Australia’s pastoral companies – land ownership & changes; corporate & family

Most of Australia’s largest pastoral companies, whether publicly or privately owned, list the cattle stations, sheep properties, farms and feedlots owned, on their websites. This was not always the case and it is probably only done these days to help secure the attention of prospective employees.

The Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) is publicly owned and Australia’s largest pastoral company, with more than 500 staff and 485,000 cattle running on 7.7 million hectares (approximately 1.2% of Australia). The strategic geographic spread of these quality landholdings becomes obvious when viewing a map of the property locations. AACo owned stations include:

Northern Territory: Anthony Lagoon (commonly known as Anthony’s Lagoon), Eva Downs, Brunette Downs, Avon Downs and Austral Downs in the central and southern Barkly Tableland region; plus Delamere, Montejinni and Camfield to the north west in the Victoria River District. (The Barkly Tableland’s Rockhampton Downs was also AACo-owned, for sixty years, until early 2009). Queensland: Lawn Hill, Canobie, Wondoola and Dalgonally in the northern and southern Gulf Country; Carrum, near Julia Creek; Headingly (Georgina River), Brighton Downs (Diamantina River) and South Galway (Coopers Creek) in the northern and central Channel Country region of far western Queensland; Goonoo, Goonoo Feedlot, Meteor Downs and Glentana in eastern central Queensland, plus Wylarah and Aronui Feedlot, in south eastern Queensland. What is now the Australian Agricultural Company was created in New South Wales in 1824, and the last of the original NSW landholdings were sold only relatively recently – Goonoo Goonoo near Tamworth in 1985 and Windy near Quirindi in 1996 (after 165 years of continuous ownership). However the move into northern Australia actually began a long time ago. Avon Downs, on the NT’s Barkly Tableland, was purchased in 1921, and Queensland Channel Country property South Galway was bought in 1948, along with a second Barkly Tableland property, Rockhampton Downs. The AACo head office moved from Tamworth (regional NSW) to Brisbane (Qld capital) prior to the public listing of the company in August 2001. There are more head offices of the largest Australian cattle station-owning companies located in south eastern Queensland, than anywhere else.

The North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCo) is another company with a head office in Brisbane. NAPCo owns Australia’s second largest cattle station, Alexandria, and neighbouring Mittiebah, on the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tableland. NAPCo also owns Queensland properties Roxborough Downs, Glenormiston, Marion Downs and Coorabulka on the Georgina River, Monkira on the lower Diamantina; Boomarra and Coolullah in the Gulf Country, Kynuna Station (between Cloncurry and Winton); Cungelella in southwestern Qld, Landsborough in north central Qld; Gordon Downs in central Qld; Goldsborough in the south near Roma; and Wainui Feedlot in the south east corner of the state. NAPCo, Jumbuck Pastoral and S. Kidman & Co are all privately owned, century-old companies that don’t buy or sell properties frequently. And they rarely receive publicity of any kind. They have no reason to.

Adelaide-based S. Kidman & Co Ltd (S.K.) was begun by the legendary ‘Cattle King’ Sidney Kidman in 1899, and it remains in family ownership today.  This is a truly amazing feat for such a big land owning company. S.K. owns Ruby Plains and Sturt Creek in the southern East Kimberley district of Western Australia; Helen Springs, Brunchilly and Banka Banka on the western Barkly Tableland region of the Northern Territory; Macumba and the world’s largest cattle station, Anna Creek, in northern South Australia, Innamincka in the far northeast, Quinyambie on the SA/NSW border and Tungali Feedlot in southern South Australia, at Sedan. The other Kidman cattle stations are in far south western Queensland, mostly on Cooper and Diamantina channels draining from distant parts of northeastern NT and northwestern Qld, or other more local drainage systems that run well off naturally bare, stony hills such as Greys Range. These stations include Glengyle on Eyre Creek, Durrie on the Diamantina River, Morney Plains on Morney Creek, neighbouring Morraberree on Farrar’s Creek and the Diamantina River, Durham Downs and Nappamerrie on Cooper Creek, and Naryilco on Warry Warry Creek with the tail end of the Wilson River and Cooper Channels in the north. In early 2009 Kidmans sold Sandringham, north of Bedourie, to Mick & Marie Gibson (owners of western Queensland’s Bulloo Downs, amongst other places).

Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) was a family-owned empire until 2009. CPC owns 16 properties in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. Carlton Hill, Ivanhoe and Argyle Downs are in the East Kimberley district of WA. Plus Mimong near Kynuna (between Cloncurry and Winton in Queensland’s north west), Isis Downs and Mt Marlow – historic properties near Blackall in central western Queensland, that formerly ran sheep; Nockatunga, located between the Wilson River and the south eastern edge of the Cooper Channels in far southwest Queensland, and Allawah Brahman Stud, south west of Rockhampton in central Queensland. The other half of the CPC-owned cattle stations are located in the Northern Territory – Newry and Kirkimbie close to the NT/WA border, Auvergne, Humbert River and Manbulloo in the Victoria River District, Dungowan on the Murranji (Buchanan Highway), with Ucharonidge to the south and Newcastle Waters on the Stuart Highway, on the western edge of the Barkly Tableland. Ellerston, the historic property East of Scone in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, was retained by Kerry Packer’s family when the remainder of CPC was sold in early 2009 (90% to Terra Firma, with 10% retained by long-term CPC manager and part owner Ken Warriner.)

McDonald Holdings (MDH) is another family owned company that has now been around for a while, and as pointed out on the MDH website, it is the largest family owned and operated cattle station owning business (there are other large, family-owned pastoral companies however often the shareholders live in capital cities and do not actually work within the business, either on the ground or in the office). 12 Queensland properties are owned by MDH – Rutland Plains and Dunbar, in the northern Gulf, close to the southern edge of the Cape York Peninsula region; Iffley, a central Gulf property; plus Brightlands, Devoncourt, Stradbroke and Chatsworth, south of Cloncurry, where the McDonald family are based. Plus Verdun Valley and Mt Windsor south of Winton, Kierawonga and Leitrim northwest of Rockhampton in central Queensland, and Wallumba Feedlot, west of Dalby in the southeast corner of the state.

Adelaide-based Jumbuck Pastoral Company dates back to 1888 and is owned by the South Australian based MacLachlan family, with Hugh MacLachlan the current Managing Director. Jumbuck Pastoral Company is unusual because all properties owned are in WA, SA and NSW rather than NT and Qld as is usually the case for companies of this size. However Jumbuck, as the name suggests, has traditionally focused on wool production. Jumbuck Pastoral-owned properties include cattle stations Meda, Kimberley Downs, Blina and Ellendale in the West Kimberley district of WA, sheep properties Rawlinna and Madura Plains in southern Western Australia; and sheep and cattle stations Gunbar and Tiarra in central western NSW. All six other properties are in South Australia. Five are straight sheep properties – Commonwealth Hill (Australia’s largest sheep station; 1 million hectares running 55,000 Merino sheep), Mobella, Mulgathing, Bulgunnia and McCoy’s Well; plus Mount Victor which also runs cattle. There’s a simple reason why most sheep properties are family owned (whether large or small businesses) – there’s good money to be made in sheep but only with very conscientious and careful management. It has been said that any fool can make money out of cattle. Mismanage sheep and they’ll all turn up their toes before you can say Jack Robinson. There’s no room for slackness, clock-watching or extended holidays.

Acton Land and Cattle Co (Actons Super Beef) is another Queensland-based cattle company, with a spread of 7 properties from northwest Queensland’s Barkly Downs and Millungera north of Julia Creek; to Moray Downs, located northwest of Clermont; and Iffley, Deverill and Twenty Mile, southwest of Mackay; down to central Queensland properties not far from Rockhampton – Croydon Station, Paradise Lagoons and Mountain View. They also own four other Queensland cattle stations which have just been put on the market – Rugby Run, between Mackay and Clermont; plus Tyrone, Crewkerne and the historic Bowen Downs, in the Muttaburra/Aramac area (between Longreach and Hughenden). Principals of Acton Land and Cattle Co are brothers Graeme and Evan Acton.

Sir Graham McCamley and his late wife Shirley added renowned Malborough (central Qld) property Glenprairie to the family cattle station empire in 2005, when it was bought along with Fitzroy Vale and Lake Learmonth, in partnership with Allen and Carolynne Nobbs.  The Nobbs family retained ownership of Fitzroy Vale and Lake Learmonth (with very valuable irrigation) while the McCamleys retained ownership of Glenprairie. In early 2012 Glenprairie was offered for sale in 3 portions, listed for sale with Ray White Rural.   Tanderra (6,500ha) and Oakley-Stoodleigh (13,600 ha) have been run as ‘Glenprairie West’ and were offered bare of stock.  Glenprarie as a whole (including Tanderra and Oakly-Stoodleigh, not just the Glenprairie block of 26,600 ha) was passed in at auction on 18 May 2012 after a bid of $55 million, way under the estimated asking price of around $80 million.  Graham & Shirley McCamley’s daughters remain on the central Queensland family cattle stations Tooloonbah and Tartrus.  Both were purchased by Graham McCamley in the 1950s – Tartrus as a completely undeveloped block, in 1954, when he was just 21 years old.  Glenprairie has a blue ribbon history – originally settled by renowned explorer-pastoralists Nat Buchanan and William Landsborough.  Glenprairie was owned by Sir William Angliss in the 1950s, the Vestey family’s Western Grazing Company and Robert Holmes a Court’s Heytesbury Beef company, from whom Greek Shipping company owner George Hadjieleftheriades bought Glenprairie in 1997 .

