Wiping the sleep from my eyes feeling drugged and limp I drag myself from my cot and notice the time is before the magic hour of 5 and realise that this actually makes me feel happy. You see if it gets too far past the happy hour then the sun starts to show itself and well there goes the nice cool breeze that most mornings have. This morning however is accompanied by a stifling smell of bushfire and a breeze that carries the heat and gives me exactly no relief on the fifty-meter walk from my cottage to the homestead.
My life before farming was spent much of the time with my feet off the ground or at least on ground that was having trouble fighting gravity. Industrial Rope Access, Climbing Guide, mountaineer. So the change from extreme sports to extreme farming has been eye opening, comical at times and wholly satisfying. The comical times were often when in search of some help with things many considered ‘general knowledge’, the looks and reactions I got from some of the locals were priceless. This happened until I was taken under the wing of an elderly gent who found my lack of knowledge as funny as I did.
Now in the fourth year of my rural adventure and the third year of drought I find myself in a dry spell that has wiped the monopoly board clean, levelling many of the weathered and tested members of the local area with them never experiencing this situation before themselves.
Coming into farming after being a city fella I can totally empathise with the urban public in relation to not knowing what is going on out in the paddocks these days with the media dictating much of what is seen. City folk seem to have the same feeling talking to me as they may when talking to a person in a wheel chair. People have trouble looking at you and speak with a very uncomfortable edge.
Finally making it across to the homestead the lack of air conditioning and the poor circulation that this house made in the 50s has makes it easy to get some tea and head on out to feed. With the size of today’s grain ration swirling around my head I realise that it is in fact a day for hay and that the remnants of yesterdays grain feed will make it to some lucky ewes mouth this morning, although probably one of the already fat stronger feeders. See within a mob there are leaders and followers, shy and strong feeders and old and wise and young and not-as-wise-yet sheep. This makes the pattern that you make while feeding all important. It needs to be as much zig as zag and it also helps if you come back to where you started as this is generally where the shy will be looking on longingly at the stronger feeding.
Feeding out by oneself is an event in itself. Low range, first gear and a prayer. You pray to be guided smooth and true and to avoid rocks, ditches and trees. With the occasional 180 degree turn to avoid the fence line.
So you feed out with the symphony of sheep drowning out the idol of the engine and the radio and generally anything else that could possibly be making noise, dog yelping from being run over by the sheep perhaps. They follow as you walk behind the trailer some diving in for a mouthful of hay before the biscuit has been detached from the bale, stalling the process for seconds and receiving a quick boot to the shoulder if they are not fast enough away. If a large section of hay does happen to fall without being broken into biscuits then I have to run to stop the ute from travelling and whistle the dogs. They enjoy a game of keep away, they have even gotten to the point where I am sure they leave enough room for the sheep to get a little to close so they can lunge at them, never making contact of course as they are very good work dogs and know the protocol.
Back at the ute I get the dogs to clear a path so I can get moving again, always very tempted to sheep surf at this point as they are so very tightly packed in around me. Moving again we continue the feeding, past the most recently dead. Crows having needed the protein of their eyes more than the sheep needed to see obviously, leaving them to foxs of the night. Guard alpacas do well for foxes, not for crows.
Sometimes a sheep lays down and is not able to get up again. This is because its internal organs have shifted to one side and it doesn’t have the strength to counteract this uneven weight distribution. I re-read an email that I sent a girlfriend that I had when I started farming and it said “I have bought a whole lot of pads and pencils and have distributed them to the sheep in hope that I will find a note on the next one I find dead with an explanation as to why they have died.” This is obviously a vain hope as I could never understand their writing although it does illustrate the difficulty in finding a seemingly healthy creature dead.
With the drought in full swing death is becoming more apparent. Sheep that were getting a full feed ration just laying there almost mockingly saying ‘you tried and failed the lesson is never try!’ Yet I know that it isn’t personal and not just my sheep. On other properties a cow having had trouble during birth the night before, a stud horse lays oddly still in a paddock with none of the other horses coming near it and no notes left behind.
The horse was properly fed and the cow may have had trouble even in a good season but the dry amplifies the event, puts it under a spot light.
I spend a lot of my time walking around on my farm checking stock, water, feed anything else that needs looking at. I walk as it gets me closer to my ground zero. The action is happening under my feet and I can see how the earth is reacting to how I am treating it with my stock. I walk among the sheep, watching their reaction to me and their general habits, it is very mediative and useful to see the health of your stock. I can’t do this anymore. If the sheep see me enter the paddock they will mob me. Coming right up to me and smelling my hands with hungry eyes, wasting valuable energy running to see me. When I leave a paddock after feeding I look up at the happy heads all down consuming their fill before their neighbour does, I look up and wish that I had more to give as I know that what is on the ground will be gone in half an hour. But I can’t give more, what I am giving is a measured ration both economically and weight. They say that a sheep only takes in 2% more water if it doesn’t have shade in its paddock, but I have seen sheep search out the shade of its neighbours shadow, now tell me that he wouldn’t rather a tree. So who do I listen to the hungry sheep or the measurement book. Do I go broke trying to keep everyone alive or do I make the call of acceptable losses?
When I arrived on the farm from the city I was very much of the ideal that farmers complain a lot and that if the system is so inherently flawed then it isn’t sustainable and that it needs to be changed. More and more farmers are now coming to this very conclusion but are stuck with the question of How then? How do we do it sustainably as even the current sustainability books are being rewritten. In Sydney I had the pleasure of being the shoulder for a confused friend who was looking to end what to them was seemingly a horrible existence. Out here I have had the pleasure of removing a shotgun from the mouth of a farming friend with the same loss of hope. With only one of them have I felt I could understand the difficulty in struggling on.
I have realised that farming isn’t hard or horrible but constant. Like chinese water torture drip, drip, drip, drip. Even as I sit here writing farming is going on out in my paddocks. I spent my first year of lambing driving to different spots near the paddocks the sheep were giving birth in, climbing on the roof racks of my 4wd and watching the sheep through binoculars for hours at a time. A lump on the ground was watched with interest until it would stand and walk off. I saw a lot, helped a few then one night a particularly violent rain and wind storm came through. 96 little bodies were what I found the next morning. I can tell you I didn’t need a note for those ones.
If you need help with sheep go to: http://www.animalhelping.tk
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