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Legends work on in tough climate

ABOVE, MAKING IT WORK: Brothers Mervyn and Lloyd Ruhle gave up dairying in the 1980s when demand for cream was replaced by pressure to produce milk.
ABOVE, MAKING IT WORK: Brothers Mervyn and Lloyd Ruhle gave up dairying in the 1980s when demand for cream was replaced by pressure to produce milk. Toni Somes

ASK 78-year-old Clifton farmer Mervyn Ruhle why he's still working the land after more than half a century battling the seasons and he laughs.

"I have to keep it up, because there's no jobs going in the railway," he joked.

This optimistic landholder, who has farmed country with his brother Lloyd since finishing school in 1951, has survived floods, droughts and "unpredictable" cattle and grain prices.

Together the pair have traded as Ruhle and Son and at their peak they had close to 360ha of country between them in the Allora and Clifton areas.

Today the mix of cultivation and cattle country they oversee is closer to 110ha.

"Lloyd is a few years younger than me, so I've had all the responsibility all these years," Mervyn laughed.

"Thing is, we've always worked well together and I don't think there's any secrets to family partnerships, except hard work."

It's been so dry the cattle have given the ground a fair gnawing. We didn't get any sorghum in, so we'll be waiting to plant oats in February to tide ourselves over a bit through winter.

Their grandfather settled the homestead block, which still forms the heart of their operation, in the late 1890s.

Then in 1905 their father, Cecil Harold Ruhle, was born.

He was one of 13 children - nine boys and three girls - raised on the 65ha home block in a time when farming families were self sufficient and everyone grew their own vegetables and had orchards, chooks and pigs.

"I wouldn't like to be doing that now," Mervyn said.

"But when Dad was growing up it was pretty much the same case for every family."

Later his father married Florence Irene May Bott from Ellinthorpe and the couple had four children - Mervyn, Lloyd, Valerie and Freddie.

"Valerie married Terry Fogarty and lives at Missen Flat and Freddie lives the other side of the (rail) line, but we helped him get started."

For Mervyn it was always going to be a case of going home to work.

He loved the land and "didn't mind a bit of tractor work" so after sitting scholarship in 1951 he headed home to work.

A few years later his family invested in additional country, just west of Allora, but home remained the family farm on a ridge overlooking Clifton.

Farming was social back in those days (today he reckons you are lucky to get a break at all) but back then he joined Junior Farmers and it was through this association he meet his wife Elma Fowler from Pittsworth.

The couple have four children - two boys and two girls - and for the most part Mervyn believes farm life offered them a quality country childhood.

"At the start we were dairying, but we stopped that when the butter factory closed down and they started wanting milk, instead of cream.

"We had a family partnership and blocks all over the place. It was getting harder to bring cattle home along the road so we gave it away.

"And after that we got more sleep."

For a time they kept their core Friesian herd, running the breeders with a Hereford bull and producing the progeny for the beef market.

Today they run between 100 and 120 Hereford breeders, depending on the season, selling grain-finished young cattle in the 400-450kg weight range through the Warwick saleyards.

"We sold at the butchers' sale between Christmas and New Year and got 1.87c/kg for the steers and 1.68c/kg for the heifers," Mervyn said. "I can never understand why you get less for the heifers.

"It's not like you can go into the butchers and ask for heifer meat because it is cheaper."

Selling on a buoyant cattle market is the upside on what could be a difficult season.

This year the Ruhles missed out on early rain, which means they didn't plant sorghum and although they have forage in the ground it's "patchy".

"There will be some gaps in our income now too," Mervyn explained. "We might have to go into the bank to carry on, but let's hope not."

When the Bush Tele caught up with the Ruhles they were carting water for stock in a paddock where the natural spring that runs into Spring Creek had dried up.

"Even though we've had a bit better than 40mm of rain, it's going to take a bit more than that to get things back," Mervyn said. "It's been so dry the cattle have given the ground a fair gnawing. We didn't get any sorghum in, so we'll be waiting to plant oats in February to tide ourselves over a bit through winter."

Despite the constant battle to survive in the farming game, Mervyn sees himself working for a good while yet.

"You'd think at the age of Lloyd and I, after all the hard work we've put in, we'd have a bit to show for it.

"But, the bad years eat into your reserves, and expenses are so high these days.

"Our diesel bill each month is $2500, and a tonne of seed costs you close to $1000, and that's before you add fertiliser and other costs.

"I'll have to stick at it though, cause there's no jobs going in the railways for old blokes like us.

"But you know we don't mind a bit of hard work and I don't doubt we could out work a few of those young fellas - even now."

Topics:  cattle drought livestock