The McCamley family purchased Glenprairie from Gregory Hadjieleftheriades, whose Alice Springs Pastoral Company was run by David Warriner at the time (ASPC General manager 2001-5).  In 1980 Alice Springs Pastoral Company bought the historic, blue-ribbon Bolaro Station at Adaminaby (backing onto the Kosciuszko National Park, in the high country of southern NSW) plus central Queensland properties of Fitzroy Vale (purchased from Western Grazing in 1992; situated right on the Tropic of Capricorn) and Oakleigh (bought from Actons Land and Cattle Co in 2001).  Gregory Hadjieleftheriades’s late wife Pamela was Australian.  It was under Gregory’s ownership that Glenprairie Station obtained organic status more than a decade ago, so the cattle obtain a premium price.

In 1989 Robert Holmes a Court bought some cattle stations from Sherwin Pastoral Company and the Holmes a Court family-owned company Heytesbury Beef still owns a number of cattle stations in northern Australia. Included are Flora Valley, between Halls Creek and the NT border, in the southern East Kimberley District of Western Australia, and Nicholson, situated right on the border. (Sadly Nicholson is another station that has been downgraded to unmanned outstation status, in recent years. Nicholson is now run as an outstation of Flora Valley.) Other cattle stations owned by Heytesbury Beef are located just over the border in the Northern Territory’s Victoria River District. These include Birrindudu, between Halls Creek and Kalkaringi, just north of the Tanami Desert; and what is arguably Australia’s most well known cattle station amongst the general public, Victoria River Downs. Moolooloo, Mt Sanford and Pigeon Hole have traditionally been run as outstations of VRD however they are now run more autonomously; though management is still overseen by the General Manager based on headstation Victoria River Downs. Paul Holmes a Court is CEO of Heytesbury Beef, and his mother Janet Holmes a Court is Chairman of the controlling group, Heytesbury Pty Ltd, and the John Holland Group. Head office is in Perth. For a few years there was a Heytesbury Beef office in Darwin however that was closed in 2006 when Eva Downs and Anthony Lagoon was sold to the AACo.

The Twynam Group is a unique pastoral company commenced in the 1970s by Argentinean John Kahlbetzer. With a focus on properties that run livestock and grow grain, oilseed, horticultural, citrus and fibre crops, including high water use crops such as cotton and rice, all properties are top-drawer; located on major inland rivers in western New South Wales. Many were renowned wool producing properties, some famous Merino studs, however the Twynam focus has been on cropping. Twynam properties include Collymongle Station at the junction of the Gwydir and Barwon Rivers, between Moree and Walgett (cotton, grains, cattle); Buttabone on the Macquarie River at Nyngan (cotton, grains, cattle); two properties west of Forbes on the Lachlan River – Jemalong (cattle, crops and citrus) and The Mount (feedlot and grains); Merrowie and Brooklyn on the Lachlan River at Hillston (cotton, grains, horticulture, cattle and wool); plus four properties on the Murrumbidgee, east of Hay – Gundaline (which includes Toganmain and Cooinbil), (cotton, grains, rice, cattle), Mungadal (grains, rice, cattle, wool) and Cobran (cotton, grains, rice). Twynam has a Sydney office however John Kahlbetzer lives in Beunos Aires, and along with sons Johnny and Markus, the family also own an Argentinean pastoral company, Liag, which commenced in 1982. Liag involves a vertically integrated livestock business plus dryland and irrigated cropping. Properties have a wide geographic spread within Argentina, being located in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Formosa, Salta and San Luis. Twynam have sold several Australian properties over the last decade, such as Boolcarrol and Milton Park near Narrabri and most recently Steam Plains, a renowned woolgrowing property near Conargo (southern Riverina). Macquarie’s Paraway Pastoral Company was the buyer. Twynam also listed Mungadal and Cobran for sale last year however they have apparently not yet been sold. In May 2009 the Australian Federal Government (i.e. us, the taxpayers) paid Twynam Agricultural Group a record water rights buyback amount of $303 million Australian dollars for 240 billion litres of western NSW irrigation water entitlements. John Kahlbetzer was already listed at the time as number 33 in BRW’s  ‘Rich 200′ list, with an estimated wealth of $609 million.

