WITH more than 30 years on the road, you’d expect drover Bill Little to have covered everything in his job, but the great Brinkworth cattle drive is his toughest challenge yet.
The head drover is responsible for the 18,000 head of cattle bought by South Australian pastoralist Tom Brinkworth, who paid a bargain price of $8 million to the Australian Agricultural Company earlier this year.
Mr Brinkworth, a long-time admirer of Australia’s cattle king Sidney Kidman, chose to walk the cattle instead of trucking them, to Uardry Station, near Hay, in southern NSW.
In his 30 years as a drover, Mr Little’s done plenty of big trips, but this is his largest consignment.
The drive started with nine mobs, beginning at Longreach in June, but as each mob reaches the NSW border, its number is reduced.
“Now we’ve got 12 and it looks like it’ll be 16 different mobs by the time we get to Hay,” Mr Little said.
“We’ve been trucking some of the stragglers along the way and I brought a few hundred up to the first mob from some of the last groups.”
The mobs are spread from Moree to Mitchell.
“The boys in Queensland are doing it a bit tough because it’s extremely dry in some spots,” Mr Little said.
“From the border back to Roma was the worst stretch, but they’ll be right once we’re down a bit further.”
There’s plenty of logistics work behind the Brinkworth drive, but plans are always changing.
“The original plan was to head straight to Wee Waa, but because we have to do an anthrax vaccination, we’ll walk the cattle to Narrabri and then head west,” Mr Little said.
“The other mobs will probably be vaccinated at Moree.”
Mr Little’s cattle should reach Hay by Christmas, but then he’ll link up with another mob to help them home.
“I live on the road. The worst thing about not being on the road is that you’re not getting paid,” he said.
The biggest challenges on this trip have been the dry weather and water shortage, along with fenced-off stock routes in NSW.
“There have been some big distances between water holes. At some places we’ve pumped our own water from dams to troughs and carted water in,” Mr Little said.
“We were told the feed was pretty ordinary at Moree but the cattle think they’ve died and gone to heaven. They’re loving it.”
The overuse of feed permits in fenced stock routes has also made it tough.
“It reduces the feed available and the width on the road. By the time the last drovers come through it could be a big problem.”
Mr Little and his top drover, John Cooper have become quite the celebrities – Mr Little showing off his droving skills and Mr Cooper showing off his trademark teeth.
The widespread media coverage has helped showcase the enormity of the task.
“We struck a bit of opposition early on with some of the councils in Queensland, but the publicity has helped because they’re less likely to put up barriers,” Mr Little said. “I’ve always had a profile and been pretty vocal around stock route issues, but I’ve never had this kind of attention.”
The cattle cover between 8km and 10km each day.
“NSW drovers are used to having a bit of a park and staying longer at each place, but we’ve got a job to do so we’re always on the go,” Mr Little said.
“Sometimes we’ll have a rest day, but even then we’re doing about 5km a day.
“On a drive like this, every kilometre counts.
“We can be fined if we don’t do our mileage in Queensland, so we’re used to it.”
Drovers of any experience – even those who had never been in the saddle – have taken to the task.
“Plenty of the other drovers have put backpackers on and some of them have no experience,” Mr Little said.
“You can get ones that have never been near cattle but they work it out pretty quickly.”
The first mob will head west towards Wee Waa, but some could go east to Warialda.
“We’re hoping to stay west where we can use the bigger stock routes,” Mr Little said.
“The LHPAs (Livestock Health and Pest Authorities) want us to split the mobs up, but we get paid per head so we’d rather go west if there’s enough feed and stay with the bigger numbers.”
Teen mixes it with the best
ONE of the youngest faces of the Brinkworth cattle drive is Rosie Higgs, a 13-year-old girl from Melbourne who’s up for the school holidays.
Rosie’s sister Lily, 21, is one of head drover Bill Little’s apprentice drovers in the first mob.
“Lily wanted to prove herself in the farming community so she went to work at a dairy,” her mother Mary-Anne Higgs said.
“She was persistent and kept ringing Bill asking for a job.
“My husband Warren drove her up to Longreach in the 33-year-old Volvo and she got straight to work.
“The girls are both so very lucky to have this opportunity.”
According to Mr Little, Lily’s a natural.
“She’s a hard worker and she’s good with the cattle,” he said.