Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station Editor
So, you’ve decided to take the leap and head “up north” for a year of cattle work, dusty days, and memories that will last a lifetime. You’re about to be one of tens of thousands of people who have walked onto a cattle station, chasing adventure and opportunity.
Here’s the thing though, recruitment horror stories seem to be on the rise. The days of station hands spending 3-4 years on one property are long gone – these days, if you make it to the end of a season it seems to be a cause for celebration.
From my experience, it’s all about managing expectations. Yes, the abilities of the staff member are important, but you can have the handiest person in the world still not make it on a station, because it isn’t meeting their expectations.
Do your expectations match what is actually on offer from the station?
I think there’s no denying that social media is playing a huge role here too. Even though we were all taught that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, it seems to be much greener in your Facebook and Instagram news feed. Seeing the highlight reels of other stations on social media (and not seeing the not-so-fun times too) definitely contributes to job dissatisfaction and wanting to call it quits. Why should you stick it out at your current jobs, when you’ve seen so many “better” stations on Instagram? To hear more about this, check out episode 12 on our podcast.
Last year I wrote a blog called “Will the real cattle station please stand up”, which discussed all the ways in which cattle stations across Australia differ from each other.
There really is no such thing as a “typical” cattle station – I can’t emphasize this point enough. They’re all so different, and you need to do your homework before applying for and accepting jobs – it is going to make a huge impact on whether or not you last the season.
So, I’ve pulled together a list of topics for prospective employees to ask questions about…
When you’re thinking about applying for a job, make sure you know the following:
Before we think about distance from town, let’s go a level higher and think about regions. In WA you’ve got the Pilbara, Kimberley and southern rangelands. The Territory has the Top End, Victoria River District, Katherine, Barkly, and Central regions. Sorry Queensland – I’m not super familiar with your regions, but I know there’s the Gulf, Channel Country, western Queensland etc. Each region is unique and differs from the next.
You’ll be hard pressed to find big crews mustering on horseback in the WA southern rangelands, so if that’s what you’re after you might be better off on the Barkly. However, if you’re a keen fisherman then the Barkly probably isn’t the place for you, try a little further north or west.
The next question to ask is “How close to town do I need to be?”. If you get the odd weekend off, are you close enough to duck into town, or are you 8 hours from the nearest centre so day trips are out of the question? Are you going to want to run into town for a counter meal and bit of shopping, or are you more likely to go down by the river (if there even if a river…)?
If you are horse mad, it’s not a great idea to apply for jobs on stations that don’t use horses… and the number of stations using horses these days are getting smaller and smaller, so don’t assume you’ll be horseback – always check.
If you’re keen to pick up the art of bull-catching, know that not all stations catch bulls.
If you want to go mustering, then ending up on a place that only traps cattle will leave you looking over the fence for sure.
Some people spread out mustering over 9 months, and others smash it out in 6 weeks.
Some places camp out, and others are always based at the homestead.
What experiences are you looking for?
Some stations have one or two hands, maybe even only a few backpackers, whereas other places can have 50 people on the station with multiple stockcamps. Think about what you need to fulfil your social needs.
Personally, I always did better on places with big crews. Being one of 5 people on a station is not my cup of tea, but I know plenty of other people who are the opposite…
Not all livings quarters are made equal, ain’t that the truth. It’s really depends how much you care because some of us crave creature comforts more than others. I did turn up to a place once only to find that the staff quarters had a drop toilet – that was only a few years ago too. I thought “Surely not!”, but sure enough… These days, at the ripe old age of 30, I can say without reservation that a drop toilet is a deal breaker for me.
Some stations will have hot water, while others use “Donkeys” where you have to light a fire to get hot water. It comes down to preference – there’s something about using a donkey that makes you slow down and appreciate the little things, plus you get to smell a fire each night. However, sometime at the end of a long day you just want to jump in the shower and wash it all away, not go collecting kindling to light the fire. If you’re on a gap year, it might be a novelty for you – but if you’re planning to hang around for a bit, do you want to have to light a fire every time you have a shower in the next 4 years?