T.A. Field Estates is another family company owning New South Wales pastoral properties, growing crops and running livestock – in particular, fine wool Merinos. T.A. Field Ltd was registered in 1923 however the company story began back in England, where Thomas Alfred Field and Herbert Field were born. Their father was a butcher and the Field family emigrated to Australia in 1885. In 1900 the Field brothers Thomas, Herbert and Sydney inherited the meat retail and wholesale business their father had built up. They began to purchase grazing properties and around the time of WWI controlled approximately 30% of Sydney’s wholesale meat trade directly & indirectly (through interests in other companies). In the mid 1930s the brothers divided the company. Tom owned half of T.A. Field Ltd, which included ownership of properties Belalie (between Barringun & Enngonia), Warrana, Bimble (Coonamble), Burrawang and Congi (between Bendemeer & Woolbrook). Congi is one of the five properties still owned by T.A. Fields, and is currently managed by family member, Michael Field. Tom also personally owned Willandra Merino Stud and Lanyon (southest of Queanbeyan). When the company interests were split Herbert received the properties Giro (Nowendoc), Merrowie (Hillston), Red Hill and Widgiewa (Morundah) but remained a director of T.A. Field until 1938. Other properties that have been in Field family ownership include Hunthawang (Hillston).

Bell Potter Securities is the largest private client stockbroking firm in Australia, owned and run by three Bell brothers – Colin, Lewis and Andrew; plus an import from Scotland, Alastair Provan. Bell Commodities Limited owns Burrabogie Pastoral Company and F.S. Falkiner. The historic Riverina Merino sheep studs Boonoke and Wanganella, as well as Mulberrygong and Burrabogie, were purchased from Rupert Murdock in 1990. The Bell Group properties grow broadacre crops (seasons permitting), run a fabulously good quality herd of Ironbark (Barraba) bloodline Herefords; and are home for what is now the largest Merino stud in the world.

There are a number of other large family/family dynasty owned cattle station-owning companies.

The Menegazzo family’s Stanbroke Pastoral (formerly publicly owned, though then on a much larger scale, by insurance giant AMP Limited) owns a number of northern cattle stations.

Western Grazing Company (Gambamora Industries - the name of the Oxenford family dairy farm on the Gold Coast), is owned by Brian Oxenford’s family.  Brian Oxenford began in the dairy industry and moved into inland grazing properties in 1983 with the purchase of a Muckadilla sheep property – Eurella.  The Vestey family sold off a large number of cattle stations in 1992, and a number were bought by Brian Oxenford – plus the Vestey trading name of Western Grazing.   Former Vestey stations now owned by the Oxenford family include the historic and very large Victoria River District property, Wave Hill, plus neighbouring Cattle Creek; Morstone (Camooweal) and Oban (Mt Isa).  In 1999 Brian Oxenford’s Western Grazing Company bought Magowra (Normanton), then Rocklands (Camooweal) and blue-ribbon channel country station Tanbar (Windorah) – both purchased from Stanbroke in 2004.  In 2008 Allendale station (Augathella) was added to Western Grazing Company’s considerable portfolio.

Georgina Pastoral Company is owned by the Hughes family, based near Mackay on Tierawoomba (Peter Hughes is the principal), and own the eastern NT cattle station, Lake Nash, amongst others. Bill Scott and family own Milo and Thylungra in SW Qld, as well as other cattle stations.

Extended family owners of Northern Territory cattle stations include the family of Ted & Kath Fogarty of the Alice Springs region (former owners of Mulga Park and Argadargada, and long term owners of Palmer Valley, Mount Ebenezer, Lilla Creek, Lucy Creek (Alan Fogarty) and Anningie (Steve Fogarty)), the family of Bill Tapp (Killarney, Victoria River District; Roper Valley, Mataranka; Ben Tapp – Maryfield and Mountain View, also south of  Katherine), the Townshend family (La Belle Downs and Welltree; Henry & Maria Townshend – Tanumbirini, Cape Crawford [Heartbreak]); and the family of Pat Underwood,  owners of Victoria River District cattle station Inverway; John & Terry Underwood – Riveren and Bunda (Kalkaringi), and Midway (Douglas/Daly region).

Family and private owners of far western Queensland properties include Mike Gordon’s Bydand Pastoral Co, owner of sheep station Mount Margaret near Quilpie (on the market at present), plus NSW properties such as cattle station Cooplacurripa on the Manning River, near Nowendoc (north eastern NSW), and sheep property Old Bundemar near Trangie (western NSW). Also David and Nell Brooks of Birdsville, far SW Qld; founding members of OBE. The Brooks family are based on Adria Downs. Brook Proprietors also own Cordillo Downs, Kamaran Downs, Alton Downs and Mumpieowie, all in the same general region. The Daley family runs Arrabury Pastoral Company (based on a property at Surat?), owning Arrubury Station, Mt Leonard and Cluny, all in the Diamantina Shire (far western Queensland).

