SHEARING sheep is undeniably hard work at the best of times.
But imagine shearing 35,828 head of Merinos - with almost half the usual number of jillaroos and jackaroos at hand - and in just under three weeks.
Sounds like a pretty big job, right?
Well, for Australia's biggest operating sheep station Rawlinna station, which covers an area the size of Sydney, it was the reality of shearing this season.
Rawlinna staff kept contractors R & B Shearing - led by Roly and Bec Michell - busy with a consistent supply of sheep to finish shearing in record time.
Also impressive was the fact that more than 10,000 lambs made up the total number shorn - a whopping 20 times more than 2020.
For Rawlinna, it is a sign the flock is "well and truly" on the way to rebuilding, after wild dog predation and drought caused lambing percentages to plummet to three per cent in 2019.
So how did the smaller than usual crew manage to shear more than 35,000 sheep in 18 days?
According to Rawlinna station manager Jimmy Wood, having a "few more guns on the board" made all the difference.
As did, a team of jillaroos and jackaroos with a "can-do attitude" and a solid chunk of experience behind them.
"I managed to get a few old hands back," Mr Wood said.
"My guys had a fair bit of experience in them, some having done two to three shearings with me.
"They were definitely made to earn their keep with massively long days, day-after-day.
"The girls and guys did very well and performed when we really needed them."
In comparison, 30,100 sheep were shorn in 2021 and 26,500 in 2020.
This year, wool bale numbers were also slightly up in 887 bales compared to 860 bales in 2021.
Mr Wood expected this year's cut to be slightly finer wool, off the back of three consecutive dry seasons, with slightly lower vegetable matter.
An old school inch of rainfall, two weeks before shearing started, provided some relief in holding paddocks near the shearing shed.
However, Mr Wood said more was needed to help "get things going" again.
"We were slightly down on the wool cut, getting about five to five-and-a-half kilograms in most mobs," he said.
"Some of the sheep - living in parts of the station which have seen a slightly better season - produced more than six kilograms of wool.
"From what I have seen, and talking to the wool classer, I think the quality is certainly better and would be closer to a 19-20 micron average.
"With more than 10,000 lambs coming in, we had quite a number of weaner wool bales - that's where the real money is at."
How has Rawlinna managed to increase lambing percentages by what they have amid a drought?
Mr Wood attributed it to refurbishing 150 kilometres of exclusion fencing, coupled with a consistent wild dog control program.
"Exclusion fencing is the answer," he said - and he's not wrong.
The proof is in the numbers, as lambing percentages reached 76pc in 2021, up on 45pc in 2020 and 3pc in 2019.
Mr Wood even recorded lambing percentages over 100pc in some eastern paddocks on the station.
"I would say we are down to one dog in Rawlinna at the moment and it isn't a very active one either," he said.
"The sheep aren't coming in bitten, the shorn sheep aren't getting harassed going out and we are operating like a sheep station should.
"I have high hopes for lambing this season, it is a bit of a stab in the dark but I think we will get 75pc again.
"Our flock is younger than last year because we have been adding lambs to our numbers for the past two years and this year we sold off some of the really old ewes, so that should help us out in the long-term."
To cope in the conditions, Rawlinna has lightened stock numbers where possible and minimised the handling of the sheep to the best of their ability.
Mr Wood also decided to sell an estimated total of 6500 head of older ewes and wethers in coming months.
He said the deficit would hopefully be filled by the 10,000-15,000 lambs expected to drop this May-June.
Lamb marking and ewe crutching processes could also be combined this year, depending on the season.
This will reduce the number of musters on station and therefore the stress put on the animals.
How do you feed sheep on a station, which spans across 1,011,714 hectares, on the semi-arid Nullarbor Plain?
You don't - nature feeds them for you.
Mr Wood said it would be logistically impossible to feed animals in the paddocks on Rawlinna.
He said large distances, rocky roads and sheer cost of feed and fuel would conspire against you.
Instead, the sheep graze on native vegetation including herbages, spear grass and small amounts of salt and blue bush.
As they already drink salty bore water, they don't really sustain themselves long-term on plants - such as the salt and blue bush - with inherently high salt content.
"The bore water stops them from wanting to eat the salty plants - it just isn't palatable for them," Mr Wood said.
"And I'd be reluctant to give them anything, which would make them want to eat those plants because if they did there would be nothing left.
"When sheep are eating the blue and salt bush as a primary food source, you are knocking on trouble's door pretty quickly."
The rams - who for most of the year live close to home and in only two paddocks - are often fed three to five tonnes of pellets before joining the ewes to ensure they are in a "healthy and strong" condition for the job ahead.
Mr Wood plans to introduce more remote water control monitoring systems in the future to help ease labour at Rawlinna.
But he's also keen to recruit some new workers and encouraged anyone "looking for the experience of a lifetime" to contact him.
"The pastoral industry is certainly in need of enthusiastic people with a head on their shoulders," Mr Wood said.
"If you want to be part of something bigger, more consuming and more challenging than you can imagine, come and work here.
"You too will feel the reward of rebuilding and restocking one of the largest sheep stations in the world.
"On top of that you will start some great friendships and certainly have a few stories to tell your mates or kids one day."
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