Outback Dohne graziers catch a break

Remarkable recovery for Katalpa Station's flood country

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Luke Mashford with children, George, 10, Jess, 12 and Nicola, 8 after their flood country finally got a drink earlier this year. Photo: Supplied

Luke Mashford with children, George, 10, Jess, 12 and Nicola, 8 after their flood country finally got a drink earlier this year. Photo: Supplied

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Katalpa Station averaged just 25mm of rain annually across the last three years.

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The Mashfords of Katalpa Station, 230 kilometres north east of Broken Hill, received an average annual rainfall of just 25 millimetres over the last three years and at one stage only had water in one of their 32 dams.

However, this year they have notched up 80mm so far, including 11mm last week, and their flood country is undergoing a remarkable recovery.

Luke and Sarah Mashford, alongside their children Jess, 12, George, 10 and Nicola, 8, usually run 4000 Dohne Merino ewes and 200 Hereford cattle on close to 50,000 hectares.

The drought forced the Mashfords to completely destock their cattle and most of their sheep with their remaining 1500 ewes fed in containment lots.

"The tap got turned off here in September 2016 and it got pretty ordinary," Mr Mashford said.

"But we've had just over 80mm of rain for this calendar year, our average is 210mm, so it's still a little below that but the country has responded really well. We're very lucky, others further west are still waiting for rain."

George, 10, Jess, 12 and Nicola, 8 Mashford give the rain a big thumbs up. Photo: Supplied

George, 10, Jess, 12 and Nicola, 8 Mashford give the rain a big thumbs up. Photo: Supplied

Mr Mashford said building containment lots was one of the best decisions they made during the drought, despite the eye-watering feed costs.

"For us out here, anywhere that you need to get feed brought in from is at least 1000km away," he said.

"Every time a road train rocked up with barley or lentils, the price was just unbelievable.

"The bulk of the feed was sourced through John Hamilton from the Minlaton region, South Australia. John and his father Bill found us the feed we needed, they are true mates and we will never forget the hours they put in for us."

The Mashfords fed 1500 Dohne Merino ewes in containment lots and say it was one of the best decisions they made, despite the eye-watering feed bill. Photo: Supplied

The Mashfords fed 1500 Dohne Merino ewes in containment lots and say it was one of the best decisions they made, despite the eye-watering feed bill. Photo: Supplied

A federal government low-interest drought loan helped them fund the building of the containment lots, while advice from Elders' Rob Inglis and Ben Finch guided their nutrition.

"It was a huge capital expenditure at the time but one of our best investments," Mr Mashford said.

"We have four pens holding around 400 ewes each, all had access to lick feeders and were fed around 80 per cent barley, 5pc buffer, 5pc lentils and the rest chaff."

The containment lots fitted with the Mashford's strategy of remaining productive throughout the drought, while retaining their Mt Alma Dohne bloodlines.

"The ewes were locked up and yes, it was expensive to feed them, but it kept cash flow going, we were able to shear them and we had some lambing in holding paddocks," Mr Mashford said.

Shade and water the big challenges 

The biggest challenges they faced when building the containment lots was water and shade. Mr Mashford said at one stage they had only four month's worth of water supply left with only one dam remaining.

"It was 16km from the house and we piped the water back to the house for the garden and for the containment lots," he said.

"We had rain with about two months of water left."

He said they constructed lean-tos so the ewes had shade, crucial when the temperatures got close to 50 degrees over summer.

They managed to lamb in holding paddocks while the ewes were in containment but Mr Mashford said the crows caused havoc.

"Out of the 1500 ewes in 2017, the crows probably took 60pc of lambs," he said.

A stark difference can be seen between Katalpa's flood country and the rest of the property. Photo: Supplied

A stark difference can be seen between Katalpa's flood country and the rest of the property. Photo: Supplied

But after they received 28mm and 23mm falls in April and May this year they were able to let the ewes out of containment. Mr Mashford said their flood country had come away much faster than other parts of the property.

"If we relied on general overhead rainfall we would still have a tight noose, but the flood country is what gave us hope," he said.

He said the flooded country had seen native vetches, clovers, legumes and Darling Peas return.

"We've got solid winter feed there now to see us through to late-September," he said.

"But it's been seven years since there's been a decent summer rain to get all the Mitchell grass, Queensland Blue grass up and running and to go to seed."

Goats handy in drought but have now been locked out

Although goats had been very helpful to them in terms of cash flow during the drought, they were now focused on keeping them out.

"We probably averaged 1200 Rangeland goats a year, but now 80pc of our property is Total Grazing Pressure standard fencing," he said.

"The goats were very handy during the drought, but with a little bit of a break and being able to control grazing pressures we're seeing the country respond a lot quicker than normal."

He said the TGP fences were also put up to improve their bio-security measures.

"Brucellosis was a big issue in the area three years ago, that saw us have our complete ram flock culled, but we also had management issues which we needed to address.

"So we bite the bullet and TGP'd the property and we now know what's happening within our boundaries.

"We're really focusing on asset protection when it comes to our genetics with the Dohnes."

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