Cattle bonanza: Stock prices treble, fodder galore

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

It doesn’t get much better in the cattle industry of The Centre where properties are not measured in acres or hectares but in square kilometres.

Rain has made feed grow and prices have trebled from between $600 and $900 a head to as much as $3000 because of low stock numbers throughout the nation.

And if you’re in the market for a station talk nicely to your bank manager: Properties that could be bought for $3m – give or take – almost 30 years ago now change hands for $30m plus, increases that even Nicole Hayes (pictured above during bronco branding) finds hard to explain.

She is the Alice Springs branch chair of the NT Cattlemen’s Association and also heads up the Alice Springs Pastoral Industry Advisory Committee advising the NT minister.

She is a member of the family that has owned Undoolya station, adjoining Alice Springs to the east, for 115 years of its 150 year history.

Cattle stations south of Tennant Creek are mostly owned by families. There is only one corporate player.

Ms Hayes attributes the sharp cattle price increases especially to Queensland, NSW and Victoria where producers had to sell their breeder stock to abattoirs in the last few years because of drought.

“This last year has been really good and receiving the recent rains has been a nice Christmas present for us all,” she says.

Cattle at the Show: Numbers dwindling.

Across The Centre conditions changed towards the end of 2020: “Prior to that it was extremely dry, starting in 2016. We began to reduce our cattle numbers about then.”

The region’s carrying capacity is one to two head per square kilometre and it can take about three or four years until a cow or steer is ready for sale, depending on what market they are going to.

It’s usually a balancing act between making a dollar and ensuring the preservation of the land, the vital means of production.

This leads to a worrying side-issue: Buffel.

This introduced species, known for its voracious conquest of country, is recognised as a noxious weed in South Australia.

Ms Hayes says it is an important mix in the grasses eaten by cattle.

And here is the twist. Pastoralists are getting the blame for endangering tourism assets although on cattle stations cattle eat buffel, controlling it and allowing for plant biodiversity, whereas in national parks they don’t: No cattle there.

In early 2019 a massive wild fire, fuelled by buffel, raged for days through the Aboriginal owned, NT Government leased West MacDonnell National Park where buffel seems to be everywhere, in the best growing areas, displacing native flora.

Ms Hayes says living on the country, seeing it every day on bore runs, observing wildlife including birds, allows station people to ensure the land is carefully managed.

Pastoralism was long the backbone of the Alice Springs economy but – ironically –infrastructure and development on pastoral land took off in early 1970s as the industry’s was faced with the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Campaign.

Stock had to be yarded for weeks for testing. Yards had to be built and paddocks fenced. The steel mostly came from local traders. (The price of steel has recently gone through the roof.)

Today’s boom is an earner for the town is linked to the high prices of cattle: More yards, more fences, more machinery including vehicles are being acquired.

The pastoralists are committed to buying locally, says Ms Hayes, not in the least because they have access to locally-based warranty. Online shopping and delivery via the mail plane are seen as a last resort option.

To these investments can now be added IT and solar gear for purposes ranging from kids doing school work to checking water levels in the far-flung network of tanks and troughs.

However, there are irritating limitations: There is not enough data.

Inspecting all 25 bores at Undoolya is a weekly 500 km trip, twice in summer. This could be replaced, at least in part, with observation via telemetric system. Data are critical.

On the face of it IT could make life on the big land much easier and more pleasant, says Ms Hayes: Kids’ education (data problems are a constant headache for the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association), monitoring bores and their solar generators, online shopping, bookwork, online livestock auctions, paying bills and last not least, entertainment at night.

“Staff these days, especially young staff, they are connected to their phones so much.

“They need that extra data for themselves.

“There seems to be more data in the middle of Africa.”

The current satellite-based NBN doesn’t provide enough data and is prone to interruptions.

Ms Hayes (pictured) says stations are switching over to Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Service.

On Undoolya all bores are equipped with solar pumps, reducing the time to inspect bores.

“It’s a simple matter of climbing up the ladder, check in the tank, check in the trough, cleaning it if necessary. Before you’d have to check oil and put fuel in the engine, start the engine, make sure it was running right, the belt not slipping off. It adds 10 to 15 minutes per bore.”

At times of less sunshine the old pumps driven by petrol or diesel engines still have to be pressed back into service, and taken bore to bore to replenish tanks.

