Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor
Over a two-week period in July & August 2018, I went on an epic road trip, visiting 18 cattle stations across the Pilbara region of Western Australia. One girl, a Prado, and 6000km of (mostly) open road through God’s country (the Pilbara really is the best kept secret in Australia!).
Prior to this trip, I’d probably worked on a handful of stations, and visited or done short term work on a dozen or so on top of that. So, let’s say I’ve set foot on around 30 something cattle stations. On top of that, I’ve been running this website for 6 years, and we’ve had around 50 stations write stories for us (a number of those cross over with stations I’ve visited in person). So, I’ve seen and read about a few places around the traps (while also barely scratching the surface at the same time).
On this trip, even though I was slightly over-prepared with playlists and podcasts, I ended up having a lot of time to think. One of the things I often found myself thinking about how different all the stations I’ve been to are. I also reflected on the time I told my friend that her 40,000 acre block in the NT “wasn’t a real cattle station”. Ouch, harsh words young Steph, harsh words.
So, what makes a cattle station, a cattle station?
The very first cattle station I worked on – let’s call it “Station A”- is located smack bang in the middle of WA – technically in the Goldfields/Murchison region. At the time it was 3 million acres (soon after becoming 4), with more or less a boundary fence. There were no internal fences or laneways, about 20 permanent sets of yards, another 20 sets of panel yards used during muster, and a zillion water points. The mustering season ran for 6-8 weeks every year. The owners, who were based on a large farm down south, would head up to the station (which was manned with caretakers all year round) with a crew usually made up of a couple of Aussies and half a dozen backpackers.
On this station, the cattle were mustered using bikes (2 & 4 wheelers), buggies, and choppers. There was even a fixed wing aircraft the first time I was there. Much to my disappointment, the only horses on the station were brumbies that were a model case of generations of inbreeding and getting by on tough country. The cattle would be mustered into yards, and cows, calves, and herd bulls would be turned out again after receiving an annual vaccination. Fat (barron) cows, heifers and mickey bulls were carted to the homestead yards for further processing (NLIS tag and horn tipping) before being sent to the farm down south. The bulls were destined for live export, and the heifers for fattening before entering the domestic supply chain (aka a local abattoir). We didn’t brand, dehorn, castrate, or pregnancy test. There was no weaner program.
The next station I worked on was in the Pilbara region of WA – let’s call it “Station B” – it was just under half a million acres. The season ran for about 8 months, and included a whole swag of station jobs in addition to the cattle work (fencing, vehicle maintenance, yard building etc). The owners lived on the station, and ran a crew of about 8. Mustering was done using horses and a helicopter, with the occasional bike or buggy. The station not only had a boundary fence, but internal ones too allowing for large paddocks to be utilised for the segregation of cattle. There were also laneways which were used for mustering and weaner educating. The staff were mostly career cattlemen and women – undertaking Certificates in Agriculture and with a decent amount of experience. The cattle work was more intensive – data was recorded on animals as they came through the crush, and a lot of time and energy was put into weaner education.
After being on Station B, I went back to work on Station A, and I remember having a lot of questions. Why didn’t Station A educate their weaners? Why didn’t we have paddocks, or laneways? How come we only mustered for 8 weeks instead of 5 months?
Fast forward a few years and a few stations, and I found myself on what we’ll call Station C, in the Northern Territory. This station was about a million acres ran 3 camps as well as using contract musterers. Mustering was done using a fixed wing aircraft, with horses and bikes. Cattle were branded, castrated and dehorned. Cows were pregnancy tested, and some empties were spayed. The season went from March through November, and the crew attended a number of campdrafts and rodeos. They also did horse breaking, shoeing, and livestock handling schools. There were 2 bore runners, a homestead cook, a couple of camp cooks, a secretary, a grader driver … lots of people! At one point in time we counted 50 people on the station.
These are just three examples of vastly different operations I’ve had the privilege to work for. When visiting a new station, or meeting station staff, I love to learn the “who/what/where/why and how” of the station, because if there’s one thing I have learnt, no two stations are the same. But why? And which one of these is a “real” cattle station?
Helicopter, Landcruiser, and pet steer. All requirements to be a cattle station?
Location, Country and Season
As far as I’m concerned, a cattle station is a pastoral lease in the rangelands of Australia that runs cattle (big shocker there). Whether that be desert country in the Gascoyne, the coastal flats south between Port Hedland and Broome, the wide-open grasslands of the Barkly, or that tropical country in the gulf of Queensland. Did you know there are cattle stations in the north of South Australia and far Western NSW? Doesn’t exactly match up with all those stories from “The Top End” does it? Some stations have massive wet seasons which cause floods that leave the homestead cut off from road access for months at a time. Some stations don’t get near as much rain because they’re in a desert.
Don’t be sad if you end up on a station with no flood fencing.
Flooding on Kalyeeda Station during the wet season.
The Barkly tablelands in the NT – not a tree in sight.
Cattle station country on the coast in WA.
The size of a station can vary from say 40,000 acres (just so I’m not excluding my friend’s block) to well over a million acres. The production system is extensive, not intensive. The reason people run such vast amounts of land is because the carrying capacity is so low and you need that much country to run enough cattle to keep the business viable. I know of two stations which are both a million acres. One runs 15,000 head, and the other runs 50,000. It all comes back to your country. So, while it sounds mighty impressive that Station A is a million acres, if station B can run the same amount of head on 300,000 acres – then it comes back to that old chestnut – “quality over quantity”.