There are quite a few middle-sized family-owned pastoral companies that fly under the radar of the media. For example the Harris family, buyers of Rockhampton Downs on the Barkly Tableland – presumably related to the Moree-based Harris family that own Gogo station in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia; as well as farming country around Moree. Another example is the Brisbane-based Russell Pastoral Company, commenced by self-made man Wilfred Russell in the 1890s.The Russell Pastoral Company currently owns a well balanced mix of sheep, cattle and farming properties in southern and central Queensland: Champion and Harden Park (Blackall); Nardoo, Longlands, Clover Downs, Speeling Point and Weelmurra (Cunnamulla); and Jimbour and Grassdale (Dalby). The Russell Pastoral Company has also owned but since sold Beemery (Bourke, NSW), Lila Springs (Enngonia, NSW), Dalmally (Roma), Lancevale and Paradise Downs (Blackall, Central Western Qld) and the Logan Downs aggregation (Clermont, Central Qld). Jimbour (Dalby) has an absolutely magnificent heritage-listed homestead ‘Jimbour House’ which though a private home, hosts regular functions such as wedding receptions and the gardens are open to the public daily for a gate donation. Nardoo Station has enticing tourist accommodation and camp sites ideally situated within view of a tiring stretch of highway between Cunnamulla and Charleville.  John and Trish Dunnicliff, Grassy Pastoral Co,  from a dairying enterprise called ‘Boongara’ on King Island (Tasmania) bought the Elliott (NT) cattle stations Mungabroom and Beetaloo from Peter Sherwin for $20 million in 2003.   The Dunnicliff’s Barkly Pastoral Co runs 40,000 plus head on Mungabroom, Beetaloo and O.T. Downs.  The Venturin family have extensive business interests in Darwin, and own Finniss River Station and Murranji Station, having bought the latter from Danny Webb-Smith in late 2011.  In 1964 Neil Statham bought Sundown station, a large sheep property located between Barraba and Uralla in the New England Region of northern NSW.  Two decades later the Statham family’s Sundown Pastoral Co Pty Ltd added the large Moree cotton growing property, Keytah, to their rural landholdings.

The Paspaley family are a well known pearling family from Darwin, less well known as pastoralists. The family’s Paspaley Rural company has purchased a number of farms in NSW.  Such as Thornthwaite (Scone, 1994), Kurrajong Park (Coolah) and vineyards Bunnamagoo Estate (Rockley, between Bathurst & Oberon) and Eurunderee (Mudgee). In 2009 Paspaley Rural, headed by Nick Paspaley, bought ‘South Tahara’ (Wagga) from the Four Arrows Rural Management Group.

Four Arrows Rural Management was set up by South Australian Rodney Price in 1987, and headed by his son Brandon in more recent years.  The Four Arrows family trust ‘Becbran’ owned valuable Riverina (NSW) properties on the Murrumbidgee River -  South Tahara, North Tahara and Binnowee Dairy (Wagga); Belvedere almond farm (Narrandera), Tubbo Station at Darlington Point (south of Griffith) and Toronga (Hay).  When Rodney Price filed for bankruptcy in 2009, the six Four Arrows Rural Management properties (although owned by a family trust) were put up for sale and sold within a year.

Ever since white settlement there have been a large number of institutional investment companies involved in agriculture, purchasing rural portfolios beyond the means of most individual investors.  One of the most recent institutional investors in Australian agriculture is the Macquarie Pastoral Fund. The Macquarie Group’s Paraway Pastoral Company owns a number of blue-ribbon cattle, sheep and cropping (including irrigation) properties, primarily in NSW.  These are listed on another blog page.  The Macquarie Group has also created a separate investment fund called Lawson Grains, specifically to purchase cropping enterprises.  Around March 2012 Lawson Grains bought the first two farms – dry land cropping property Kealandi (near Moree, NSW) and  another cropping property at Munglinup (near Esperance, WA).  Several months later the Macquarie Group also created another investment fund, called Harris Dairies, to purchase dairy farming enterprises.

One of the most recent cattle station empire owners is R.M. Williams Agricultural Holdings (RMWAH).  RMWAH properties are also listed on another page.

There are also religious organisations that own rural property. Top of the list is Ag Reserves Australia Ltd – a company fully owned by the Utah (U.S.A.) based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – commonly known as Mormons. In addition to rural properties in the U.S., they also own farms in Canada, Mexico and Argentina. In Australia they primarily own Riverina irrigation farms – the massive Kooba Station and Benerembah at Darlington Point (south of Griffith), Bringaree at Carathool and Booberoi at Euabalong. The properties run purebred Wagyu cattle and sheep; and grow a vast range of crops – rice, corn, horticultural crops, stonefruit, olives, nuts and others. In a BRW article written in late June 2006, journalist Adele Ferguson says that the media spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Stephen Coy, said that they decided ‘not to take the religious exemption status for the business it operates, on the grounds that it is a global religion and does not get such exemptions overseas.’ He said Ag Reserves was not making a profit at that time but will pay tax when a profit is made – this may of course been the case since the article was written in 2006. (This is in contrast to the Seventh Day Adventist-owned business Sanitarium; (based in Maryland, USA) which has charitable tax exemption status; competes directly with tax-paying Australian food manufacturing companies, eg the makers of Vita Brits; and is presumably able to export tax-free earnings back to the parent company in America.)

