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Beyond the Bale : Dec 06 - Jan 07
And despite failed winter rains in five of the past six years, the Mitchells now found themselves in unfamiliar, unprecedented territory. The 34 millimetres of rain they received over the winter growing season from May to August was not only well below the 150mm average, it was half the previous lowest rainfall on record for that period. It took everyone, including the well-prepared Mitchells, by surprise. "It's been so severe that you can't really plan for it," Mr Mitchell says. "You think what have you done wrong to get to this situation where things have got so tight, but the answer is you can't plan for years that are not on the record books." Their planning had been meticulous, done with their own research and by working closely with Mark Alchin from the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia. Mr Alchin had established 'Barnong' as a trial site for rotational grazing as part of his PhD using an AWI 'top- up' scholarship. Under the system, one flock of sheep is mustered by aeroplane every three to four weeks and rotated together through the station's 17 paddocks, each between 6000 and 12,000ha in size. The paddocks are only grazed down to 40 or 50 per cent of their ground cover before stock are moved on, ensuring the rangeland remains in a healthy state. income, but have now sold 80 per cent of their sheep and are down to a core flock of about 1000 ewes. Mr Mitchell says they may be able to keep their remaining ewes and some female lambs for breeding in the unlikely event of summer rains, but if the rain does not come they will have to sell the lot. The lambs they saved over winter are now being supplement-fed and will provide the income to see the Mitchells through at least the first part of the new year, as they come up to weight for the export market. In the meantime the Mitchells are looking to other areas for alternative income, perhaps working for a local miner, on the back of WA's resources boom. Given today's wool price and the management costs incurred by the station's size, Mr Mitchell says he could never rely on fleece (20 micron) alone for his livelihood. Ideally he would like a 50:50 income from wool and meat from his Merinos and Merino-Dorper crossbreeds. In the longer term, the Mitchells remain optimistic about the future because of the modern management systems they have in place, which they say will generate opportunities once the rain eventually comes. "You can only play with the hand that's dealt and make the best of it," he says. "I don't see much point in dwelling on the negative because I see it as more of a challenge than something to get upset about." ú 11 MANAGEMENT BEYOND THE BALE Mr Mitchell says the rotational system is more intensive and requires more maintenance of water points to cope with larger stock numbers, but it also allows for better management of the stock, helps focus attention on the health of the land and provides more options to respond to tough conditions. It is a big departure from the traditional grazing of pastoral land that sees sheep roam over vast distances. Even at maximum stocking rates, the size of today's 'Barnong' flock would be a fraction of what it was when Mr Mitchell's great-grandfather ran up to 36,000 sheep and, weathering his own bad seasons almost 100 years ago, "did a lot of damage to the rangelands". In ideal circumstances, the Mitchells could comfortably run 9000 sheep at 'Barnong', with kangaroos the biggest threat to the paddocks' recovery. But Mr Mitchell says you need four or five years of 'normal' conditions to achieve that, and they have not had that luxury. In 2006 they built stock numbers up to about 4000, after some promising winter and summer rain, only to be hit with the worst drought ever. "All we actually needed was a poor to average winter and we would have got our lambs through and it wouldn't have been a problem, but having no winter is a big difference," Mr Mitchell says. The Mitchells were able to shear their stock for some Kathryn and Rob Mitchell at 'Barnong'. Despite all their efforts to combat the drought, even their core flock of 1000 ewes may have to be sold. PHOTOS: EVAN COLLIS
Feb 07 - Mar 07