August 10- Wambiana Cattle Station & Charters Towers

Today was an early morning, seeing as how our group had a long and eventful schedule planned. We departed Townsville promptly at 7 am for a long drive into the outback. Meandering through the great dividing range (mountains separating the oceanic coast from the Australian outback). Our drive was seemingly endless, after 3 hours our group finally arrived at Wambiana cattle station. Wambiana station is 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of prime grazing land, roamed and used by cattle which are raised for beef production. Wambiana has 3,000-3,500 head of cattle which is considered a moderate stock level (sustainable practice) given the vast size of the land.

The household area where the family resides and where guests are greeted.

Upon arrival we were introduced to the family which has been carefully managing the property for 100 years. We had tea and “smoka” (snacks) before Michael, the head of the household, explained every family members role and how each person played a pivotal role in the farms operation. Michelle, Michael’s spouse, provided a personal family background to inform our group of their history. I was also asked to speak briefly on behalf of our group. To the best of my ability I told the family about the nature of our visit, what we were studying, what it meant for us to be sustainable and what each group member contributed. After both sides exchanged introductions Michael launched into a discussion regarding the details of Wambiana’s operation and strategies which make it sustainable. Michael said “We work with nature instead of against nature”. Given the nature of the harsh climate Wambiana uses brahman breed of cattle. Brahman are originally from India, but they were chosen for Wambiana due to their high tolerance to ticks, severe heat, and drought. Brahman are also known for being hearty and durable cattle. To make Wambiana more sustainable, Michael and crew have placed 100 camels on the property. These camels maintain weeds that, if consumed by cattle would result in tainted meat quality. In addition to specific animal selection Wambiana also divides land into specific paddocks, each serving a special purpose. Paddocks are divided by sex of cow, nutrition separation, fattening and breeding. This is done so that when cows reach a certain stage, they can be rotated into the appropriate paddock. This rotation prevents overgrazing and as a result naturally maintains the grazing grasses. To further maintain grazing fields Wambiana has 3,000 lawnmowers, they also use cow dung as fertilizer (to avoid any waste) and they also rotate cattle according to the rainy season. Michael explained when fattening cattle the cows are to be placed on the best country, as to provide adequate nutrition during the fattening process. Meanwhile cows which are breeding are placed on the poor country. Before taking us on a walk-about, Michael spoke of the other business practices Wambiana was involved in. Wambiana hosts a people-to-people group to provide kids with an “outback experience”. This introduces kids to a different lifestyle while at the same time diversifying Wambiana’s income and provides them with cash flow independent of land, cattle and weather conditions. Wambiana also participates in “wolfing” (accommodating and feeding international workers in exchange for labor). Lastly, to promote cashflow, Wambiana owns and operates a local (70 kilometers away) supermarket, which is also an external revenue generator. Now that our group was familiar with Wambiana’s operation we headed out to the land to be further acquainted with the intricacies of the land. We were shown the old house where Michael’s parents had lived and the new house which needed to be built given the growth within the family. Outback was a pump station (powered by electricity) which can pump 550 gallons of water for household use. The water is pumped from a cavity 65 feet below ground. It is filtered only by the earth’s natural sands and it was discovered using electro-magnetism. Our group got to see the detection method 1st hand by simply holding metal polls outright, parallel to the ground. When we stepped directly on the cavity our polls would cross. Further along the walk we learned more about Wambiana’s sustainable practices. To control runoff Wambiana plants and grows legumes and also lays mulch from vegetation waste. Our group was also shown a large kettle once used to boil cow fat, to make tallow for oils and soaps. This was done during the long 1970’s drought to maintain cashflow.

Michael explaining how the presence of legume plants and mulched waste help prevent runoff. This runoff prevention helps keep the topsoil fresh and fertile.

Shortly after the walkabout our group sat down with Michelle, the mother of the household. Michelle spoke to the group about the School of Distance Education and the royal flying doctors medical service. Michelle explained because the nearest school is 70 kilometers away it wasn’t sustainable for the children to commute; especially in times of severe flooding. Our group was given the rundown as to what distance education was all about. School for the children is 32 weeks long and the curriculum is consistent with that in the United States. A focus on english, math, science, history, art and physical education is common. Students follow a written learning guide which also features DVD lessons. Every 2 weeks homework is sent in and graded by the teachers, along with a webcam presentation betwen teacher and student. A typical day starts at 8 a.m. with a teleconference for attendance. School is done at 2 p.m. Several times a year the students go into the school to meet their teachers.

In regards to medical attention, Wambiana relies on the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).When an emergency happens during the dry season Wambiana can meet an ambulance half way between the station and the town. However, during flooding it is nearly impossible to make it off the property. Wambiana maintains a runway up to RFDS standards so that when an emergency does happen a plane is capable of landing and providing treatment. Emergency scenarios worthy of aerial evacuation typically consist of ATV and dirt bike accidents, snake bites, and severe burns. RFDS also provides a medical chest consisting of over the counter medication as well as prescription medication. A hotline can be called and doctor approval is required for any consumption of prescription drugs. The medical chest is provided at no cost by the RFDS and Michelle expressed how grateful she and the family was for this phenomenal service.