Dongas are fairly standard around the traps these days, some have their own bathroom attached, while other quarters have communal amenities. Some places offer accommodation for couples and families – if it’s available it’s usually stated in the advertisement, but it doesn’t hurt to clarify. If you’re looking for somewhere to pull up stumps for quite awhile, it might be handy to head somewhere where you can have your own little piece of home.
This one is pretty self explanatory – you’ll either be allowed to bring pets (dogs, horses etc.), or not.
I was chatting to a manager the other day who said that he let staff have dogs because “If we want them to stay, they need to feel at home here. We can’t expect them to stay here in the long term if they aren’t able to make their own home”. Then they went on to acknowledge that they completely understand why some places have a “no pets” rule.
Having too many dogs running around the camp, especially if they are nuisance dogs who like to chase poddy calves and chooks, can cause unnecessary drama. If having your furry mate is important to you, there’s definitely a station out there for you – there just aren’t as many.
This definitely changes from station to station, and while it’s always dependant on experience, the offers will be different. Most places work off a day rate, but some stations hire people as full-time employees which give them benefits such as sick leave and annual leave.
If you’re on a gap year, perhaps your wage won’t be as big of an issue. While working on a station means saving money on things like rent, groceries, and utilities, you will still have expenses. If you have significant expenses like loan repayments, insurance, phone bills etc., you need to be able to cover them and still save money. No one wants to get half way through a season and realise they have to leave because they just can’t afford it.
Is it important to you to attend as many rodeos and campdrafts as possible? Some stations develop their mustering plans with this in mind, others don’t. It usually comes down to the managers and what they like to do.
In the Kimberley we seem to have 2 different crowds – one that goes to all the drafts and rodeos, and one that goes to all the races. (Hint: the places which use horses for mustering are more likely to take a truck full of horses to the campdrafts…)
Then there are the regions where there really isn’t a draft or rodeo “circuit”, just one or two events throughout the year – usually a bush race or gymkhana.
If you’re a part of a corporate company, you may have the opportunity to participate in company cricket matches and station challenges.
What interests you?
Most stations usually provide WiFi access, but sometimes they don’t. Some might have mobile service, and as such don’t provide WiFi.
Think about what you use the internet for, how much you need, and how good a quality of connection you require. This may not be as important for some people. I remember waking up super early on a few different stations to upload blogs and make the Facebook posts for this website – the internet was a killer on one place in particular. I don’t think many station hands have second jobs which require good internet so I might be the exception there… However, on some places the internet can run out pretty quick – it depends what you want to use it for.
Phone & social media policy
It’s an expectation of many people that they’ll have their phones on them all the time and be able to capture and share the incredible experiences they’ll be having on a station. But… not all stations allow staff members to have their phones at work – a number of places have a “no phones in the yards” rule. Others have rules around what you’re allowed to post to social media. The reasons are varied and valid, and rules need to be respected. This is a really important expectation to clarify when speaking with your prospective employers.
Do you want to get some qualifications on the job? Some stations put their staff through Certificates 2 & 3 in Agriculture. Others put on horse training, horse shoeing, and livestock handling schools.
Some will take the time to teach skills such as welding, castrating, driving machinery, and some even run proper induction courses for new staff. Others prefer to use people who are already trained in those skills so they don’t need to train others. There are stations that don’t castrate bulls, or do their own killers – so if you’re keen to learn to castrate, or butcher a killer, that’s probably going to be a sticking point. The training opportunities are also linked to the manager’s skill sets – if they don’t know how to do a killer, then they definitely wont be teaching you how to do one.
If there’s a particular skill you’re really hanging out to learn, check that you will have that opportunity.
Every manager has so much they can teach you. It could be practical hands-on skills, it could be about cattle production, and it could be about property development, or so much more. You’ve just got to find your match before you swipe right (oh yes, I just made a Tinder reference!!)
It really is horses for courses. There’s a station out there for everyone, it’s just about matching your expectations with what the station has to offer – do your research, find someone who is familiar with the area you wish to go to, read some Central Station blogs, and prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime.
Happy job hunting!
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