Answering the call from friends to look after the farm while they went away was not a difficult decision. The wet season was well and truly setting in as we left Darwin, and dry heat is much easier to handle than heat AND humidity!
You may not have realised that Paul used to run an alpaca stud many moons ago, and also spent time around horses in his younger years. Therefore the prospect of minding some horses (including trained brumbies), two calves, two alpacas, four goats, ducks and chickens, as well as two dogs, two cats, two parrots and two canaries, seemed like a straightforward exercise initially. The farm may well sound like Noah’s Ark, and many of these animals have been rescued from awful conditions, and now live a happy and healthy life in country Victoria!
Our friends headed off in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, and Kirstine set an alarm for 6.45am. It was wonderful to have a different purpose for getting out of bed, though the morning feeds were done without Paul’s assistance, as his medications make early starts very difficult.
How curious it was to find all the animals “waiting” at the front fences of their respective paddocks, for Kirstine to prepare the feeds in various tubs. Running through the mental checklist of “x” number of scoops for these horses, “x” number for these, feed them in this order, separate the girls to make sure they all get to feed in peace .. day one was a little overwhelming! Not in the least because Kirstine has not spent much time around horses, and found herself more than a little afraid to climb through the fence to move them around when the time came. “Don’t be silly Kirstine, they are more interested in the tubs of food you are carrying, than what you are worried about!”. A stern reprimanding of Self did the trick and the female horses were lead into separate areas to feed in peace for half an hour.
Next task, feed the goats, calves, alpacas and poultry. Goats are funny beings, and have no qualms in trying to mug you for the food you are carrying while you also try to close the gate behind you at the same time!
Within an hour, all the large animals had been fed and accounted for. Time for coffee!! It was incredibly satisfying to sit and watch the sun continue to rise, knowing that we are doing something important on a farm. In the evenings we put the poultry to bed, and spent time watching the horses interacting and enjoying the round bale in their paddocks. After making a list of other chores to do during our stay, we fell into bed exhausted but satisfied. Little did we know that in a couple of days, we’d experience first hand one of the harsh realities of life on a farm.
Making the feed rounds in the morning, Kirstine noticed that one of the calves, Mac, was not one of the usual mob trying to mug her for food when she entered the paddock. A quick hike around found Mac sitting quietly in one of the shelters, completely disinterested in food or trying to stand up. Kirstine got Paul out of bed for that one, and we both tried to get Mac to stand. Thankfully our friends had left a list of emergency contacts, and Kirstine started ringing them for advice on this change in behaviour. We knew that Mac sometimes got tummy aches (to put it in non-farming terms), so we rubbed his tummy, and tried some of the techniques we’d been given to help him feel better. We’d had to phone our friends, though they were in Western Australia, to let them know what was going on. Throughout the day our emotions ran from Hope (Mac has moved out into the sunshine!), to Concern (Mac’s lying on his side), Confusion (Mac’s moved again so he’d in the shade and he’s sitting up!), to eventual Despair, as this angelic faced little calf succumbed in the late afternoon to the snakebite which all emergency contacts agreed had occurred. His bovine paddock mate, Daisy, was confused and stayed by Mac’s side. Luna had even helped to try and get Mac onto his feet, licking his face and nudging his rump. We were with him as he breathed his last, and Kirstine spent most of the evening in tears, having had to tell our friends of the loss of this dear little fellow. Even the horses seemed to know that a family member had passed away, and were all silently standing at their fences to watch us and no doubt pay their respects. The tears flowed again as the truck came the next day from the knackery to remove Mac’s earthly remains, which is the standard practice in this area. A harsh reality (and necessity) even on a farm where animals are like family.
Life is never boring on a farm, and we took pleasure in bonding with the horses, watching a brumby foal gallop around after breakfast, Kirstine’s confidence growing with each day. Coralling alpacas and trimming their nails, opening the chook hut with an element of excitement – “will there be eggs today?”, and taking care of the grounds. Any excuse for Paul to use the quad bike!
A new little calf arrived to keep Daisy company, and should have been called Houdini! So quick was she to try and get between the wires on the fences, that Kirstine could only just grab the tail to keep hold of, while Paul ran for the roll of chook wire and fencing nails. It’s amazing what you can do when you really have to, and we escape proofed the small yard before bringing Daisy down to meet her new friend. Feeding an 8 week old calf from a bottle is a singularly joyful experience, shared quite obviously by the calf as her tail flew in circles like a propeller as she polished off the 2L of milky goodness.
A limping horse was the next concern, and thankfully another contact from the emergency list was able to come and have a look. A horse expert, he was confident in handling the boy with the sore hoof, and was able to extract a piece of fencing wire which was stuck in the most tender part of the hoof. Thank goodness!
Our friends arrived home after an exhausting trip to Mundrabilla Station in Western Australia, where they had joined other trainers to complete a world record – training 70 wild horses from a neighbouring station in 7 days! They have each trained their own wild brumby, rescued from starvation or culling in the Kosciusko National Park, while studying the 4BP method of training in country NSW last year. They form such a bond with the brumbies that they train over the course of a week, that in most cases, the brumby goes home with the trainer. Joe Hughes, who devised this gentle training method, 4BP, has many ex-military/emergency services personnel who go and learn how to train wild horses as a means of coping with the challenges of PTSD and depression. As we’ve been told, once you step into the ring with a wild horse, look into its eyes on day one, and have it willingly following and trusting you, it changes you forever. It sounds phenomenal, and we’re hoping to go and visit Joe before we wrap up the trip. Our experience is with dogs providing emotional support, so it’s no surprise that other animals can do the same thing for mutual benefit.
When you’re on a farm and there is no access to town water, ensuring a constant supply can be a major stressor. It’s not just making sure you have water for a shower, or the washing machine, but also for the animals you are responsible for, and enough to fight a fire if that horrid event were to occur. Our friends went to collect water from a point in a nearby town, nearly every day once they got back. Temperatures were high and the animals were drinking more than usual. It was so wonderful two nights ago, to have significant rain fall overnight! It may have looked strange to have an ear pressed to a water tank, but to hear the strong inflow, was a real boost to the spirits for all of us.
So, we’ve had ups and downs, highs and lows, and a real appreciation for the work that goes into running a farm, even a small one. Are we put off by this? No. Are we already talking about maybe having our own farm once the trip is over? Yes! Do we have an understanding of the positive and negative effects that farming can have? Absolutely. In this respect, a relationship with neighbours, suppliers, customers, and contact via social media is so important. It’s no surprise to see that more and more farms are creating social media profiles for their business. It’s not just about promoting what they provide, but about documenting the difficulties and successes, and giving the outside world a view into the challenges of farming in Australia. Do a search on Facebook for some farm businesses and give them your support!