Choppers for Mustering

Our mustering chopper/s are based in Boulia …5km as the crow flies from the Goodwood house…on this nice calm winter morning, you could hear the choppers long before you could see them. We normally only use one chopper, but since this muster was at Mudgeacca in amongst the Hamilton Channels, we used two choppers for this muster.
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When I worked on Brunette Downs in 1981/82 they used helicopters for mustering. Being 15 years of age and very “green” to the workings of a big cattle property, and the Governess…as much as I was very keen to learn and be a part of the team at Brunette…I can imagine I also thought it was none of my business re mustering, using choppers, the business end of the property…but I did know a lot of the pilots were ex Vietnam vets, so no doubt knew how to fly (huge respect) and were based at VRD…Victoria River Downs.

I remember one ringer, the only available person at the time, for this particular job, that wasn’t too keen on flying and was asked to go with the chopper to show the pilot the paddock that had to be mustered. It so happens that the chopper lost one of its skids, or part thereof, while they were on their flight. As I reminder, the ringer had to exit the chopper while in flight…rescue the missing piece, get back in the hovering chopper. Then on their return, had to exit the chopper while it hovered above the ground, assemble four 44 gallon drums, so the chopper could land on them. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but I can still see this ringer’s ash-coloured face when he walked into “The Saddlers Arms” that night for his quota of beers.

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When Rick and I lived on Cluny Station, outside of Bedourie, they used a fixed-winged light aircraft, that was based in Boulia, for mustering. Not near as suited to mustering as a chopper but no doubt had its place, a stepping stone to the advantages of aerial mustering, and obviously very useful having a pair of eyes in the sky…searching for cattle. Fixed-winged aircraft were more spotters of cattle/stock, than musterers.

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Before we started using choppers full time for mustering, we contracted our neighbour who owns a gyrocopter aircraft as well as #BossMan’s brother, Peter, who flew a Lightwing aircraft.
I can remember the first time Peter used his Lightwing to muster Black Mountain, decades ago, where we use to run our breeders. Plenty of gullys, stunted gidgee …plenty of hidey holes for a few cows, who had got cunning over the years, of first horse musters and then motorbikes …parking themselves in a spot where they were hidden and just standing very very still until they could no longer hear the sounds of man.

Then came the day that their hide and seek actions were spotted…from the air. Peter, with an “air” of “top dog” …the one who had to be listened to, given he was giving directions to those on the ground. Which including his father who was “Boss” at the time, to where the cattle were. Peter found a cow’s hiding spot in a clump of gidgee…Peter was adamant the cow was in the gidgee, Rick on the ground, on a bike would not have seen the cow but for Peter seeing her from the air, even though Rick was right beside the clump of gidgee.

“she’s there, she’s there” Pete would call over the UHF as he flew over the gidgee.

There were many cattle, a large percentage, at the start of our aerial mustering, that did try and hide. So the “eyes in the sky” add so much to mustering … a “clean” muster, adds so much to management …environmental, animal welfare and also economically.

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On this day…one chopper came straight in to land near our “good dump” …

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…and the other swung round, and came in from the east

One of the reasons we didn’t get choppers for mustering earlier than what we did, between the time of using our neighbour and Peter’s Lightwing and when we did, was where they were based. There were none based close handy and when you have to pay travel to and from as well as the mustering time…the expense had to be considered.

When we lived on and worked Lucknow (120km east of Boulia towards Winton) we used the chopper based at Middleton (between Winton and Boulia)…about 60km by road from Lucknow…one of the best aerial mustering pilots you will ever see was our Middleton based pilot…not taking anything away from the young pilots we have today, they are brilliant.

As our Middleton-based chopper pilot made life on the ground so much easier on cattle and our crew, the expense of getting him to do work on our blocks closer to Goodwood, #BossMan felt it was worth it.

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I have mentioned my admiration for these pilots many times. There is one thing to fly a chopper and there is another to have the capability to “read cattle” which is a wonderful thing for the animal welfare of our stock…which of course is our number one priority.

For example on the day of this muster…I could hear the pilots on the UHF radio but not the ground crew …pilot to #BossMan “there’s a cow here about to have a calf, (or not far off calving) I’ll leave her behind” (it was like a question and statement, all in one)

I couldn’t hear #BossMan but I could only imagine the reply would have been “yeah Mate, leave her, she’ll be right there”

I smiled to myself, happy for the cow, happy we have great pilots that know animal husbandry, that have our stock in their best interest just like we have.

