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WA Innovation Road Trip to Cheela Plains

Posted by Bestprac on Oct 14 2009

Jane Garrett, WA Bestprac Group Facilitator

Waking before dawn, 4:00am to be precise, and not used to being up and around at this hour we finally found the kettle for that all important first cuppa of the morning. The bus, driven by Alan Green of Shark Bay Coaches, picked us up at 4:30am and away we went on our way to the Cheela Plains; a 950km trip which we expected to take about 12 hours. Collecting Brian and Mary Wake from Hamelin Station at 5:30am our next stop was Wooramel Roadhouse to collect Tim who had made his way from Meedo Station, some 45kms away. Our final pick up was Tim and Chris Higham, and their daughter, Daisy, the owners of Meedo Station, who had decided that a crack of dawn start was not for them and, sensibly, had decided to overnight in Carnarvon. With bags packed and final shopping done we hit the road at around 9:00am, (nearly forgetting the all important ice!). Daisy was to stay with her cousins at Winning Station, a cattle station about 2 hours out of Carnarvon, we arrived to find them busily mustering but did not have time to stop for long as too many kilometres were ahead of us and we needed to arrive to pitch our tents before dark.

The journey was long, uneventful but passed through some amazing country in red iron Pilbara region of WA and we finally arrived at about 4:30pm. The road from the Northwest Coastal Highway has very little traffic and as we were coming closer to Cheela Plains we were worried we had missed the entrance, having passed the entrance to Wyloo Station, from which Cheela was separated in 1991, many kilometres before. Eventually, we found a sign to the homestead and were guided about 2km off the road to a fantastic home constructed from sea containers and with a wonderful view. Our party were to be housed at the staff quarters; some 5km further down the road at what was Robin and Evan’s first home on the station and again another converted trailer. On reaching the entrance the track led us over a hill and to a beautiful view of the entire Cheela Plain, of the river systems and to the hills beyond, none of which visible from the road and to our ‘home’ for the next 2 nights. It was close to ‘beer o’clock’ so pitching tents and setting up camp as quickly as possible we were all enjoying that first one of the day when Guy and Susie Morrison from Wharonga arrived with their camper trailer. The plan was to relax away the evening ready for an early start and a talk by Evan Pensini at 7:00am the next day and a full day touring the station.

Up bright and early we had breakfast and Evan arrived bright and cheery ready for the talk. We were joined by Jason Hastie from Pingandy Station, just 100km to the south, but a drive that had taken him 3 hours! Jason had bought Pingandy about 2 years ago and was interested to learn about rotational grazing from Evan. Evan started by presenting us with the history of the station; how it had been split from Wyloo Station in the 1990’s and had been in a badly degraded state and how he had, almost single handily, over the next 10 years rebuilt the land to support cattle. The country had suffered for 200 years by the running of a European land system on a country that is very different in geology and in climate. The day was to be split in two; separated by lunch and we headed out in three 4WD vehicles to view strategic areas of the station.

Evan took us first to a spot where the land had yet to recover and to a site where an original water tank, now not used, from the 1800’s was situated. A picture is below:
As can be seen in the photo the land in the forefront has no vegetation and is covered by rocks; it is here where there is no top soil to promote re-growth and the clay base subsoil is exposed. In the background growth of Buffle grass can be seen around the base of the old water tank.



When Robin and Evan took over Cheela station the land was badly degraded and in poor condition and they set about creating a system of intensive rotational grazing to match stocking rates with land carrying capacity and food on offer as well as a long, slow process to repair the land. Much of the land repair was a learning process. The land at Cheela has a clay base and top soil, much of which has been eroded through changes in the land. It is within that top soil that re-generation of plant growth takes place, without it, no generation can happen and the land remains bare. Seeds of grasses and other plants may exist deep into the soil but until conditions can support germination no growth will happen and plants will not grow to feed the cattle. Top soil can be created by decaying living organic matter but it is a long slow process and mechanical rehabilitation makes no economic sense. Evan demonstrated a top soil test which very rapidly showed if the sub-soil system will promote plant life. He took the top from a water flash, turned it upside down and put on it a small amount of water, into the water he placed a small amount of soil taken from the area under test. If the soil disperses in the water it cannot be built up economically to support plant life. He stated very clearly that natural rehabilitation of the land makes economic sense improving it artificially will not.

As the land recovers plants begin to appear; at this time and in certain regions the plants are of the dry-arid type when 40,000 years ago this land was a wet land river flood plain so the natural vegetation has changed. As the land recovers and changes so the plant types change; weeds that appear can bring necessary nitrates to the surface which will support the required type of plant life and are a sign of land recovery.

The correct process to determine stocking means a careful analysis of the plants types and vegetation. Cattle have their preferred plants or 'Ice Cream' plants as Evan calls it and will naturally seek out their favourites before eating other food on offer, this means the 'ice cream' plants are over grazed and stocking has to be carefully managed by subdividing paddocks to ensure they are uniformly grazed and to ensure the survival of all plants in a region. Top soil regeneration happens through degradation of organic matter and the cattle too are providers of plant and seed distribution and help in its creation. The photo below shows a plentiful paddock that was last grazed in February/March this year and the single wire electric fence in the foreground.

The objective of the rotational grazing is to match the stocking rate to carrying capacity and the socking rate is managed by the food on offer. Feed budgeting is planned for 6 to 12 months ahead and at any time Evan knows how many cattle can be grazed. Rainfall can be sparse and if there is no grass to feed the land will be de-stocked; differing from the set stock system.


Evan started by creating a 4 paddock system in the centre of the property by using a nose height, single wire electric fence, with water points every 2km and moving livestock between the paddocks. Provision of water needed to be developed, historically tanks had been sited at strategic areas but planning for the next 20 years Evan made the decision not to use existing infrastructure unless it fitted into his new strategic plan. Drawing a 20 year ideal plan and overlaying this with the existing infrastructure he developed a best fit between 'ideal' and what could be afforded. The water system was put in and the land sub-division followed. Movement between paddocks is done on horse back or sometimes by motor bike using a PVC pole that signals to the cattle that it is time to move. 

We’d been driving for about 2 hours and listening at various stops to Evan’s talk but had not seen any cattle and were beginning to wonder if they were just a myth. So after lunch Evan took us to a watering point with a mob of cattle in a paddock. The watering point is situated in a corner of the paddock and close to the fence to prevent the cattle from lying around it and preventing others from drinking.

Water is treated with urea; the photo left shows the group next to the high water tanks that supply the property into which the urea is mixed before distributing to the station’s water points.




Herds arrive from different regions to graze at Cheela and on arrival Evan treats them to a drink after their long journey and a time to rest, and then he sets about training them to respect the electric fence using LSS techniques. Training is normally done within 24 hours of arrival; it takes about 10% of the herd to touch the fence before they know it needs to be avoided. He offers them food before moving them to paddock to encourage their association with him as being the provider of feed and not a threat. The photo below shows where the cattle arrive and one of the locations where Evan will string an electric fence to start the cattle’s training. 






By late in the afternoon we all getting weary, including Evan who had talked nearly all day and imparted immensely valuable knowledge so it was time to return to camp and crack open the first beer of the day.

The group kept Evan talking until 7:00pm when we finally allowed him to return to his family. The WA Bestprac Group is extremely grateful for him entertaining us so well, especially so, as he was due to fly out with this family to Robin’s home in Texas the day after our trip. A good educational time was had by all!






Here’s a photo of our group just before the long trek home.

Last changed: Feb 15 2012



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