There are other smaller, but nonetheless significant overseas investors who own large tracts of land but who also keep a fairly low profile. Such as GP Cattle Pty Ltd, a Dutch company that purchased Cotswald near Condamine (southern Qld) then in 2007 purchased sheep stud Portland Downs, at Isisford (central western Qld). The two Australians on the board of GP Cattle Pty Ltd are Warwick Yates of Ferrier Hodgson (Brisbane) and John Cox, Managing Director of Stanbroke Pastoral Company when it was sold by AMP. Though Portland Downs was a highly regarded merino sheep stud, it now only runs cattle.

Apart from Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) empire, there are other high-profile media business owners who own rural properties. For example Tim Fairfax (of the Fairfax Media empire), who has just added Biloela district properties Orana Park and Shenandoah to Minnie Downs (Tambo), which he bought from Stanbroke in 2004. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch still lives on Cruden Farm (Lanwarrin, Victoria), the working farm given to her by her husband Keith Murdoch, on their marriage in 1928. Son Rupert Murdoch owned the famous Merino sheep stud Boonoke as well as several other Riverina properties, before selling them in 1990.

The Myer family have also been involved in ownership of large and distinctive cattle properties and horse studs; such as Sarah (nee Hordern) & Baillieu Myer’s Yulgilbar Station (near Grafton, northern NSW) and Elgee Park Quarter Horse Stud (Mornington Peninsula, Victoria), and El Questro (WA), owned by Will and Celia Burrell (nee Shelmerdine – part of the extended Myer family). And more than one QC has invested in one of Australia’s largest cattle stations. This list includes the late Sydney-based Frank McAlary QC (owner of the blue-ribbon Mount House station, east of Derby WA; and property at Glen Innes, NSW), and Melbourne-based Allan Myers QC (long-term owner of Dunkeld Pastoral Company [Western District, Victoria, where he grew up] and more recently owner of Theda Station [bought in 2001 - far northern Kimberley Region, WA] and Tipperary & Litchfield stations [northern NT; bought from WA property developer Warren Anderson in 2003).  Tipperary is held under the companies names of Tovehead Pty Ltd and Branir Pty Ltd.

There are a handful of unique pastoral businesses that have developed a supply chain from on-property breeding and fattening right through to  supply of packaged meat to wholesale suppliers, or even their own retail butchershops.  Australian Country Choice is a company started by the late Norman Edward Lee, in 1958, and still owned by the Lee family. The first land purchase was Brindley Park near Roma, in 1961 and a feedlot was set up on Brindley Park in 1968.  From there things progressed slowly but surely, with beef processing facilities built up (Cannon Hill) and more beef breeding properties purchased.  Carcase supply to Coles commenced in 1972, and organic processing certification was obtained in 2000.  The Lee Group Pty Ltd’s Australian Country Choice company now owns a number of  Queensland properties, mostly in central western Queensland.  Cattle breeding properties include:   Babbiloora, Barngo, Redford, Wellclose, Sharpham, Chesterton, Nielia, Listowel Valley, Gifford, Black Mountain and Mooga South.  Plus the backgrounding property Bundilla, an irrigation hay production property near Roma and the Brisbane Valley feedlot near Buaraba.  Leased properties have included Mt Tabor, Gifford, Lynbrydon, Dooloogarah, Mooga Hills, Gunadoo and Antion.  ACC continues to supply beef and veal to Coles under a long term contract, as well as to export customers.  A very solid and substantial beef production business has been built up by the Lee family over the last 5 decades.  Trevor James Lee is the current ACC Chairman.

There are also large pastoral empires that have been built up over decades or even generations, then scaled back.  Sinclair Hill became well known outside of rural Australia when coaching Prince Charles and Kerry Packer in polo.  In the late 1990s Sinclair Hill began selling  off many of the properties acquired.  Properties sold  include Redford and Babbiloora, which Australian Country Choice purchased.  Fernlea, Boanbirra and Yunnerman near  Bollon were sold several years ago, along with Spring Creek and Doobilba on the Paroo River near Wyandra,  Taylors Plains, Hoganthulla and Winneba between Augathella and Mitchell.   However other properties remain in the Hill family – Tooloombilla and Womblebank near Mitchell, and Terlings near Moree, which Sinclair Hill inherited from his father.  Sinclair Hill lives in Centennial Park in Sydney, and in the late 1990s campaigned energetically to save the nearby Royal Showgrounds from becoming privately owned, when the NSW government rezoned the land and handed Australia’s richest person, Rupert Murdoch, a $7 million grant towards establishing Fox Studios.

