A keystone in the vast Australian Country Choice paddock-to-plate agribusiness that supplies Coles with some 200,000 head a year, Babbiloora sits in brigalow and Carnarvon Range country near Augathella, Qld.

Story By Ken Eastwood

Kelvin Webber points the ute towards a brightly shining Venus, low in the eastern sky. He and his hard-working young crew – most just teenagers – had brekkie at 4.30 this morning and are making their way under the cover of darkness to Black Springs yards, almost an hour’s drive away from the homestead on 1450 square-kilometre Babbiloora in central Queensland.

They won’t have smoko until almost midday. “You’ve got to let them have fun some of the time, but when it’s time to work, like this morning, then they have to work hard,” the station manager says quietly.

Only a couple of rabbits move in the darkness as the team drive through pockets of thick brigalow scrub with prolific cypress suckers, paddocks of panic and Rhodes grasses, cabbage gums and shapely bottle trees. At the yards, with their sprinkling of mountain coolabah and ironbark, near-neighbour Stuart Reddan, from Bogarella Station, has already begun setting up his ultrasonic pregnancy tester at the crush. Stuart has performed manual cattle pregnancy tests since he was 14, but began using the ultrasound about five years ago. Consisting of a 60-centimetre long ultrasonic probe and a small screen, the device can help Stuart detect pregnancies down to 34 days, and he prefers it to the manual method. “It’s better on man and beast I reckon – better all-round,” he says.

The 1000 head of mixed cattle, mustered with horses, one bike and an R22 helicopter the day before, are calm and cooperative, and as they are coaxed through the yards to the crush, they kick up dust before the rising sun until the air is a golden haze. Even the young ultrablack bulls (Angus with a dash of Brahman) spread among the cows are well behaved. “An animal that isn’t settled and calm isn’t going to be putting on weight,” Kelvin says. “If they’re well-handled at this stage, they’re a lot easier to handle at the next step.” Dogs are rarely used on the station, and much of the stock work is done on horseback to keep the cattle calm.

Babbiloora is the biggest of five huge Australian Country Choice (ACC) cattle stations, forming part of Australia’s largest vertically integrated beef supply chain. Owned by the Lee family, ACC is one of the biggest family-owned companies in the country, with some 1500 staff, 250,000 head of cattle under its control across 24,000sq km of grazing land, three feedlots, an abattoir, and a beef-processing, value-add and meat-packing facility at Cannon Hill, Brisbane, that supplies Coles Supermarkets Australia with over 300,000 head of processed cattle per year.

Jim Titmarsh, chief operating officer of agribusiness for ACC, says it’s “one of the few conception-to-consumption businesses” in Australia. It requires a very high turnover of cattle, ensuring some 4500 yearlings a week come into the abattoir. Cattle that don’t meet Coles’ specifications are sold to other markets, usually overseas. “The ACC part of the business is about buying young store cattle and getting them up to weight for the feedlot,” Jim says. “In terms of managing properties like Babbiloora, it’s making sure you don’t run out of grass or run out of cattle.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #107

Outback Magazine: June/July 2016