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Since there were two choppers #BossMan and Tojo got a lift down to their motorbikes, left in the paddock to be mustered a day or two earlier. Hence the choppers landing at home and me taking the opportunity to get some photos. BossMan and Tojo were then on hand at the right spot, less riding involved for them, ready to hold cattle, mustered by the choppers. Two other bikes and a car (#Goodwood and #Mudgeacca Crew) joined in at various points, to help as the cattle gathered together to walk them to the yard.

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Another huge positive to having choppers to muster is human welfare. The fact that our workers don’t have to ride channels, mustering is easier on them and their bikes.

Before my time, when they used horses to muster here, there were so many days getting the horses ready for muster, getting the horses to where the muster was, then on the morning of the muster walking the horses to start a muster. Don’t get me wrong, I love horses and know they have their part in our industry, in our nation’s history…I am just making an observation as to the time spent on mustering here, back in the day, to the time mustering nowadays.

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Today, the choppers would be booked, and if trucks were needed they would be booked too, usually well in advance cause both are in demand during the cooler months of the year when properties are mustering and shifting/selling cattle. The bikes would be serviced and loaded onto vehicles/trailers, either taken down to the paddock on or before the day. Avgas ordered and placed handy for the choppers to refuel when needed. Amount of vaccine checked, as well as NLIS tags, gas for branding, and all the branding/yard work gear checked and loaded. Usually, this equipment is loaded the afternoon of the muster, or first thing the next morning depending on daylight, ready for yard work the next day.
The womenfolk usually make sure there is plenty of cornmeat on hand and the biscuit/smoko containers are full.
Our mustering team isn’t gender specific, and the jobs beforehand are given to those that best do the variety of jobs, to set the muster up to be the best it can.

Bacon and eggs sandwiches, breakfast, are usually made for the menfolk, including the pilots, basically, because the womenfolk here don’t want one…plus there are cornmeat, homemade tomato relish, onion, cheese, tomato, beetroot sandwiches made for later…usually eaten when all the cattle are gathered together and blocked up to mother up or just have a spell for a bit…there is always biscuits, slice, cake as well as fruit on hand as well.

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The mornings are early, the days are long, but the pace is “slow” …thanks mainly to the wonderful efficient work of the chopper pilots. Gathering the cattle, and directing them to the crew on the ground. The crew on the ground are told by the pilots where best to position themselves.

If a pilot doesn’t know a paddock before mustering, BossMan usually goes with them first up to show them …pointing out landmarks and fences etc …both these pilots had mustered the paddock at Mudgeacca before today…but, and that is a big but, these pilots muster other properties, other paddocks, many many flight hours between mustering our paddocks…and they remember them once they have flown them once, no matter where they are flying …no doubt they use equipment to help them mark paddocks to fly directly to them if they are coming from somewhere else in the huge area they work in. Remembering which way the cattle run, where water points are, how people like to muster, the names of workers, which channel UHF people work on.

We do get extra people in for mustering, “contract musterers” that we work alongside, as well as  the chopper pilots and truck drivers…maybe an agent, if we are selling cattle.

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As the second chopper took off, that little prayer went up…regardless of where they are mustering we wish them a safe return home. These two pilots are both known to use personally…friends of ours and our crew…we know their families …and regardless of that, we wish all mustering pilots safe flights and musters. Like we do our truckies.

When all my crew is home safe every night, I am so grateful. Like a mother hen with all her brood tucked around her. Crap happens in this line of work, regardless of how careful you are.

Good mustering chopper pilots are like every “good” worker in our industry…essential…and benefit our top priorities.

If you have never had the pleasure of watching a good mustering pilot in action, you are missing poetry in motion. Like a person that can handle a horse, dog, vehicle, bike on the ground to manage cattle for their benefit as well as the humans…that is exactly what a chopper does. Truly pretty to watch, admired, with respect.

I myself have been so very grateful to be “rescued” by that ringer in the sky, when cattle were trying to do their damnedest to beat me back to the channels etc …cattle/stock can count you know…or have the knowledge that if there is only one person they have a better chance to “break” then if there are even two people. Pleased to say, I have never been beaten…close… a bit of hard riding or driving…no doubt a lot of swear words, given a certain “leader of the pack” its full “colourful” pedigree …but also I’ve never really mustered scrubbers. The cattle I have mustered are “educated” and there would have been one or two amongst them that thought it best not to be mustered, for whatever reason, most likely their attitude. I might also say, this hasn’t happened for many many years. Our own breeders are normally pretty good to handle. Some bullocks may have an attitude but normally our musters don’t have any drama. That I might add is due to practices put in place, better handling, and time spent on weaners, so that our cattle have no need to have attitude or fear of being mustered and yarded.

