There could be few things more demoralising in a drought, than to lose the stock you are hand feeding to wild dogs.
Yet this was the heartbreaking scenario that faced Longreach graziers, David and Clare Paterson, in 2014.
“We were feeding sheep and lost about 600 mixed sex weaners to wild dogs in a really short space of time,” Clare said.
“We were feeding the sheep, doing our best to keep them alive and every night they were being demolished by dogs. We’d had wild dogs before but suddenly it was full on. Over the next couple of years we shot and trapped 22 dogs.”
Within a year of those major stock loses, the drought worsened and the Patersons were forced to completely de-stock their 19,035ha (47,000 acre) adjoining properties, Kaloola and Arrowfield, 100km south of Longreach.
They sent their last 1000 Merinos and 20 head of cattle on agistment at Meandarra and sat back to evaluate their situation.
For David and Clare, the way forward was clear but no less painful.
In order to continue operating a viable and sustainable business, they’d need to construct a 60km feral animal fence right around their properties.
“It was a pretty tough decision and it certainly took a year or two to come to terms with,” David said.
“It took a summer of going out and checking the weaner sheep and shooting two or three a day that were mamed. We were baiting and trapping but it came to a point where there were no other options.”
David and Clare also believe their country is better suited to sheep, rather than cattle. The properties have been in David’s family since the 1980s with David and Clare taking over ownership in 2000.
With the help of their four children, Rob, 23, Kate, 21, Bill, 20 and Annabelle, 14, along with neighbors and friends, it took ten months to construct the 60km fence.
The fence is about two-third Waratah and one third Clip-Ex and sits 160cm high.
Construction finished in October 2015 - the Patersons sat back and waited for the rain.
“We were really fortunate to get four inches (100mm) of rain in February 2016 and then in the first week of March we had about the same again,” Clare said.
“They were storms that not many others got and it really helped put us on the front foot because we were able to start re-stocking a little earlier.”
Pasture recovery was already underway when the big wet winter of 2016 arrived in Queensland’s north west.
The Patersons received 225mm over the three months of winter and restocking began in earnest.
David and Clare knew they wanted to run sheep but were weary after decades of soft returns from Merinos.
Meanwhile, an accidental joining involving a Poll Dorset ram with their Merino ewes on agistment at Meandarra sparked their interest in meat sheep.
“We had our first lambing of cross-breds and were really impressed,” Clare said.
“We started to look at what meat sheep breeds would eat Gidgee and Sandlewood and we came up with Dorpers because it allowed us to utilise another fodder option that wasn’t palatable to Merinos.
We started to look at what meat sheep breeds would eat Gidgee and Sandlewood and we came up with Dorpers because it allowed us to utilise another fodder option that wasn’t palatable to Merinos.
“We’d seen other Dorpers in the district and they were surviving when all the other sheep were struggling with the drought. And at the same time, lamb prices were on the rise.”
The Patersons were introduced to the Dunstan family, who’ve had success running Dorpers, and now Aussie Whites, in the Cunnamulla district in recent years.
That region was still very dry and the Dunstans were offloading, enabling the Patersons to buy in several mobs of station mated young Dorper ewes for between $80 and $100/head from February to April.
“We found the rams were working pretty quickly off the mark and we had to work hard to stay in front of the unexpected joinings,” David said.
Fast forward 18-months and the Patersons are now running a flock of 5000 Dorper ewes.
They also used Aussie White rams and hope to double join their ewes when seasons permit.
The lambs are being turned off at a minimum liveweight of 43kg at about six months, mostly to Thomas Foods International at Tamworth, some 1330km away.
The Patersons invested in some good sheep handling equipment with a hydraulic lift and use an automatic weighing system that drafts the lambs according to weight.
“We have a secure paddock close to the yards that we retain all stock in so we can keep them safely there and when we have enough to fill a truck we go,” David said.
“Freight is a big issue (approx $15 per head) and we tend to email around the district when we can’t fill a truck and see if anyone else has sheep ready to go.”
While the lamb market has backed away from record levels in the past few months, the Patersons have been delighted with the prices they’ve received so far.
One mob, sold direct to works in June, made $6.20, returning $143/head.
Meanwhile, the construction of the feral animal fence has also reduced kangaroo pressure and allowed the Patersons to spell country, accelerating pasture recovery.
It’s all helped to reassure the them that their fence investment and change to meat sheep were wise moves.
“We are very happy with the decisions we’ve made and we’ve really enjoyed the challenge of learning about a new enterprise,” Clare said.
“Our new friends at Cunnamulla, Don Dunstan, Greg Dunsdon and Kym Thomas have been wonderful mentors.
“Our only regret is that wool prices have decided to go up just as we get out of them but we still have our wool infrastructure here and if we ever decide to go back into Merinos we have that option.”