The humble cow goes well beyond the provision of meat and milk. As a central character in the Australian narrative, cows have been with us since the First Fleet and remain at our sides as we face future challenges.

Story + Photo Mandy McKeesick

The most recent statistics for Australia’s national cattle herd (June 2018) put the population at around 26.4 million animals, of which 24 million are classified as beef and two million as dairy. Of this total figure, Queensland accounts for nearly half (12.1 million), followed by New South Wales (4.7 million), Victoria (3.8 million), Northern Territory (2.1 million), Western Australia (2 million), South Australia (1 million) and Tasmania (700,000). Queensland’s Fitzroy Basin is the most populous region, home to a massive 12% of the national herd.

Bos indicus, also known as zebu or tropical cattle, originated in Asia and the only pure example in Australia is the Brahman. Noted for its distinctive hump, long drooping ears and swinging dewlaps, it tends to be the choice for northern cattlemen and is common in crossbreeding operations. In more temperate climes Bos taurus, or British-bred, cattle are favoured. These are the European breeds and include Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Simmental. Bos taurus africanus – cattle originating in Africa and thought to be a combination of both indicus and taurus – is also thrown into the mix, though archaeological evidence is calling for a separate classification. Australia’s pioneering Drakensbergers were Bos taurus africanus. The Bantengs exhibit their own niche in the cattle world, being Bos javanicus, buffalos are Bubalus bubalis and the few herds of bison in Australia are simply Bison bison.

“There is no perfect cow or perfect breed,” says John Newton, director of livestock for Bindaree Food Group. John should know; he spends his days on the road between saleyards selecting cattle for Bindaree’s many markets. “If you’re looking for good restaurant beef you’re looking for British-bred cattle or at least 50% British-bred cattle, and it’s hard to go past good Angus,” he says. “Then in Victoria they want to buy Limousins because they are lean, all meat, and they suit the Chinese trade. Wagyu is a specialist thing. It is beautiful meat but it’s hard to eat a full steak because it’s so rich. Hamburgers are the biggest consumers of meat in the world and that’s just lean beef; a lot of cow beef goes into hamburgers.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #132

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2020