On a warm September evening last year, a piece of western Queensland history went up in smoke.
It’s a familar story – an old lanolin-infused timber shearing shed served as a workplace for a spot of welding and hours later smouldering tinder quietly ignited, leaving little but smoking embers behind.
That’s what happened to Rob and Pauline Brunckhorst at Sunbury, south of Isisford, when fire destroyed the shed that was once the top floor of the Ilfracombe Woolscour and took away 50 years of shearing memories on the property.
“You think it’s just a shed but there’s a lot of history,” Pauline said as she pointed out the old diesel engine sitting stolidly beside the gleaming new steel and concrete structure emerging from the ashes of its timber cousin.
The decision to rebuild was virtually made for the Brunckhorsts – it was either that or get out of the wool industry, Rob said – and it’s given them a chance to incorporate a number of innovations they hope will make their major operation of the year as efficient as possible.
They’ve gone with the default design choice of a raised shearing board but have added a seventh chute to their six-stand shed, to accommodate the occasional mollydooker in the shearing team, and the different direction they prefer to finish the shearing operation with.
Also new is polythene grating in the receival pens behind the catching pens, made from recycled plastic drums.
A more common sight in southern shearing sheds, the Brunckhorsts like its quietness and the fact that not much light shines through at the angle sheep run across it.
The catching pens have traditional timber grating but are made with a 10cm downwards slope towards the shearing board.
Because sheep like to face uphill, the expectation is that they will turn to the rear of the pen and be in the ideal position for shearers to catch and drag out.
In a good season the Brunckhorsts shear around 22,000 head, and this year they’re hoping for a 350-bale clip from 15,000 head, which will go towards repaying the price of staying in sheep in western Queensland.
As well as contracting Smith Bros in Longreach to build the new shearing shed, they have invested plenty of dollars to put up 68km of exclusion fencing as their share of the Yaraka cluster fencing scheme.
It comes on top of years of drought, broken by good seasons in 2010 and 2011, but Rob and Pauline and son Tim have invested heavily in cottonseed and many more hours feeding it out.
“It’s paid off,” Rob said. “You wouldn’t be able to buy 8000 ewes if you tried, even if you had the money.”
Their pebbly Mitchell grass ridges, interspersed with stands of gidyea and Barcoo River channels, is natural sheep country and the Brunckhorsts hope their faith in the industry will repay them in the long-term.
Tough insurance lesson
Rob and Pauline Brunckhorst are the first to admit they were well and truly under-insured when they had to replace the shearing shed at Sunbury.
They had the six-stand shed insured for $300,000 but to replace it is costing them $450,000. The contents were insured for $60,000, which amounts to the price of the three wool presses that were burnt in last September’s fire.
“We had them insured for $5000 each but each one costs $20,000 to replace,” Rob said. “It’s all the gear that’s in the shed that’s going to cost you. The overhead gear is $2000 each, so that’s $12,000 in total.”
Pauline acknowledged they were taking the opportunity to build bigger and better, which insurance didn’t consider.
They estimate they travelled 2000km looking at a dozen or so other sheds in the wider region to get ideas to incorporate into their design.
While it had its benefits – finding optimum heights and measurements from others’ mistakes and their own – they also coped with the confusion of too many competing ideas.
The raised board and side ventilation were the big ticket items the Brunckhorts concentrated on, as well as getting a run under cover.
Shearing is due to start in July so builder, Dave Waldron, is on a deadline, as are Rob and Tim, who are constructing the pens and yards.