Of course the best way to acquire pastoral property is to make your money in the city in another business, or in mining in the bush, then buy up agricultural land as you can afford it, while still keeping the off-farm income.  Evan Ryan is a good example.  He grew up in Mt Isa, worked for Mount Isa Mining (MIM), created the independent Choice Petroleum Company in 2000 (sold to Ausfuel – major shareholder is Archer Capital - in December 2011) and has interests in a steel company – Steelforce Australia.   Along the way Evan Ryan has bought cattle and sheep stations in north Queensland, including the cattle breeding station Inkerman, on the eastern side of Queensland’s Gulf Country. Colin Ross is another example.  Colin is Managing Director of the HSE Group, a company that started with small earthmoving jobs in 1991 and grew to encompass a large mine earthmoving business & earthmoving equipment rental business employing more than 700 people in Qld, WA, NT and NSW.  Headquartered in Perth, HSE Pastoral also owns Limbunya Station (NT), where a unique ‘Life Skills Programme’ commenced in August 2010.  Trainee Operators of heavy earthmoving equipment must complete Limbunya station’s 4-week long Life Skills Programme if they wish to be considered for employment by HSE mining.  HSE Pastoral also owns Venture and Kui Downs (between Emerald and Capella, Qld); purchased in 2005 & 2006 respectively, and well developed with leucaena plantings etc, however both Venture & Kui Downs have been listed for sale.

The best-selling coffee-table style books  ‘A Million Acre Masterpiece’  &  ‘Life as an Australian Horseman’ contain nearly 500 photographs taken on many of Australia’s largest and most well known cattle stations.  These unique books contain images and information on a number of the NT, WA & QLD stations mentioned above.  Ideal corporate gifts, they can be easily mailed direct, worldwide.   For further information,   contact Fiona Lake.

Where do most corporate investors buy? Those up the top of the tree know the old adage about land being the one thing that you can’t make more of; and quality being the single most important factor when choosing what to buy. While private corporate buyers such as the Myer and Packer families choose top drawer working farms/rural retreats within relatively easy reach of southern capital cities, usually not much more than an hour’s travel time away, the largest investment in big acres occurs in northern Australia. Companies buy or setup feedlots in close proximity to graingrowers and abattoirs, such as Queensland’s Darling Downs and in central Queensland. They buy a geographically diverse spread of good quality properties to guard against all the stations being hit by severe drought at the same time. Large properties are chosen as economies of scale are possible. This means buying in Queensland’s Channel Country, the larger Gulf places, some of the larger properties in the softer country in the central west; the best quality properties in the top half of the Northern Territory; and the southern half of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, with handy access to the main highway. Plus larger sheep and cropping properties in the Riverina and central western New South Wales, and cropping country in top-drawer cropping regions, from Quirindi (NSW) north through Moree to the St George region of southern Queensland.

There are some advantages in properties being owned by large companies. There is often money to spend on major infrastructure repairs and maintenance and major capital works, very large amounts of money that private owners struggle to find. Larger companies can take risks that smaller operators would have difficulty justifying; most have survived for generations by being conservative. There are also community and production advantages in cashed-up buyers who were raised in the bush but had to move to the city to earn a crust, like Andrew Forrest, buying back into the bush (usually, buying back the family farm they grew up on, as he did). Such buyers are usually determined to keep the property efficiently producing food (or fibre, as the case may be), and they usually have the capital and interest in making essential repairs to everything from fencing, waters, pastures and stock breeding to houses and sheds. These owners can bring a sense of optimism to the surrounding community, helping to stabilise the value of land owned by surrounding farmers, and some are generous philanthropists.

Larger pastoral companies have traditionally been training grounds for large numbers of young people trying out a career in agriculture. This has been a win-win situation – pastoral companies need large numbers of employees with varying skill levels, and pastoral company employment has given many school leavers a start in agriculture which they’d have struggled to get otherwise. Many boys raised in the city dreaming of escaping to a life in the bush have gone on to climb the pastoral employment ladder while others have returned to family farms with much broader experience than they otherwise would have had. Unfortunately this very positive training-ground aspect of corporate ownership has greatly reduced over the last decade. This is because many companies have become very frustrated with the increasing difficulty of retaining skilled employees (exacerbated by the drain to the mining industry), and/or they have become more greatly controlled by short-term thinking upper-management bean-counters who haven’t fully thought out where the good quality station managers will come from in years to come. This change has resulted in a reduction of permanent employees to a bare minimum skeleton staff on increasing numbers of cattle stations, with the employment of contractors for several frenetic weeks or months of the year to do the mustering. Mustering contractors are under great pressure to get the job done with maximum speed and efficiency and most do not have the time for entry-level apprentices/trainees – so they greatly favour employees that are already experienced and/or who grew up in the bush. Thus outlets for young people who grew up in cities but who want to start a rural career, have a lot more trouble finding employers willing to take them on now. The reduction in a permanent workforce on cattle stations also has a hugely detrimental effect on the social life in the surrounding region, which discourages other young employees from remaining, and it quickly accelerates a downward spiral of reducing population and reduced local services.

