Australia’s corporate cattle stations – management standards

I began photographing Australia’s largest cattle stations in northern Australia – above the Tropic of Capricorn – in 1984.  Many of which just happen to be owned by companies rather than families.

I’ve since visited more than seventy cattle stations spread between Cape York Peninsula, Central Australia and the West Kimberley.  There isn’t anyone else who has visited so many of the largest cattle stations over such a long spread of time and observed the differences between regions, owners and management.  Photographing them and writing about them – for magazine stories, books and this website.

The last corporate cattle station I visited was a couple of years ago – and it will probably be the last. Carefully run places that put soil, vegetation, wildlife & livestock management first – yes. Corporates – not unless they’re an exception to what is now the majority.

This decision was really formulated a few years ago it’s just taken a long time to spell it out. Why now? One nail in the coffin was recently hearing about the early weaning of calves onto pellets by one of Australia’s largest pastoral companies, operating in northern Australia.  Not for livestock welfare purposes, simply so the cows get back into calf more quickly.  And:

  • Last week: the NTCA calling for the federal government to provide millions in ’emergency’ funding for livestock transport due to the NT’s drought. A Barkly drought is a surprise that shouldn’t be planned for by careful grazing & numbers management and lightening off early when it’s obvious the wet season is faltering?  No doubt they’ll be calling for millions in assistance when the drought is broken by a big flood, as is often the case.
  • Earlier this year: the death of so many cattle in Western Queensland floods. Nobody could have seen the amount of rain plus the cold wind. But not known that prolonged droughts are almost always broken by big floods, and that cattle in poor condition would struggle to withstand even a moderate blacksoil flood? No. There were many places that should have been completely destocked and they weren’t. Not suggesting drought is easy to manage or these decisions are easy but the definition of stupid is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It’s common knowledge on the blacksoil plain country that in every decade there’s typically several years of savage drought plus a flood. Having spent a lifetime photographing the bush, I could retire now if I had a dollar for every time I’d seen a drought start & stop on a boundary fence.  Yes the worst hit were worthy of assistance but to deny there wasn’t an element of abysmal management also at work is to simply stick one’s head in the sand.
  • And a few years earlier, finding out that many of the largest cattle companies have been greatly increasing the numbers of bores not to improve soil, vegetation, livestock or wildlife management – simply so more cattle could be jammed on and short-term profits maximised.  (Inevitably, at the expense of natural assets, long-term.) Where once there was a vast paddock or two kept aside in case of missed storm rain or bushfire, now every corner is stocked to the max. I suppose this makes sense on paper, when in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide or Perth, to double the watering points then double the cattle numbers.

I’ve defended cattle station corporate owners for many years because they consisted mainly of individuals who had hands-on livestock management experience, who genuinely cared about the land and animals. Real people whose hearts were in the bush, same as most people living on neighbouring family-owned cattle stations. And I’ve always viewed it as very important to make the point that there have been corporate owners who have done a fantastic job of managing the land and there have been and still are family owners whose management is so poor they shouldn’t be allowed to own or manage a piece of land larger than a high-rise balcony.

But now I am so appalled by the fundamental change in northern corporate management of large cattle stations that after 30+ years of photographing them I do not plan to return. Pastoral corporates typically had staff with sound hands-on experience right up through to board level. Now typically management does not, and young employees are too often just on a ‘gap year’, with no intentions of making a career in the bush, they’re more interested in being able to get good photos for their social media accounts so they can spruik about going ringing for a year. (Not knowing that what they do now and what ringers used to do, are almost poles apart.) This isn’t to suggest there aren’t great young people on these large cattle stations – there are – but again, they’re the minority.

‘Virtue signalling’ lip service is now commonly paid to:

  • sustainability (but woody weeds are spreading unchecked across their grasslands)
  • reconciliation (but there are few if any indigenous employees)
  • employment of women (but there are few if any in upper management and probably none at all at board level, or just the 1 token woman, who may not even know one end of a cow from the other)
  • fashion-following – top of the list being tinkering with genetics. It’s undoubtedly only a matter of time before tick fever decimates livestock on the Barkly – possibly when the current drought breaks, as it probably will with a decent flood.  (Not to suggest that breeding & genetics shouldn’t be well managed or changed, but the chopping & changing exhibited by many of the largest companies is just changing the deck chairs around, and at a cost of millions of dollars.)

At least in the ‘old days’, the above pretences weren’t in evidence.

Upper management in one company is outrageously top-heavy – it’s a wonder shareholders aren’t up in arms.