Salinity can be a problem. Desalination using solar power is an option but at the moment cost prohibitive: “You are only watering a couple of hundred cattle from each watering point,” says Ms Hayes, and each salty one would need a purification plant.

In 2019 the solar pumps failed because it was too hot: “We’d have to go out at night and pump water.”

Ms Hayes’s government advisory committee is investigating options with several universities.

She says water is vital because cattle need to drink daily or every second day: “It’s the most important job.”

Responsible pastoralists are making sure their water extraction doesn’t exceed recharge, which determines the stocking rate.

Soakages which run dry can be a trap.

Finding staff has changed and is generally not as much of a problem if labour saving infrastructure has been implemented. It means the owners do the work themselves while “corporate station lessees have to plan for things such as holidays and events for their staff,” says Ms Hayes.

“Every day is the same. If something needs doing you just go and do it. Cattle come first.”

How does she see the cattle industry’s role in the climate change discussion? It’s all about farting and burping, isn’t it?

Its more to do with the burping,” says Ms Hayes.

“The industry has been used as a scapegoat for it. We’re not the big polluters like other industries. Yet we don’t hear that much about these other polluters.

“Cattle have been in nature for a long time. Numbers, I think, are not all that much different in the world than they have been for thousands of years.

Bulls in the Show parade.

“Cattle are part of the cycle. [Pastoralists] have a lot of land. If you took the cattle off it we’d have an awful lot of fires and that would be a lot worse for the environment than what the cattle ever do.

“We don’t get big fires on pastoral land, compared to national parks.

Not many stations that are Aboriginal owned run cattle anymore. They also have big fires.

“Methane is a gas that lasts around 12 years whereas other gases, different fuels, contaminants are lasting 100 years plus in the atmosphere.

“You get methane from the rubbish dump.”

Land under cattle has “a lot of bio-diversity” unlike some national parks.

Do pastoralists have meaningful conversations with the environmental groups such as the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC)?

“They don’t seem to like to,” says Ms Hayes.

Pastoralists have good relationships with the Desert Park, supplying lizards and spinifex, for example.

“We see a lot. Being pastoralists you take a lot of notice. You see tracks. We supply water for birds. The birdlife has been magnificent, especially the budgies.

“If buffel grass is that bad and there was no biodiversity , how come we’re getting all these budgies and other bird life?

“There needs to be a bit of a broader research. There’s got to be collaboration. We’re all after the same thing.”

The cattle section at this year’s Show was at risk: “Fortunately the Centralian Beef Breeders Association was once again able to be formed.”

Along with their events, the association runs the cattlemen’s bar, the main watering hole at the annual event, known as the opportunity for meeting up with people you don’t see all year.

Sales like this at the Bohning stockyards south of Alice Springs may soon be a thing of the past as online auctions take over.

The dinner looked also at risk to be cancelled.

Ms Hayes says the bull sale at the Show is now less well patronised by local stations looking for their herd improvers – only three interstate studs this year – because online auctions are more convenient. Previously the bulls were also a big feature of the parade.

With the concentration of cattle stations in fewer hands buyers are more likely to fly interstate “buying whole truckloads of bulls”.

Major threats are Foot and Mouth Disease, transferred through infected meat, and Lumpy Skin, which is spread by mosquitoes and flies.

They can travel hundreds of kilometres in moving air. Both diseases are in Indonesia.

“We obviously have to be as prepared as we can,” says Ms Hayes.

There is an absurd obstacle: “We can’t inoculate our herd in Australia until we actually have a case of it. It’s a live vaccine and our trade partners will consider that we have the disease” although only a tiny amount is administered to create immunity – the way most vaccines work.

Transfer of the diseases by people is also a risk.

What future for the Show?

People who’ve run the cattle section for over a decade have retired and just she and Laura Heaslip are left from the old crew, says Ms Hayes: “We were very concerned that it wasn’t going ahead in 2022.

“We don’t see as many people showing cattle any more either. There’s only two or three of us.

We’ve been very fortunate to have the participation from Danielle Brown, the Department of Education.

“She has a great team of Ag students taking part.”

It’s unclear whether camp drafting and bronco branding will be offered at the show.

A charity event to raise money for men’s health, Broken Spur, will wind down due to lack of committee members.

“Men get their car serviced but they don’t look after their health.”

The highly spectacular camp drafting event will continue at the association’s new venue – Harts Range.

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