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September 2004

Lambs Galore

1. Barrow Fulls of Rain

I got instructions about this newsletter - "No more moaning about the infernal drought - people want some good news".

So, the word "drought" will not be used until at least Chapter 2 in this report.

However the good news is pretty old news now. Back in Dec-March 2004, we had more than our average annual rainfall, culminating in 86 mm (or a couple of barrow-fulls) on March 6th.

For the whole decade of the Millennium Drought, we have been hopefully spreading soil supplements and improved pasture seeds, in the vain belief that it would rain. And, year after year, the native grasses that manage to evade the cattle and sheep have been dropping their seeds into the dry dusty soil. After the rains of early 2004, all these seeds germinated - grasses we had never seen before leapt up - spear grass, forest blue grass, barbed wire grass, green panic, Rhodes grass, paspalum, wire grass, siratro and lots of unidentified grasses and herbs grew like Jack's beanstalk. Dogs, sheep, cattle and even the Rouseabout disappeared in a sea of grass (over six feet high in some favoured places).

Cattle became fat and sleek, sheep bloomed and rams became very active.

Then on 7th March, the rains stopped. The biggest fall since then was 16mm on 26th April. May, June, July and August dragged on with no useful rain at all, cold dry winds and heavy frosts. Grass wilted, went to seed, died, lignified and lost all nutritional value - forests of indigestible cellulose - we should have got a heap of carbon credits for all that dreadful carbon dioxide locked up in our now useless grass.

2. Lambs Galore

All of our ewes, reacting to the unaccustomed nutrient bonanza early in the year, became very fertile and got pregnant, many with twins. Then the rains stopped, but the lambs had been started on their journey into the world, and no recall notices were possible. In the three months May/Jun/Jul we had a bonanza of lambs (180 lambs tagged).

But we ran into some new nutrition problems. The grass looked good for this time of year - paddocks full of dry grass, whereas in other drought years the paddocks were nearly bare. But suddenly we had Damara cross and Dorper cross ewes suddenly looking staggery and going blind. Only a few ewes developed these symptoms and all had or were about to have twin lambs. No pure Damaras or Dorpers succumbed. The diagnosis was "pregnancy toxaemia" - caused by the sudden drop from peak nutrition at conception, to starvation nutrition near lambing time. The paddocks of waving grass, with no rain for 5 months, and many heavy frosts, had close to zero nutrition. We had to establish a "poor house" where staggery ewes got supplementary feed to restore their strength and sight. They all recovered, but we learned one more lesson on nutrition.

Nutrition is the most important factor in ewe fertility. Out west (and here in the Rosevale desert) the problem is usually lack of nutrition - sensible ewes will not allow themselves to get pregnant when there is nothing to eat. When there is a sudden abundance of grass, it will be followed 5-6 months later by "Lambs Galore".

But many of our coastal customers experience a nutrition problem totally different problem from Rosevale's "Famine in the Cellulose Forest". A typical phone conversation runs like this:

"Hello Viv, we love our damaras, but they are not having any lambs".

"Sorry to hear that. What condition are they in?"

"Oh they are in great condition - fat & glossy with lovely fat tails".

"What do they eat?"

"Oh, we have green paspalum, kikuyu and clover on the flats, we give then lucerne hay at night, and a jam tin of pellets as a reward for coming home. They also love weetbix".

Here are sheep that evolved in the Namibian Desert being fed like they were soppy European sheep in a feed lot. When ewes (or females of most breeds) get too fat, it is hard (and sometimes impossible) to get them pregnant. This is the commonest fertility problem we hear about. Our most productive ewe (Ebony, the Ekka girl) is a scrawny bony old girl with a thin tail, but she has a lamb every 6.5 months - so far she has had 6 lambs in 39 months. The really good looking ewes are those that miss a lambing or two. On Sherana, they get a green ear tag (a bit like a pink slip, only no appeals are allowed). They then go to the Gatton sheep auction or to the butcher as culls.

3. Half a k of sheep.

As a result of the lamb bonanza, our sheep numbers have broken the half kilo barrier - the tally book stands at 512. Lots of "Leopard" Damara lambs and "Percy" Dorper lambs are being weaned, as well as a few Meatmasters, so there is a good range of colours, breeds, ages and genetics to choose from now. You can look how we manage our breeding, we provide advice to customers (and even some free-loaders), you usually get a good range of sheep to choose from, we will give pedigree certificates, and we replace any sheep that proves defective.

