The cattle industry in Australia is one of Australia’s major land users. In 1998, it occupied an area in excess of 200 million hectares. Beef production areas are generally located in northern and inland Australia.
Cattle station is an Australian term for a large farm whose main activity is the rearing of cattle. The owner of a cattle station is a grazier or pastoralist. A drover is a stockman, labourer or roustabout on a cattle station. Mostly a drover drives cattle over long distances.
Aborigines have long played a big part in the cattle industry. They are competent stockmen and drovers on cattle stations. In 1950 it was legislated that the Aboriginal workers are to be paid cash wages.
Sir Sidney Kidman (9 May 1857 – 2 September 1935) was an entrepreneur and pastoralist who owned huge tracts of land. Starting from nothing, he built up a huge pastoral business. He also had interests in many other rural industries such as transport. He was knighted in 1921.
During WW2 roads and communications were greatly improved in the Australian outback. The Federal government established a Civil Construction Corps comprising of volunteers and conscripts. It provided the workforce for a wide-ranging construction projects on the home front.
It was a carry over from the colonial era that foreign companies owned vast tracts of territory in Australia. They owned many Australian cattle stations, especially in the Northern Territory. They did not pay tax to the Australian government. In 1950 income tax was introduced to Northern Territory landowners. Very large stations were subdivided. The country was made available with reasonable conditions of tenure to local entrepreneurs. This saw an influx of adventurous, working stockmen. They did well by mustering clean skins (unbranded cattle) on their new land.
Zebu cattle were imported from Pakistan in 1956. Brahman cattle were imported from the USA. Many new breeds were developed from these imports. This led to cattle that were more tolerant to the Top End (N.T.) heat and cattle ticks.
In the early 1970s interest rates soared. The American beef market collapsed causing a beef depression. A fat bullock was then worth less than a pair of locally made elastic side riding boots. In the wake of this crash by 1978 the cattle herd was reduced to 21.8 million. In the 1980s there were many technological developments in the beef cattle industry. Live exports of cattle and sheep were a big boost for the industry.
The Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) was a national program to eradicate bovine brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis. It commenced in 1970 after years of local jurisdictional activities. Roads and communications were further improved as a result of the Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign. In 1979 a disastrous drought struck. It continued into 1983 becoming one of Australia’s worst droughts.
In 1988 Australia entered the Japanese beef market with improved expectations for a better future in the beef cattle industry.
The North Australian Pastoral Company Pty Limited (NAPCo) is one of Australia’s largest beef cattle producers. It has a herd of over 180,000 cattle and fourteen cattle stations in Queensland and the Northern Territory. The Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) manages a cattle herd of more than 585,000 head. Heytesbury Beef Pty Ltd owns and manages over two hundred thousand head of cattle across eight stations spanning the East Kimberley, Victoria River and Barkly Tablelands regions in Northern Australia.
Cattle station has a parallel term, sheep station. It’s for stations carrying sheep rather than cattle. In most cases the stations are in a rangeland context on pastoral leases. Some stations are not exclusively for cattle or sheep. They have a mix of both and even goats to make the owner less vulnerable to fluctuations in beef or wool prices.
Australia is the world’s second largest live cattle exporter. Brazil is the largest. But Australia has by far the largest individual cattle stations. Some Australian stations are larger than some European countries. Australia’s largest cattle station is Anna Creek Station in outback South Australia. It covers 6,000,000 acres or 34,000 km2. It’s larger than Belgium (30,000 km2) and almost 6 times larger than the biggest American ranch (6,000 km2.)
Why so big? Australia is dry with sparse vegetation so a large amount of country is needed to make cattle farming economically viable. This method of cattle farming is different from anything anywhere else in the world. It’s a natural way for the cattle are basically wild. They’re usually born and grow up without any human contact. They’re grass fed and rarely require any chemical treatment. There’s a difference in taste between a steak from the Kimberley and one from a grain feed lot.
The size and remoteness of Australian cattle stations defines the isolated life style. Often the next human settlement is a day’s drive away. Outback cattle stations usually have a small airstrip. A plane regularly delivers mail, groceries, hard ware, the outback Chaplain and the R.F.D.S.
Medical emergencies are treated by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). It’s an aero medical health service for people living in the Australian outback. Whenever there’s an accident or illness, the R.F.D.S. is contacted by radio or mobile phone. Paramedics arrive by plane and whisk the patient to the nearest hospital. That’s usually in the nearest city.
Station children do not go to school. School of the Air and correspondence do their education. In the past the teaching medium was the HF radio. Today it’s satellites, computers and wireless broadband. Older children continue their education by attending boarding school in capital cities.
Northern Australia has a distinct dry and wet season. Mustering is done during the dry season. It’s a season of intense work. The dry season is the longest with the wet season lasting about 4 – 6 weeks. Little work is done during the wet. Often a wet season does not come (drought).
Most mustering is done on horseback. A lot of it takes place far away from the homestead. There’s no time to travel back and forth every day. The workforce camps where the mustering is happening. Horses are vital to the operation of a large cattle station. Traditional horsemanship skills are still essential in this modern world.
Helicopters and motorbikes were used to round up cattle. Helicopters and motorcycles are unnatural. They cause the cattle stress so the quality of their meat deteriorates. Most cattle stations have reverted to horses.
The Australian Cattle Dog is a herding dog used for droving cattle over long distances across rough terrain. It’s a versatile and intelligent dog. They move reluctant cattle along by nipping at their heels.
Station life is hard work. It starts before sunrise and continues after sunset. Horses need shoeing and vehicles are to be maintained. The cattle are mustered. The herd is settled and walked to the yards. Calves are separated from their mothers. The cattle are branded. The veterinarian inspects them. If necessary they may be treated. They’re then returned to paddock or loaded onto trucks.
A road train is a trucking concept used in remote areas of Australia to move bulky loads efficiently. It consists of truck pulling two or more semi trailers.
It’s a hard life but many station people would not have it any other way. The station cook is one of the most important people on an Australian cattle station. Good ‘grub’ is one of their few luxuries. It maintains morale and cooking it under camp conditions is not easy.
The cattle industry has etched itself into Australian folklore. In the poem, “Clancy of the Overflow.” What is the Overflow? It’s the name of the cattle station where Clancy worked as a drover. Other poems are; The Ballad of the Drover, Andy’s Gone with the Cattle, The Drover’s Wife, The Overlander and many more.
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