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Red coats at home in Goldfields

p Some of the Madoonia Downs station Santa Gertrudis females.AUSTRALIA long rode on the sheep’s back in the pound for a pound wool boom days and the Goldfields was part of the rush.

But with wild dogs making it more a pound for a hound on their daily meat menu, sheep in the Goldfields are all but gone and Madoonia Downs, Widgiemooltha, has been part of that changing stockscape.

Ned and Gaynor Shields bought their 404,690 hectare holding, 70km south east of Kambalda and 120km south east of Kalgoorlie, in 2000 with the intention of continuing on with the existing Merino sheep breeding enterprise.

The climate was relatively mild, stands of saltbush and bluebush were renowned for wool production and running sheep was what the former Bremer Bay shearer, shearing contractor and farmer loved.

But increasing dingo numbers soon put paid to the fibre dream and the only hooves padding the red loamy soils today are those of cattle and wild camels.

“In our first two years, despite great lambing percentages, we did not get a single lamb to weaning stage from 4000 ewes,” Ned said.

“That’s how serious and out of control this problem is.

“We’d see 20 lambs born and a week later we’d go out and still see 20 lambs but they weren’t the same 20.

“At one stage I had visions of running 20,000 wethers all managed with three dogs and a motorbike, but dingoes decimated that idea.”

Damaras were also tried but they proved just as tasty to the dogs as Merinos.

As it happened the couple had also bought 50 Santa Gertrudis station weaners and a stud bull in their first year at Madoonia Downs and seeing how well cattle did in their environment proved the catalyst for change.

“While there are a few out here who have been running cattle for many years, I’d say the majority are like us and have made the switch from sheep,” Ned said.

“I always liked Santas, they’re suited to our country and give marketing options for live export or domestic trade and are good for crossbreeding.

“And I like the idea of running a straight coloured herd.”

The Shields are slowly increasing the capacity of their station with currently only about one third of it suitable for grazing.

“We put in 30 dams in the first few years and could do with another 40,” Ned said.

“We have a couple of bores that are okay but the majority are salty.”

The couple hope to significantly increase cattle numbers from the existing 2500 head and earlier last year, bought 1850ha at Grass Patch, 70km north of Esperance, for drought proofing and to turn-off and grow out weaners and sale cattle.

Although the properties are just 280km apart from homestead to homestead, the difference in rainfall is significant with Madoonia’s Binneringie homestead averaging 275mm annually (400mm last year) and mostly in the summer and Grass Patch averaging 375mm a year, mostly in the winter.

As part of the herd-building phase the majority of heifers are retained, although last year the Shields took the opportunity to tap into good prices from Eastern States’ restockers and sent drafts of surplus heifers across the Nullarbor to Broken Hill, NSW.

Their location proved opportune from a freight angle for the Eastern States trade and it’s a market that will continue to be explored for both seedstock and slaughter.

Keeper heifers are weaned to the Grass Patch property, grown out and brought back to the station for mating to bulls sourced privately and from the annual WA Bos Indicus Group (WABIG) sale, Narngulu.

Bulls calves are marketed mostly at 300-320kg liveweight to live export predominantly filling Indonesian orders.

Cattle are generally trap-mustered at watering holes which works well as it requires less labour, but can be a problem if unseasonal rainfall provides excessive surface water.

Like many pastoralists across WA, the Shields have supplemented their income by subcontracting to local mine sites and also from harvesting sandalwood.

Son-in-law and daughter Hamish and Kylee Johnstone run the mine contracting business from their Kalgoorlie base, working at local gold and nickel mines, including two located on Madoonia Downs.

Using their own dozers, graders and excavators, the work includes rock crushing and pushing up waste dumps.

Son Ashley oversees the sandalwood harvesting operation, a reliable source of income through government owned Forest Products Commission (FPC) contracts.

In similar vein to mining, pastoralists do not own the sandalwood on their leaseholds but can sign up with FPC to harvest the product.

The Shields harvest on their own million-acre holding, part of the biggest inland desert region forest in WA, and also have a contract to harvest on land bounded by Southern Cross, Norseman and Zanthas, a remote outpost on the Trans-Australian rail line.

Harvesting rates are about $2000/tonne, considerably less than the market value of the product at $10,000/tonne.

“The main reason we took up the contract in the first place was so we had control over the harvesting on our own property but it has proven a valuable additional source of income,” Ned said.

Dead and green wood is harvested throughout the year with January generally a lay-off month due to the heat and it’s the roots that are the most prolific source of oil.

To ensure the sustainability of the resource, the Shields replant seeds as they pull up, and Ned said given sandalwood only grew at about one millimetre per year, the journey to maturity was a long, slow one.

Despite the harshness of their environment and remote location, the Shields are proof that diversification, willingness to change and marketing creativity can provide good agricultural industry returns.

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