4. Damaras to Darwin (a shaggy sheep story by David Lindsay)

A few months ago, when I was going to Darwin, my Uncle Kerry asked me to bring some Damaras with me. This posed a bit of a challenge as I was going by Virgin Blue not Holden Rodeo. I rang Dogtainers, Qantas and Virgin about moving my two "pet sheep" to Darwin. After the usual silence or burst of laughter from the operators, ("I'd like to book a flight for me and my two pet sheep to Darwin") the typical answer was "ahh, ok I'll put you through to..." The first two calls to Virgin Freight said they couldn't do it, Dogtainers wanted $750 and Qantas said I would have to fly with them for it to be a reasonable price.

I found the people at Dogtainers to very helpful and one of the people I was transferred to gave me the mobile number of one of the more senior people in Virgin Freight. The new Virgin Freight contact called back after consulting their Flight Operations Licence, or something along those lines, to inform me they could take livestock. Dogs and cats are classed as domestic. The reason I was initially told no was that the cargo holds are different between Qantas and Virgin planes. Another reason is that no livestock is allowed into Western Australia so the freight people figured that was the case for the rest of the country.

My dad and I made a crate to collect the sheep from Viv's place on the way to the airport and when I arrived at Virgin Blue's freight dock the security guard greeted me with "Oh, I've heard about these chops." He made a phone call to Petainers who bought over two of the largest dog containers. With that more and more freight handlers and security people came out to see the sheep. I was extremely worried that they would break away during the transfer between the crates and bring Brisbane Airport to a halt. Luckily this didn't happen.

The two sheep were booked on the Virgin flight as "Show Dogs". As such one cost $10 to transport and the other was my excess baggage.

I watched the sheep being towed out onto the tarmac in the last trailer of the loading cart and the sheep seemed reasonably calm. I was worried they weren't going to put them on but at the last minute the ground staff gathered around, scratched their heads, laughed and then lifted them on.

The sheep travelled well and the next day were let go with the others on the farm. They took a few weeks to completely join the others but are now well settled and recently both ewes gave birth to rams. As it turns out the sheep travelled while pregnant.

If you are going to transport sheep this way, both airline companies are capable of doing it. Virgin was very helpful and friendly though. I was told that the live stock had to be transported in airline approved crates. Petainers were the most helpful and cheapest for this. Their largest dog container comfortably fits a Damara. Just remember they won't allow you to remove their crates from the airport. The sheep have to be met either end by another crate. You could be asked to line the crate around the back of the animal. I took plastic in case I was asked to do this.

5. Dial-a-Sheep

Judy and I have decided that, as we never have traditional holidays, we will grab a day of touring here and there if it suits our business. So, over the last few months we have had trips to Roma, Tiaro, Murwillumbah and Toowoomba with Ute loads of sheep. So, if you would like us to deliver sheep somewhere, try our "Dial-a-Sheep" service. If it suits us, and we get orders for a full load of sheep along the same highway, we may agree to deliver them. You will have to pay for any dipping fees, and for fuel, but we will provide time and labour. Fuel costs may be about 25c per km from Sherana to delivery point, or whatever we both agree.

However, our very first sheep selling trip was cash flow negative- we sold 3 sheep and purchased 48.

MOAT took the cheque book off the Rouseabout and next trip we sold six and bought none.

6. Grass Fuel - greener than Ethanol?

sheep cartoon

(We now have a good line of F2 wethers who will convert grass into lamb chops for Christmas).

7. The Cunnamulla Mob

Back in the halcyon days of early 2004, we were tempted to restock our depleted ewe flocks with some damara and Damino ewes from a droughted property at Cunnamulla.

These wild country girls came straight from a 25,000 acre paddock with no distractions except a few dingos, into a ten-square yard, with people, vehicles, tractors, bobcats, dogs, turkeys, guineas, chooks and even dorpers passing by and through. It has taken them quite a while to adjust. First they thought that the best food grows on mulga trees, and supplementary feeding was for softies like merinos and other sissies. Unfortunately, mulga trees are pretty scarce at Rosevale and with the nutrition drought and the stress and burden of lambs, a few lost their lambs.

Sheep are also like people - despite our politically correct good intentions and enforced multicultural integration, the Cunnamulla mob prefers to discriminate in favour of their friends. They stick together away from those suburban kids from Sherana. And they can easily recognise one another - for months after they arrived there was not sufficient rain to wash off their coats of red dust (Sherana dust is black or grey).

8. Superman Arrives

We now have sufficient high grade damara cross ewes (F3 or better) to push along our Meatmaster program, and Mother-of-All-Things at last sees some value in our Dorper Hippo's. Our first Meatmaster Ram (Damara:Dorper cross) is ready to work, and even MOAT is impressed - she calls him "Superman" - the brains of a Damara and the body of a Dorper.

Bye for now.

Best Wishes for Rain

From Mother-of-All-Things, Fixit, the Rouseabout, the White Wolf, Leopard, Chilla, Superman, Waldo & Poncho, and all the Ovine and Bovine People.

Viv & Judy Forbes.

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