What caused the rot to set in, on Australian corporate cattle stations? There’s a few milestones:

  • The complete shift to motorbikes on large corporate-owned cattle stations, instead of horses and motorbikes for what each does best. Motorbikes not just to scout the outer extremes of paddocks with mustering choppers, to form a mob – but to walk mobs to yards with motorbikes. Or trot them, as seems to be more often the case. As one station owner told me a few years ago, a person can sit all year on a motorbike and still not know anything about managing cattle at the end of it. But stick them on a horse and they’ll unavoidably learn a lot. But really this shift to all machines matters because fundamentally, these large stations have always been inhabited by people who loved horses – not machines. Take away the horses from large stations with stockcamps and you’ve removed the industry attraction for almost all your best prospective employees.
  • Deliberately targeting employees with more years of formal education (many of whom plan to leave and go to uni after a year on a station). You can’t run a show full of wanna-be chiefs, you also need indians and long-term commitment to learning all that needs to be learned. A couple of decades ago employment of southern state residents ramped up to the detriment of locals, when it’s the born & bred regional locals who are most likely to be committed to remaining in the north long-term. (Yes there’s exceptions. I am one.)
  • Abolition of aspects that require real cattle or horse handling skills, teamwork and friendly rivalry that ramped up ability. Such as bullcatching, bronco branding and throwing. And even just mustering and yarding up. The former aspects some considered unsafe but ironically these activities increased skills which actually made employees safer around livestock.  So often it’s now ‘leave it to the helicopters’.   Many pilots complain ground staff don’t have the skills but it’s catch 22 – if not given the go-ahead to muster and yard up without aerial support, how will they develop the skills and confidence?  (In contrast, roping on cattle properties is still common on US stations.)
  • The mining boom in the 2000s. Many of the best cattle station employees took up mining jobs where the pay was more than double and the hours only half, and conditions a lot more salubrious and with less pressure. Some returned to the beef industry when mining slumped, as mining always does; but most did not. This left a big generational gap in Australia’s northern beef industry.
  • Mustering contractors on large corporate stations. The use of contractors ramped up during the mining boom-created rural labour employment shortage.  Wages on stations improved and so did conditions, but it was too little too late. Most corporate owners do invest in employee training now (even if it’s only because they have to, for workplace healthy & safety reasons if not efficiency, as new arrivals may never have sat on a horse or motorbike or been near livestock). Contractors often poach the best staff now, lured by much higher pay rates. So where do the stations then find their headstockmen, overseers, assistant managers and managers from, since the ranks are so thin for in-house promotion?  Often it’s been the barely-skilled teaching the no-skills-at-all. And leaving just a skeleton crew-year round on large remote stations is not conducive to fostering a thriving social atmosphere. When some of the most famous cattle stations in Australia cannot attract enough full time staff to negate the need for mustering contractors, serious questions should have been asked about this management failure.  Because it is a failure.
  • The rise and rise of venture capitalists – different from other investors because of their short-term nature. Venture capital is usually a euphemism for vultures who buy undervalued assets, extract maximum returns for impatient investors and sell within a few years. I’ve never seen a venture capital company leave a large pastoral property in better shape than when they bought it. Especially if they are based offshore, why would they? They’re in it for maximum short-term profit.
  • The wearing of corporate shirts, which began to flourish 15 or more years ago. Whenever I see a mob wearing identical shirts, it’s like a signal ‘new ideas not welcome here; conformity is the order of the day’.  Whereas in fact most of those who most love the bush and cattle station life are determined individuals with independence and original ideas, not corporate team players.

Ideally, large cattle stations would be run by people with a vast spread of age and experience and the best of the old knowledge would be mixed with the best of innovation. Instead it’s virtually the reverse.

But what really got me to make the final decision? The recent news that one of the most dedicated and experienced cattle station managers I know has been sacked.  I don’t know all the details but I do know one thing: the successor is exceedingly unlikely to have the same breadth of knowledge and experience and this matters when managing land in tough inland conditions.  And it will cost the company money.

The irony is – that in madly chasing the extraction of the last possible dollar in short-term profit from these cattle stations, they are in fact less profitable. Upper management are repeatedly shooting themselves in the feet simply because they do not have a fundamental grasp of what makes it all tick.  They continue to make the most fundamental mistake – not paying enough to keep the very best staff – so they bleed money by having to retrain and suffer costly mistakes.

A couple of years ago the corporate owner of one mob of stations told a manager – in a very un-garden friendly part of Australia – to plant a lemon tree, for visitor drinks. Sort of apt, really.

I will continue doing what I care about – photographing other agricultural industries, running workshops and other public speaking to pass on what I’ve learned. And flying drones and mentoring others. Plus – with luck – another book or two, down the track.

I do not subscribe to the blanket bagging of all corporate ownership and people involved any more than I believe in praising all family ownership. Some of the former are fantastic and some of the latter are atrocious.  For obvious reasons, I can’t cite specific examples.  But is the management of most of Australia’s largest corporate beef companies competent? No.  In fact some company land ownership should be split up and other companies (and some individuals) prevented from owning leasehold land. I’ve thought this for a while; now’s the time to state it publicly.  I feel very sad for the long-term, highly skilled and genuinely caring employees on Australia’s largest corporate owned cattle stations. Like little islands left floating in a sea of incompetence, having no option but to operate in a way that they know is detrimental to the soil, vegetation, wildlife and livestock.

PS: For further reading on pastoral land management, read this Resource Consulting Services blog post by Terry McCosker: ‘When is a Drought Man-Made’.