To qualify for my second year working visa in Australia, I decided to spend 3 months living and working on a cattle station. Some might say I’m rather masochistic. After all, I haven’t eaten beef for 2 years. However, I firmly believe that it is important to witness things firsthand. I wasn’t directly involved with the cattle side of things, but the following account is from my experience as an observer. No doubt stations across the country differ, but I felt it necessary to shed light on this particular (unnamed) one.
Please be aware that some images might be distressing.
So let me point out the obvious: cattle agriculture is huge business . Not surprising then that 61% of Australia’s landmass is dedicated to this practise. Aus is the second largest beef exporter, with 60% of cattle ending up on dinner plates in the United States, Korea and Japan. From what I saw, the animals live and feed freely on pasture. The particular station I worked on was around 105,000 acres, with many others exceeding the million mark. Aside from the odd ‘lick’ – a nutrient supplement often used during drought – the bovines feed on natural grasses typical to the area. An average animal lives 6 years this way before being sold for around $600 to the meat industry. The manager of this station owns around 3,000 cattle.
During my first week I was introduced to the world of mustering: a mass gathering of all the cattle within a given paddock.
My vision of men on horseback letting out a high-pitched “yee-haa!” as they swing their lasso at a frightened cow was crushed; this, sadly, is now the 21st century. Four-wheel-drive power has replaced horses, dogs have become more reliable than rope, and men now scream down the two-way in a mumbling mess.
As for the adrenaline? That was still well and truly there, for both beast and man.
The situation looked like this: two four-wheelers at the rear, one dirt bike either side to keep the cattle together, one helicopter watching from above and a truck ready to set the dogs free should a heifer decide to run. Should a cow escape the group, the dogs chase down and hold her long enough for the men to rope all four legs together – she would stay laying like this until the rest were confined.
Once the cattle are together, they must be separated. The main aim is to get the calves (younger than 6 months) ready for branding. It is a legal requirement in Queensland to prove ownership, and for this particular station the hot-iron branding, ear marks and ear tags are used for each animal. Unsure of whether it is to limit time consumption, or prevent drawn-out animal suffering; all three branding methods are carried out at the same time. If you happen to be a young bull, you’ll also have to endure the removal of both testicles. The entire branding procedure is without anaesthetic.
The entire mustering process takes between 3 and 5 days. During this time the stockmen stay together onsite. At this station, there was a small camp and it was my responsibility to keep the place clean and the men fed.
It is as sexist as it sounds.
Forget air conditioning and private rooms – this time is for nights under the stars in a swag.
When the animal is sufficiently fat, it is game over. Rather than trucks, this company use cattle trains to deliver to the coast. Each compartment is packed full with standing bovines. There is no overhead shelter, or enough room to lay down. This particular journey to the abattoir takes 24 hours. After that, I was told, 90% of the beef would end up in North America. It haunts me to repeat what I heard next; that these well looked-after animals would succumb to their owner’s greed for money. That they would become burger patties at McDonald’s.
From a personal stand point I cannot believe that this station owner cares for his animals. He showed signs of love – attention to detail, knowledge of one cow from another – but I soon understood that is was driven by the large money symbol above each animal’s head. When he learnt of his stock being hit by a car, he shrugged his shoulders. When young calves started showing signs of weakness, a bullet to the head sorted it out. Perhaps a sign that it is possible to have too much money.
As for the livelihood of the cattle; most of it was seemingly ideal. With no natural predators beside the dingo (shooting of which is a favourite pastime in the outback), huge amounts of space and little human interruption; these animals should consider themselves lucky. For me however, it was like they were living between a rock and a hard place.
Sure, the 6 years between branding and being killed to support one of the world’s largest (most destructive) organisations seems peachy. But personally, this short amount of time does not justify a means to an end anymore. I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience the cattle station. I’m thankful the animals aren’t confined to a concrete building. However I was also relieved of guilt, as I watched them pile on to the train, that I wouldn’t be consuming them further down the line.