I might add, that back in the day, when I had to stand my ground so to speak, the adrenaline rush, my determination to not be beaten added to my sense of accomplishment, and not letting the team down, was a pretty good feeling. Even if I was shaking, once all was in order again. Plus I have never had a buster off a bike or damaged a vehicle…winning, I must be a lucky one.

The fact that the choppers make it an easy muster, when you have had the occasion of having to deal with “attitude” cattle, no doubt makes me appreciate the chopper even more than those without the experience.

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I’m adding this photo as it comes to mind talking about being rescued by choppers…this photo was taken in October 2011…I think it may feature in another blog from “that” year…this is a Lucknow muster, cows…that isn’t our regular “Middleton” pilot but he was taught by him and the same company. On this day, we were two workers down. #BossMan was elsewhere and workers we had organised came down with some illness. There was me in the car, two fellows on bikes, thank goodness for their skill and work ethic, and our chopper pilot. This pilot went above and beyond on this day. I still remember smiling and admiring his skill many times this day. This photo shows one of those times…it was decided to put the cows that were mustered onto the road, which is fenced on both sides, and for me to be with them. Hopefully, I could manage them or at least contain them. While the rest of the muster, another paddock, continued with bikes and chopper.

As you can see it isn’t the smoothest going and I was no doubt in a dual-cab Hilux if I recall. I was trying to keep the cattle on one side of the road as the roadtrains heading east (remember the year) were numerous and we try very hard not to disturb trucks (especially with livestock) movement.  Then to add that one more thing, to a character-building day, I got a flat tyre. As I was changing it, this scene unfolded before me…which was just too good of an opportunity to not stop changing the tyre, grab my camera (back in my Pentax days) which would have been on the passenger seat and take some photos …yep that chopper is doing what should have been my job, he has come away from mustering the other cattle to help me, to get the truck on its way, quicker and keep the cattle moving in the right direction. I know if #BossMan was there and saw me taking photos instead of changing the tyre in this situation, I most likely would have got a bomb…but look at this memory, the history in it…the yarn with it… to share, even 10 years on. 

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As the light changes depending on my angle of taking photos, so does our industry, moving forward…but that top priority being animal welfare stays the same, which incorporates our environment …if we don’t look after our soil, we won’t grow the feed (when it rains) to look after our stock.

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This muster is one of those that weighed heavy on the heart ❤️ at the time of making the decision…but a no-brainer when it comes to looking after our breeders and soil. We didn’t get summer rain and what feed is left won’t handle the number of breeders and their calves we have left. So the wet cows (lactating with calf at foot) and their calves are being sold, to a family who has bought our cattle before. This family, not too far east of here, totally destocked a few years ago, cause they were so dry at the time…now they have feed aplenty. So the girls (cows) and their calves, will be very grateful I am sure.
We aren’t trucking for a few days yet (04 08 2021). The cows and calves have been left in the holding paddock, to mother up and recuperate after the muster and drafting. Muster was Friday 30 07 2021. Cows and calves were put into the holding paddock on Saturday 31st, after drafting to separate the dry and wet cows.

We needled the dry cows (not lactating with no calf at foot), that are PTIC (preg tested in calf) for botulism and put them in a fresh paddock, Sunday 1st August. They will be given a special lick mix …designed for them and the dry feed they are on in the channels…and let us hope that we do receive a good wet this season…so we can keep the last of our breeders.

So I truly hope you understand how important these stock mustering pilots are…for this muster alone…let alone the hundreds they do every year…the fact that they had gathered all the cows together and were ready to leave the muster by 11am…that there is a good guarantee they would have done a clean muster except for the cow they left behind about to calf.

Our cows have lost that “hide and seek” attitude when mustering…they are usually well behaved, come together, know the drill.

Our cows and their calves will go to good feed, our soil will be left to rest until rains come. No cattle will go into emptied paddocks until the natural vegetation has seeded after rain …regardless of how long that takes.

Not taking anything away from our crew of workers, it is a team effort. A good crew in the air and on the ground, is a winning combination for our cattle, soil, business in general. They may all do it as if it’s nothing to write about, but as you can see I feel it is something to write about, to record.

I started my photography journey at Brunette, and while doing so as a young teenager I knew I was taking photos of history. Taking photos of memories that will last forever. That have jogged memories, that have told a yarn, of history, and made people smile and think. Just like this blog and photos will do in a decade’s time, I hope.