Some stations are family owned, and some are owned by corporates (like AACo, NAPCo, Heytesbury and Gina Rhinehart). Some are owned by Indigenous corporations, and others by Government interests who work to divest them back to their traditional owners (the Aboriginal Lands Trust and the Indigenous Land Council). Some stations are owned by foreign investors trying to secure a protein supply for their country.
The different combinations of crews can be as varied as the day is long. I feel like the most consistent part of a crew across the north is the presence of a backpacker, whether in the stock camp or in a domestic role. After that, all bets are off. You might have half a dozen kids on their gap year, or people who have been around stations for a while. Sometimes there’s someone who’s a bit older and has always wanted to have a crack, but for whatever reason never made it up here until now. And let’s not forget those who are living out their McLeod’s Daughter’s dream.
There’s contractors who live and breathe cattle, dust and diesel all year round. Some people hire on experience, others hire on attitude, some do both. Some people plan to have to train their staff each year with a stock handling and horse training school, and others just want staff who can turn up and hook straight into the work. One place I know of prefers to hire people with no experience, because then they come without bad habits and can be trained to do things how that particular station wants them done, without them having to hear “but on the last station I was at, we did it this way”.
Hats, helmets, UHF holsters and hobble belts complete the workshirt, jeans and boots outfit.
They don’t look like they’ve stepped out on an RB Sellars catalogue, but does it actually matter?
As I mentioned before, “Station A” only mustered for 6-8 weeks a year. Some people refer to what they do as “harvesting” – round ‘em up and ship ‘em out. There are a lot of places in the region that operate like this. After going to work on other places, I naively thought “Station A” wasn’t as much of a real cattle station as those who spent 8 months mustering, educating and doing other things with their cattle. Silly me. Here’s the thing, as long as what you’re doing has positive outcomes for animal welfare, the rangelands, and your business (your people and your money), then who is to say how you structure your cattle program? If “Station A” is able to achieve their mustering goals without educating weaners, good for them. Personally, I support practices like pregnancy testing and segregation of breeders, supplementation, early weaning, weaner educating, use of pain relief and a whole swag of other things – but it all depends on the situation. There’s always a reason why people are doing what they’re doing, so before you judge someone for why they aren’t doing things the way you would, stop and ask what the barriers are for them and if it would actually make sense for them to do those things.
Weaner educating in the Territory.
Dogs can be handy, but not many people have the skills to utilize them effectively.
When you think of a cattle station, do you think of a mob of beautiful grey humpy Brahmans standing tall and proud with big floppy ears and dangling dewlaps? Or maybe you think of a line of slightly softer cattle, perhaps a composite breed, which are usually red and have a little less hump and a little less ear – an animal that can be marketed to both live export and the domestic supply chain. Let’s not forget the good old Shorthorn scrub bulls that seem to come out of the woodwork every year even though old mate and all his neighbours stopped breeding them 30 years ago. What about the station in the Pilbara that runs black Angus cattle? Or the place in the East Kimberley which runs shorthorns. Or, down near Alice where Herefords roam the rangelands. Does having less hump and less ear make you less of a station and more of a “really big farm”?
A mob of beautiful Brahmans on Abingdon Downs Station.
There’s always got to be at least one scrub bull, right?
Hereford cattle on Mt Sarah Station.
Choppers, planes, gyrocopters, drones. Bikes, buggies, horses, dogs. Coacher mustering, trapping, bull catching. Do you need to have something and someone floating up in the sky? Do you need half-a-dozen ringers on horseback wearing those Kent Saddlery leather holsters that hold two-way radios? What if the only horses on the station are those that are feral, and all the mustering is done on bikes? Some stations even use utes and wagons instead of buggies. Sometimes it’s just ma, pa and a backpacker going in to truck cattle out of a trap yard, without all the excitement of beasts breaking from the mob and a chopper blowing them into the yards. Sometimes it’s 2 contractors and a dozen handy dogs. Or maybe it’s a company place that has a mob of kids on their gap year having fun wrecking gear that isn’t theirs…
Mustering on horseback at Liveringa Station.
Yarding up a couple thousand head on Myroodah Station using horses, bikes and a chopper.
Gyrocopter at Mt Sarah Station.
Mustering buggy, BYO bonnet.
Mustering with motorbikes.
Mustering in vehicles requires you to be good at changing and repairing tyres.
Mustering on horseback requires you to be good at shoeing horses – take your pick.
Distance from town and distance from the bitumen
Do you need to be 8 hours from the nearest town to be a “real” station? What kind of town are we even talking about anyway? Being 50km out of Broome and 50km out of Fitzroy Crossing are not the same thing. Yes, in Fitzroy you have an IGA, but in Broome you have Coles and Woolies AND Target. If you’re only 50km out of town, are you considered a townie compared to someone 800km down the track? The first station I worked on was about 200km down a dirt road from the nearest “town” which had a servo, pub, and a mini IGA. All the next nearest towns were the same – if you wanted some sort of retail store, then it was 800km to Geraldton or 1000km to Perth. What about distance from the bitumen? One place I frequently visit is 13km from the bitumen, and another is about 300km. At one place I was on in the NT, the homestead was 3km off the highway, and there were no gates. Heaven.
353km just to get to an IGA express?
So, I’m going to ask you again – what makes a cattle station a cattle station?
As far as I’m concerned, a cattle station is a pastoral lease in the rangelands of Australia that runs cattle. How they go about it is totally up to them. No two are the same, and thank goodness for that – how boring would it be if they all fit in the same (very large) box?
All stations need a pet camel. Not actually, it’s just my recommendation.