A piece of paradise on the Nullarbor

A piece of paradise on the Nullarbor

Beef
Mr Swann carts water over five water points every two to three days at Virginia station, which keeps the cattle spread out.

Mr Swann carts water over five water points every two to three days at Virginia station, which keeps the cattle spread out.

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Running a cattle station amid drought is no easy feat

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"IT'S country where Mother Nature lays down the rules and you work according to what you've got."

That's how Virginia station owner Russell Swann has described running a cattle station on the vast, semi-arid Nullarbor Plain.

"The hardest thing is it's a little bit boom or bust," Mr Swann said.

"You live in arid Australia, obviously the drought comes with it, but when it comes good, it is just a real piece of paradise."

Mr Swann, 64, has lived on the Nullarbor for most of his life.

Farming and the bush are in his blood.

Virginia station, which is between Caiguna and Balladonia, was established in the 1960s.

The Swann family reopened the station's lease in 1987, after applying to drill possible dam and bore sites on the property.

At the time, Mr Swann and his father were working at Kanandah station, north of Rawlinna.

Virginia station owner Russell Swann opted for Brahman cattle because they were adaptable, durable and much kinder on country compared to other breeds.

Virginia station owner Russell Swann opted for Brahman cattle because they were adaptable, durable and much kinder on country compared to other breeds.

In 1999, bushfires swept the region and the family was forced to sell Virginia as its land had become too difficult to retain.

Six years later, Mr Swann was asked to return and help manage the station in partnership with Syd Pond.

The pair started to develop the land from scratch, but was held back by some difficult, dry seasons.

Today, Mr Swann is the sole operator of Virginia and about a third of the 259,000 hectare (640,000 acre) property has been developed with dam sites and pipelines.

So, how do you run a cattle station amid a drought?

Well, according to Mr Swann, it's all about adapting to the conditions, holding onto hope for rain and forward planning for when it does eventually break.

Virginia started running cattle in 2006, when water was first secured.

"We had just under 70 cattle to start and we built the numbers up," Mr Swann said.

"We sort of added to them fairly quickly and we got up to about 200 breeders."

They trucked in a lot of their own cattle from their property at Bakers Hill.

"Cattle prices were down, so we were buying in quite good cows for reasonable prices, that's why there is a fair Brahman content in our herd."

Russell Swann has lived on the Nullarbor for most of his life and has seen the highs and lows of farming on the semi-arid plain.

Russell Swann has lived on the Nullarbor for most of his life and has seen the highs and lows of farming on the semi-arid plain.

Mr Swann said he opted for Brahman cattle because they were "adaptable, durable and much kinder on the country" compared to other breeds.

He also said, in comparison to British breeds, Brahman covered double the grazing radius from water points across the property.

"Brahman are an arid climate cattle, they handle heat and they have tick resistance,'' he said.

"They are a line of good performing cattle, they grow weight and are good temperament cattle.

"Temperament is a big thing - I think you can keep your cattle quality up if you keep your good temperament cows.

"We are putting a fair bit of Santa Gertrudis in now and we are dampening the Brahman side down.

"But we also have always been putting a bit of Murray Grey in.

"With the hybrid vigour, your growth rates and the Murray Grey type colouring coming through makes cattle pretty saleable, especially heifers."

At its peak Virginia Station had 650 breeders.

As the dry conditions worsened, Mr Swann was forced to gradually destock and breeder numbers have dwindled to about 150 head.

Virginia station was first established in the 1960s. Mr Swann has been developing the 259,000 hectare property with dam and bore sites since 2005.

Virginia station was first established in the 1960s. Mr Swann has been developing the 259,000 hectare property with dam and bore sites since 2005.

But Mr Swann said it was better to have smaller stock numbers of better quality.

This is something he stands by, despite the fact he virtually hasn't had an income for the past five to six years.

And the proof is in the health, genetics and calving numbers of his herd.

"You get told a lot, 'Oh you should just sell everything, put the money in the bank and then buy cattle when you're ready'," he said.

"But if you are in a time like now, cattle are so expensive, you couldn't afford to buy them."

Mr Swann went on to say that cattle born and bred on the Nullarbor knew what to eat, knew the country and knew where the water points were.

He said if he were to bring new cattle onto the station, it could take anywhere between two and three years for them to adapt and thrive.

"We have cattle, who have returned to Virginia and have been bred here," Mr Swann said.

"There's a big, big advantage in keeping your own breeders.

"We have had a bit of a herd for 30 odd years - you buy good genetics as you go along.

"You have herd bulls and you don't really want to ditch all of that and have to start with someone else's."

Mr Swann said if it did rain, which he knew it eventually would, Virginia would be very understocked and not in a position to buy in more cattle.

"We are just doing what we can, with what we have got at the moment," he said.

"We will have to breed our way back.

"But one thing we do get here is good calving percentages."

In terms of percentages Virginia generally records calf numbers above 70 per cent and as high as 98pc.