Royal Flying Doctor Services' Medical Chest provided for free to Wambiana

Once again the family fed us some delicious food. After lunch several group members took turns learning how to use the lasso and bullwhip. Some people even volunteered to be lassoed, but not bullwhipped.  When break ended we made our way into the cattle yards where dipping, branding, castrating, and pregnancy testing took place. Dipping consists of running cows through a chemical bath to rid them of any possible ticks. Branding is done to label the cow’s ownership and also to label what year they were branded (an indication of age). After being branded the cow is castrated using 3 quick slits to each testicle. Castrating is done to prevent independent mating, allows for optimal genetic selection for breeding (controls which bulls mate. 1 bull for 30 females), it also reduces aggression and improves meat quality. Bull meat is very tough and unappealing to consumers. Once the calf was castrated only the brave group members (including myself) sampled the goods. Known as bush oysters we plopped the cow testicles in our mouth. Chewy and Fresh!! Something I’ll never forget. Next was the pregnancy test which I had the honor of doing manually. I was instructed on how to insert my entire arm up the cows anus and then what to feel for. The cow was unexpectedly calm and I surprisingly wasn’t too disgusted. Two more group members also tried their hand at the manual pregnancy test.

Cows entering the chutes and jumping in the chemical bath. (To complete the dipping process). Calf being branded with Wambiana ownership logo & branding year

After Castrating "bush oysters" were cooked a.k.a Cow testicles... Yummy!!!

Manually performing a pregnancy Test. Me and the nursing mother were both smiling.

After our day on the farm we were led into the Department of Primary Industries leased paddocks, where we saw Michael off with gifts to express our gratification. Peter explained how DPI was studying the effects of grazing strategies on the sustainability of land. Although his time was short he made it evident that Wambiana’s conservative, moderate approach was crucial in achieving sustainability and long-term consistent growth.

Peter showing the group a series of charts and graphs. Each graph was an illustrating of grazing strategy measurements.

Next stop and also the last stop of the day was Charters Towers a.k.a “The World” to visit the stock exchange arcade. We learned that gold was discovered here in 1871 by a horse boy accompanied by 3 prospectors. Shortly after the discovery of gold a stock exchange was built in 1888 so that mining companies could fund excavation by selling shares of their company. On the floor of the stock exchange the world price of gold was set. Nearly 40 years after gold was discovered the industry collapsed due to an exhaustion of resources. Now the main industry in Charters Towers is cattle, gold mining, and education. Our tour/lecture quickly ended where we then explored the 1 street drag of town. Tired and sun beaten our group boarded the bus for what was a long drive back through the Australian outback to Townsville.

The Stock Exchange Arcade. Where the world price of gold was set. Located In Charters Towers

-Ryan.

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7 responses to “August 10- Wambiana Cattle Station & Charters Towers

  1. The author’s mention of the symbiotic relationship between cattle and the land is really important, and good to point out. Our group has mentioned in discussions before the fact that not all crops are suited to growing in Australia’s various climates, but the cattle facilities were a great example of using the land efficiently to produce a crop. I would be curious to know what other sorts of livestock would thrive in this environment, and would it be viable to introduce those species to places like Wambiana? Or, what sorts of produce could exist in or around ranching lands? (i.e., would crops like sugarcane be a good complement to the grazing habits of cows?)

  2. I loved going the cattle station and learning about the Lions family way of life and the processes that go into producing beef. I gained a better appreciation for where the beef i eat comes from and all the hard work it takes.

  3. I really enjoyed the cattle station as well. It was hard for me to watch the branding and the castrating. I understand that castrating is important so that the meat doesn’t become too tough and can be sold in the market, but I am not sure that I fully understand why they have to be branded. Also, I really loved the family’s relationship with the surrounding neighbors. They don’t try to push any views or believes onto each other. Live and let live. It seems like many Australians live by this motto and it is really neat to see.

  4. It’s interesting to think how disconnected from the food system we (most Americans) are. Learning the process that brings food to your plate will lead to more holistic views on sustainble eating. It would be very valuable if everyone who eats meat could have the kind of experience that we did.

  5. I found the cattle station very interesting. It was a little hard to watch the branding and castrating, but learning about why it was necessary to do those things made it a little better. It was really neat to learn about the family, how long they have had the farm, and how their children get educated too.

  6. Hosting tours of Wambiana farm is something that sets this farm apart from others. I liked Michael’s explanation of how this added income benefitted the farm beyond the apparent economic gain. He explained that they didnt have to push the productivity of the farmland and livestock as hard because the income from tourism makes up the difference. Michael later said that it is expensive to work against nature and i beleive that this is a great example of this. They could keep a more strict standard on the productivity of the land while degrading it. Instead they found a way to continue making revenue while allowing the land to replenish itself.

  7. During your visit to Charters Towers, one of your students asked me if there was any truth to the rumour that mining was to recommence under the city. Copied here is some news which might interest him, in particular the last line.
    Cheers – LU
    It has been estimated that there exists more gold underground than the total removed in the gold rush.[4] Hundreds of separate mining leases covering an area of 200 square kilometres were consolidated by James Lynch in the 1970s and 1980s and the company Citigold listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 1993. After 89 years the goldfields were reopened and gold was produced again from the Warrior Mine 4 km southeast of the town in November 2006 by Citigold Corporation Limited. Gold is mined from two deposits which are accessed by sloping tunnels.[4] The extracted gold ore is trucked about 10 km south west of the city for processing into gold Doré bars. Citigold has announced plans to open three mines directly under the city to extract gold at a rate of 250,000 ounces per year.[4]
    [edit] Education

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