Monday, 12 March 2007

Matching Stock Numbers to Available Feed - Outback Style

Last month I attended a friend’s “Surprise 60th” birthday party at which I had the pleasure of being re-acquainted with Barry Sommerlad, a great bloke who I had the pleasure of first meeting in late 1979 when I made my decision to enter the world of financial services (or just plain 'banking' as it used to be known then). During the course of our conversation at the birthday party Barry shared with me a fascinating experience he’d had in his “Bank Manager days” in connection with the word ‘perish’. After the party I contacted Barry and invited him to document his recollections in more detail, and invited him to send it to me for publishing as a guest blog article. Here is the content from what Barry has now sent to me. Thanks Barry!

“Approximately 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Isis Downs, near Blackall in central western Queensland.

The Isis Downs’ website details that in its heyday in 1912, the property comprised 2,340 sq kms and had a carrying capacity of up to 230, 000 sheep. Following the Second World War, the area was reduced to 1,227 sq kms as a result of soldier settlement. In 1987, the Packer family, through its Consolidated Pastoral Co., acquired Isis Downs and a further 9 surrounding properties to increase the holding to 2,327sq kms. It now has an estimated carrying capacity of up to 120,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle, or 17,500 cattle only. In more recent years, it is believed the focus has been on cattle due to the greater stability in that market sector.

My visit occurred just before the sale to CPC took place. The then owner gave me a run-down on the history of the property. It had boasted what was believed to be at one time the biggest shearing shed in the southern hemisphere, and for its time had state-of-the-art electric shears. There were the remains of an articulated truck/wagon/trailer for transporting a huge number of bales following shearing, to the nearest rail-head. The vehicle had an articulated driveshaft running from wagon to wagon, and while it had a huge carrying capacity, it was very slow and cumbersome and enormously heavy, and the merest hint of rain saw it sink into the ground, not to move until it dried out.

The owner had read all of the journals and diaries left by former owners and managers, and there were a number of entries in the earlier years that intrigued him. Some entries referred to the quality of “perish” that had been achieved during the year. The journals gave no hint as to what “perish” meant, and the owner had not encountered the description in his experience on other properties in other parts of Australia. He therefore sought assistance from neighbours who had had long-term experience in the area, and was given the following explanation, which is as I recall it.

If there had been a good start to the season, sheep numbers would be increased to the absolute maximum that the property could sustain, a figure well beyond, the normal carrying capacity. If the season was good enough to sustain the increased sheep numbers then “well-and-good”. However, if the over-stock number could not be maintained, then obviously sheep had to be culled and numbers reduced in a manner deemed at that time to be, on the balance of various factors, as humanely as possible. Due to the remoteness of the property, it was not practicable to truck the sheep elsewhere, and if the season was poor there then there would be little market for surplus stock.

The culled sheep were put-down in the following manner. A huge enclosure would be constructed with fences made of piled-up scrub and brush. The culled sheep would be driven into the enclosure, and the entrance filled in with scrub and brush. Over a relatively short time, the sheep would perish from hunger and thirst. Further “perishes” would take place as needed.

It is likely a good “perish” involved as few sheep as possible and a bad “perish” a significant reduction in sheep numbers. The practice at the time was regarded as an effective means of managing stock numbers and maintaining sustainability.

When this was explained to my host/owner, something else twigged with him. When he flew over his property to inspect dams, bores, tanks, windmills, fences etc, following rain he was intrigued by the large geometrically-shaped areas where the vegetation growth was much better. These had been “perish” enclosures and many decades later, the fertiliser provided by the deceased sheep continued to benefit the land.”

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