This year Mr Swann anticipates calving to be up about 80 to 90pc - he attributes the high percentages to keeping on top of wild dog numbers.

"There are some people who can't control dogs or don't and they would be lucky to get up to 60pc.

"Some even get down as low as 20 to 30pc.

"You are hardly in business if you are just breeding calves to feed them to the dogs.

"The dog problem comes and goes, it is probably worse than it has been in the past few years."

Meanwhile, bull percentages have doubled to about 12pc.

2019 was one of the driest recorded years for many station owners across the Nullarbor.

But, having lived on the Nullarbor for decades, Mr Swann can recall other periods of "pretty bad drought".

In particular one while he was working at Kanandah station.

The long dry broke in 1992 and pastoralists celebrated "one of their biggest years on record".

Mr Swann said the dust bowl was transformed into the perfect piece of paradise, as wildflowers bloomed.

And with the drought, the rain also washed away the pressures that came with it, particularly the pressure of cattle maintenance.

"You know they're going to be doing well wherever they are (when it has rained)," he said.

"So you're not panicked about keeping them out of boggy dams or keeping them where they've got fresh water - there's plenty to eat wherever they are.

"The cattle tend to work at light stocking rates anyway because they've got enough feed wherever they go.

"That helps to ensure you don't have stock flogging one particular piece of country."

Mr Swann said when there was a dry spell, there was always the temptation to put too many cattle on one water point.

But instead he carts water over five water points every two to three days, which keeps the cattle spread out.

Cattle work up to 20 kilometres away from the points and while the weather is cool, many only drink every second or third day.

"The number of water points are coming down very drastically (because of the drought) and we will be down to three very soon," Mr Swann said.

"The last main rain event was 19 millimetres last October and the best we have had since then was 12mm at the start of February.

"That didn't do a lot but it put 18 inches (45.7cm) in the dam where the windmill is, which is where we are pumping up the line.

"And that was great because previously I was having to cart water up the pipeline from another dam further north.

"It gave me a break from carting water then."

Mr Swann knows the land like the back of his hand, having developed every water point, dam and catchment on the property.

Dams were developed, after areas of land were drilled and tested for clay types, ensuring the dams could be sealed - and the right sites were chosen for water catchment.

Mr Swann decided to make a move from traditional old square dams to all round dams and enclosed inlets to heavy inlet pipes.

"People look at these big dams and quite often think, 'Well how does the water get in?'

"But I've got a couple of inlet pipes, which work very, very efficiently.

"The hard thing is - it still takes rain.

"We desperately need to get a back up for dams because in a prolonged drought our dam water does completely dry up and we are left with no other option but to buy in water or destock."

Like other stations, Mr Swann has looked into desalination as a form of sourcing water.

However, he has found underground water at Virginia station to be "very deep" - 130m to 150m below ground level.

This makes it more expensive to access.

"We have a bore just down from the house and we were pumping water out of that," he said.

"The water was beautiful, it was crystal clear, but salty as - salinity was just up at top level.

"And we just can't get back to where it is affordable and viable."

As well as his main water points, Mr Swann pushed out opportunistic water holes across parts of the station.

That is so when it does rain he has smaller water holes in the "fresh country" and away from the main water points.

The 12mm of February rain filled the holes with enough supply for about six weeks.

Mr Swann said it not only helped the stock, but also the country by spreading the ground pressure.

"One thing of having lived out here most of my life is I have seen the changes in country," he said.

"You've got to really be ahead with the condition of your stock.

"When you need to destock you can see what's going on in the country with the different species that are starting to come under pressure.

"You don't gamble too much, the reserve in your country is like money in the bank and if you take it past a point then you're in trouble."

Mr Swann said when it rained, the Nullarbor produced a mix of high protein plant species and high energy dry grasses and vegetation species boom.

He said it is as if arid Australia protects itself, storing hard seed underneath the ground surface, waiting for a major season to help it germinate.

"A lot of the plants could be described as nutrient pumps because they keep the cycle going," Mr Swann said.

"They are not so much a benefit in your stock grazing but they keep your country healthy.

"The bush is healthy, the bush is fresh, which is why a lot of the cattle are so good.

"I think this is also due to the fact our stocking pressure is so light."

Mr Swann described the Nullarbor as really productive pastoral country and "some of the best in Australia." but it was just a little more fragile.

He said in a good year it could run any type of cattle numbers.

"It is a good protein country, it doesn't have the parasite impact, you don't have ticks, you don't have worms," Mr Swann said.

"When it is good, it is really, really good and you can let your numbers sneak up in those good years.

"But you have to be prepared to come back quickly when things tighten up."

And how do you know when you are about to be hit with a wet season or when things are about to tighten up?

You don't, according to Mr Swann.

"People say what's your main season for rain - summer or winter?

"Well the Nullarbor is pretty unpredictable.

"I always say, when it happens.

"Sometimes we get summer rain, sometimes we get winter rain, sometimes we get both, sometimes we get none."

The story A piece of paradise on the Nullarbor first appeared on Farm Weekly.

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