Family farms aren’t large employers but when it comes to efficient production of good quality food they’re nearly impossible to beat. Because it’s not just unadulterated dollar-chasing, family farmers take more personal pride in what is produced – which means there’s an inbuilt safety mechanism with regard to the health safety aspects of the food being produced. Unfortunately buyers with a straight finance background usually buy rural land purely as a capital investment. This ‘real estate’ valuation rather than business valuation pushes the purchase price beyond the reach of family buyers who are increasingly scratching their heads and realising that there’s no way a place bought for $10 million, for example, can actually make a decent return on investment – apart from realising a capital gain when it is sold. They’d make more money sticking the cash in the bank and raking in interest, risk-free. Most family buyers buy without the intention of selling, because they’re thinking about the next generation, so capital profit rarely interests them because they have no plans to realise it. The last thing they want to do is sell their land, and there’s no point in realising the capital gain if you have to fork out even more money to buy a replacement property, anyway. You can’t eat capital gain; you need cash flow in the meantime, so the current values put on rural land are increasingly squeezing out family businesses. This would not be the case if food and fibre producers received more in their pockets in return for their primary produce; this would make the high land prices reasonable. But low wholesale prices for primary produce is an age-old problem – primary producers are ‘price takers not price makers’, and that doesn’t look like changing; middlemen will remain the ones to take minimum risk and receive maximum profit.

One other group of cattle station owners is worth a mention. These are the private buyers who are rapid-empire building. If one property after the other is added to the portfolio in relatively quick succession (over several years); almost invariably (unless they’ve won the European lottery), it is because their places border on to under supervised National Parks or half asleep neighbours with a lot of ‘wandering’ cleanskins; they’ve bought well developed, quality assets for good prices and asset stripped or at the very least neglected essential annual maintenance (forget about capital improvements completely). Or there’s been other dodginess involved. More often than not, it’s a combination of all of the above. Unfortunately, these owners can usually be spotted a mile away and people in the pastoral industry know exactly who they are, although the general community are often impressed because they think the properties are all owned outright rather than being mortgaged up to the eyeballs. There always seems to be several around on the horizon, but they tend to come and go – a lot of this rapid empire building is done on borrowed money, and the inevitable combination of high interest rates, low commodity prices and bad seasons usually brings the whole pack of cards down within 6 years or so. These rapid-empire builders are very detrimental to the industry because their spending can inflate property values while they run down good quality properties that others have spent decades building up. And without exception, they are appalling employers. While they do usually crash and burn, no mud ever seems to stick – almost none have ever received criminal convictions. I am constantly puzzled by this group of people. Very often they grew up in the bush, but they seem to have no genuine, deep love of the land, and the empire-building often seems to stem from some sort of inferiority complex – a desire to own more than anyone else simply for the sake of it. But at the same time they are usually very secretive, although some of their financial deals are so spectacular they are reported in the mainstream media.

Employment in the pastoral industry: When it comes to employment in the bush, all pastoral companies, whether publicly or privately owned, and whether large or small, have their own advantages and disadvantages. What appeals to one person won’t suit another. For example some people simply like to be able to tell others they worked on a very fashionable or famous property, while others couldn’t give a toss because they’re after a quality employer, an unusually friendly working environment or an extra good place to learn as much as possible. Anyone starting a career in the beef or wool industry is well advised to obtain as varied experience as possible – working for a range of different owners and in locations across northern Australia, both large and small operators, spending at least a year at each place, before figuring out who to settle in with for a longer stretch. This varied experience and widespread networking provides a solid foundation for a long term career. It’s the sort of experience that may be taken for granted at the time but could prove invaluable later in life. At the very least, it will provide a far more interesting bunch of memories than someone who just sat on the one place or who worked for just the one employer. Or someone who put in a brief appearance on a show pony place.

* note – this original blog post was written a while ago, and although it is not kept comprehensively up-to-date (this would be half a full-time job, weekly), additional information is often added. If you have any additions or amendments to suggest, it would be much appreciated if you could let me know.

Note: this blog post is protected by copyright, like the rest of the website text and images.  Images available for commercial use, and can be accompanied by quality captions and text.

Tags: , ,