THE humble and gentle-natured mule is finding its way into feedlot work as forward-thinking operators look for unconventional approaches to improving safety for pen riding and cattle movement.
The longevity, lower feed demands and fewer maintenance costs of mules compared to horses could also provide solid efficiency gains.
The new additions to the feedlot stable could spark big opportunities for breeders of saddle riding sized mules in Australia.
A mule is a cross between a donkey and a mare. They have a larger build than donkeys but retain the agility of a horse.
Livestock supervisor at B Feeders, Rodgers Creek, Kelly Dudley, who is in charge of 10,000 head of cattle and ten staff, has been trialing mules for two years and says they are a sound economical alternative to horses, with the ability to significantly cut down the potential for accidents.
Now Australia's largest privately-owned cattle lot feeder, Mort & Co, has kicked off a five-animal pilot program to investigate the use of mules across their operations.
Grassdale feedlot manager Marcus Doumany said mules were renowned for being very sure of foot, making them ideal for completing tasks in wet and slippery conditions and intensive situations where horses were prone to shy.
The purpose of the pilot program was to test these assumptions with the aims of developing a safer alternative for such circumstances, in conjunction with the use of horses, he said.
Mort & Co have purchased three mules from the United States, due to the limited availability of saddle bred and trained mule stock in Australia.
The animals were bred by a Mammoth Donkey over mares that compliment the donkey with disposition and confirmation.
They landed in Australia in late June and are in two weeks of quarantine, before travelling to Grassdale Feedlot.
Why mules work
Ms Dudley flagged the idea of trailing mules as part of the Australian Lot Feeders' Association Young Lot Feeder of the Year competition last year.
She came across mules whilst overseas. They are widely used throughout north and south America as a reliable, safe tool in feedlots and on ranches, she said.
"Mules inherit the flight response of a donkey," Ms Dudley explained.
"If a horse is startled by something or slips, their instinct is to respond with flight. This can lead to a rider being thrown or injured. A mule, when startled, will face the threat first and assess.
"Their excellent self-preservation allows them to sense dangerous situations and alert riders of hazards ahead.
"The mule's hooves are smaller and more upright than those of the average horse, which contributes to their sure-footedness over varying terrain."
Further, the hard wall hooves eliminate the need for horseshoes.
Ms Dudley said mules also had exceptional physical soundness, and were more maintenance-free than an average horse. They were less likely to suffer from leg issues.
They don't require hard feed such as grain, which is what horses are normally fed to maintain a healthy condition. They only require roughage and don't over-eat.
Mort & Co general manager of operations Scott Braund said it was important to maintain traditional pen riding methods alongside the use of mules.
"Our interest in mules is not to phase out horses from our operations, but to support our teams with a safer alternative for selected situations," he said.
"Horses will remain a major aspect of how we undertake daily duties, from cattle movements to monitoring livestock health."
Mule breeder David Scholl, Dallarnil in Queensland, imported a Mammoth Donkey from the US this year with the view to producing saddle riding sized mules.
He said the emerging feedlot demand provided big potential, given there were only around 50 mules in Australia at the moment over 14 hands.
The first foals to be sired by the Mammoth Donkey are due next March.
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