On a recent journey to Queensland’s “Outback”, I found many attractions and activities that made the journey a real delight – cycling through apple orchards, sampling Granite Belt wines, prospecting for opals, running from angry neighbourhood guard dogs, finding really delicious meals in quite unexpected places, and finding a bit of quite unexpected family history.
I searched in vain for any signs of any sheep or cattle for hundreds of kilometres but finally found them – thousands of cattle – at the Roma Sale Yards. I had not expected to find cotton at all – but discovered that Australia’s cotton growing areas now stretch for thousands of kilometres from Southern Queensland to Northern Victoria including about 1,500 km of crops spanning the route I took to go Outback.
In the 1970s my family lived in the small Queensland / New South Wales border town of Texas. In those days a major crop was tobacco but as taxes and health warnings – and deaths – increased, tobacco no longer coughs its way into the local markets. It has been taken over at least in part by cotton.
- Oh when them cotton balls get rotten
- You can’t pick very much cotton
- In them old cotton fields back home
- It was down in Louisiana
- Just about a mile from Texarkana … (1)
Okay … I am talkin’ about Texas Australia not Texarkana USA … but that cotton connection is still there, and occasionally as I plodded my way westwards the road was littered with great clumps of white cotton balls. At first I thought a huge truck had ploughed through a flock of white cockatoos … but it was cotton, not feathers, lining the road like an unseasonal snowfall in a desert.
The cotton industry is worth almost three billion dollars to the Australian economy – and according to www.grc.qld.gov.au it is worth about $350 million in Queensland alone. Since the 1970s – the same time I left the area – tobacco has dried-up and the cotton industry has blossomed, with 80,000 hectares now under cotton cultivation near Goondiwindi alone, and lots more further afield. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that one rural property in the area, Cubbie Station, had 16,000 hectares of cotton (apparently the largest cotton crop in the Southern Hemisphere) ready for pickin’ when I was there.
Cubbie is a huge 93,000 hectare property producing cotton, wheat, sorghum, sunflowers and other crops and is jointly owned by an Australian company and a Chinese-Japanese consortium. The overseas investors hold a controlling 51% majority in an unfortunate aspect of Australian government policy that permits non-Australian ownership of Australian real estate. (2)
Cotton Australia tells me that there are about 1500 cotton farms in the country – a number that fluctuates according to water supplies. About a third of the cotton grown locally is watered by natural rain, but modern laser techniques of levelling fields and more efficient irrigation procedures are working together to make the crop less voracious for the nation’s precious water supplies.
The Australian Government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) claims that Australian cotton farming is the most water efficient in the world, and that the industry exports AU$2.7 billion of cotton annually.
It is a big industry indeed, and I called a local ginnery near Dalby for permission to visit and see the operations in process. For health and safety reasons, I was told, visitors were not permitted, but the woman did give me some interesting details of prices and weights.
On the farms and roads near Goondiwindi and Dalby I saw the massive machines that harvest the product, wrapping the huge 2.5 tonne “modules” in bright yellow plastic, ready for shipping off for ginning where seeds and stalks and other debris is removed. One module produces ten bales of refined cotton, with each bale worth about AU$700.00.
In this photograph a truck is carrying twenty-six modules ready to be turned into 260 bales and a total value of AU$180,000. The added value becomes clearer when we are told that one bale makes enough cotton thread to make 220 pairs of jeans or 1200 T-shirts …
- Perhaps I’d better start pickin’ that cotton agin
As I mentioned, I had not set eyes on a single cow, heifer or bull for several hundred kilometres. An occasional dead kangaroo by the side of the road, yes, and lots of roadside signs telling me that there were no fences in the area and to be careful of straying cattle or sheep.
- Nope. Not a sausage – beef or lamb
A man I spoke to at Cunnamulla told me that one reason might be that pastoralists had moved their cattle to paddocks not visible from the main highways. With average rural properties anything up to 500,000 hectares that was a possibility – as was the probability than an increasing number of farmers were selling off their livestock, planting trees, and cashing in on government handouts under the Emissions Reduction Fund.
But all that was to change when I finally got to Roma, site of several unexpected attractions including the Roma Sale Yards – Australia’s largest cattle selling centre with up to 400,000 head of cattle sold annually. See www.mymaranoa.org.au/business/saleyards
Roma Sales Yards
Every Tuesday morning tours are given by crusty old coots – whip-swinging and whip-cracking old coots, but very knowledgeable ex-grazier old coots – for the scores of visitors who make the journey. On the day of my recent visit, 6000 cattle from Mt Isa, Charleville, Cunnamulla and even from the Northern Territory were sold.
