramas.
• We yard up into the intersection and do a 90 degree turn into another lane, only a few more kilometres to the final yard.
• We pull up for lunch. I carry tinned meat and bread, lots of biscuits and we boil a billy can for tea.
• The distant fire is really billowing and looks bad, we see our mail plane fly over. They deliver our mail once a week, Every one teases dad about all the stuff he buys on ebay and how many presents he’ll have this week.
• We swap war stories on the one that got away, rocks or close calls and especially how mum seems to have lost another cow.
• We let the cattle meander along at any pace they want while we have lunch, some keep going all the way to the end gate some will sit and rest like us, feed around or just generally have a doze in the sun.
• Its come up really windy and gusty, no doubt fanning the fire.
• the laneways are only about 100m wide, we all ride abreast so we move any cattle along as we find them, It is important to keep an eye out for any laying down asleep that can be easily missed in spear grass and look out particularly for any calves. The cattle can’t get out of the laneway so it’s a pretty casual, easy job.
• The animals will tend to follow the pads they make, tracks in which they comotosly follow each other, nose to tail.
• Last gate, we don’t open until the mob are bunched up, we need to move them through efficently to keep them together for when we yard up into the stock yard.
• Last section of lane, it is rocky and has a few small creeks, it’s rough to ride, we have about 200m of good going clearance from the stockyard gate. We start to get nervous and make sure everyone is in a line across the whole of the lane, the cattle have been fine but yard ups can go to crap very quickly and it only takes a cheeky bull or irate cow to mess the whole thing up. Cattle aren’t good at maths they never seem to figure theres 400 of them and only 5 of you but look out when they do. Trying to turn or even hold a mob that doesn’t want to turn back is not fun. Stay on your bike and make plenty of noise is about the only rule at this point in time as we keep the tailenders moving.
• We don’t open the yard gate until the mob is relatively close, that way the leaders will be filing into the yard and going to get a drink , the idea being the whole mob will flow and we close the gates before many know they are even captured.. If we let them straggle in the leaders will get a drink and then double back out, blocking the way for those trying to get in or even worse a few will realise they are in the stockyard and try to come back out. This causes chaos at the gates and is usually bulls who don’t like to be jammed in too tight with other bulls because of aggressive ones.
• Everyone is in a line across the lane, making noise but not forcing too hard, keeping the mob moving. I have my tin rattle dog I shake the jeepers out of, it drives hubbie nuts but it’s a great bluff for cattle, I can’t use a whip to save myself. I most certainly can’t use a whip and ride a bike at the same time.
• We yard up with no problems and close the gates.
• Its just past 4pm.
It has been a really good day, mainly because it looks like we’ve got a reasonable mob of cattle, no major problems, no one got hurt. The cattle are looking to be in good to fair condition with a few old girls looking a bit skinny. Odd cleanskin bull amongst them but nothing too bad, one in fact that we know gave us a really hard time a year and got away but we have him now.
Its been a good day. I hope you had a nice time, hey thanks for your help.