The cattle reach the sale yards on the backs of road trains – behemoths that can be up to sixty metres long with three double-decker trailers full of animals. If the cattle being transported are younger than twelve months, they can be kept on the trailers for a maximum of twelve hours. Older cattle can be freighted for longer periods but after sixteen hours they must be off-loaded and allowed twenty-four hours’ rest.
Ironically, cattle trucked-in from remote areas often fetch better prices than local cattle.
The long-distance fliers are usually dropped off at the sale yards on Saturdays or Sundays, allowed to rest and recuperate, have a pedicure and facial, and be ready to smile for the cameras on Tuesday mornings. In contrast, the local ladies are shoved onto the back of a truck, dropped off at the sale yards and straight into the auction pen without a chance to polish their eyebrows or clean their teeth.
Once the trucks arrive at their destination and drop off their precious cargo, they are scrupulously cleaned – the trucks, not the cattle. This is less of a precaution to ensure future happy travellers, but to remove any traces of a less-welcome traveller – parthenium weed. Parthenium is an invasive poisonous, well-established import that was originally native to American tropical regions. It can be deadly in humans and can cause dermatitis in animals. (3)
About 30% of the cattle sold – whether pampered and primped or not – are destined to be fattened up for domestic use, and the rest given their sailing orders for the export market. Micky bulls – immature bulls – are exported to Vietnam to be used as studs, and among many other destinations for live exports is China. The beasts are shipped across, no doubt enjoying evening cocktails on the poop deck and dinner with the Captain, before being slaughtered and eaten on the spot at their (very) final destination.
I spoke to one of the workers at the yards – Bennett – who had been employed there just one year and was working towards becoming an auctioneer. (See featured pic LEFT) Like just about every other adult male in the area he was sporting a huge Akubra hat and a warm winter jacket against the early morning chill.
The auctioneer and his spotters (blokes like Bennett) sell a pen of about twenty cattle in less than a minute before moving on to the next pen. Another worker armed with a long-handled broom dipped in yellow paint daubs the backs of the beasts who for a variety of reasons are to be sold at a different rate from the rest of the animals in that pen.
The buyers, in their huge hats, lean on the gates of each pen, with arms poked through the rails, looking like convicts asking for an early release. Once the hammer falls, young men and women wielding high-tech tools (floppy old plastic shopping bags taped to the end of a long stick) usher the cattle from the pen, into a weighing yard, where their weight and price bid are recorded and displayed on monitors around the grounds – so sellers can estimate their day’s profit and buyers can ponder if they will ever make their money back.
Most cattle are sold at so many cents per kilogram. In June 2021 weaner steers (calves about twelve months old) under 220 kilograms topped at 606 cents / kg and averaged 553 cents / kg. Most steers in the 200 – 280-kilogram range sold at rates in excess of $1500 per head while heavier cattle fetched more than $1700. (4) (5)
Prices go up – or down – significantly depending on the age and weight of the beast and what its destiny is likely to be.
- If one bale of cotton makes 1200 T-shirts, I wonder how many eye fillet steaks or pairs of shoes or leather belts can be made from one cow?
Bennett told me that some abattoirs will buy scraggy old beasts that are really only good enough to make mincemeat, but the pericardium membrane around their hearts is often sold to the USA for use in the manufacture of human heart valves. Perhaps I’d better start growin’ cattle for the USA heart-valve market instead of growin’ cotton for the T-shirt market.
Although I’d “gone West, young man”, expecting to find vast tracts of semi-desert inhabited by mobs of thirsty sheep and hungry cattle, and populated by dusty bow-legged cowboys and cowgirls perched on bar stools quaffing Fourex beer after a hard day’s mustering – I found none of these at all, but I did find some fascinating sights and remarkably helpful people and, eventually, a cow or two to write home about.
Now it is time for dinner, and it is a toss-up between a glass of Stanthorpe red wine and an eye fillet beef steak or a juicy lamb cutlet smothered in mint sauce.
Nope – sorry – in all my travels I did not find a single sheep at all. Will have to go West again another day.
- Cotton Fields written and performed in 1940 by Huddie Ledbetter – aka Lead Belly. It was subsequently performed by many other singers including Credence Clearwater Revival, The Highwaymen, the Beach Boys and Johnny Cash.
- I lived in Thailand for many years, where foreigners cannot own any land. Farangs can own apartments so long as there is no more than 49% foreign ownership in the building. Outright ownership of a house and land is not possible. Australia could learn quite a lot from the Kingdom of Thailand.
With thanks to David Grimmett for fact-checking and advice.
Journey April 2021
Text and photographs (excluding ***) © Christopher Hall June 2021
Other photographs from Internet
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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