On the Channel Country's Monkira Station, producing a great steak means being at the cutting edge of technology and environmental practices.
Story Ian Glover Photos John Denman
If you’d been born and bred on Monkira Station and never strayed far from the homestead, you could be forgiven for thinking the earth was flat. Apart from the shallow ravine that runs down to the cemetery, plains stretch out forever, with occasional lashings of rain punctuating the seemingly endless expanses. Coolibah and gidgee mark seasonal watercourses – solitary trees standing sentinel against bitter winds.
Despite all this, Monkira, in Queensland’s Channel Country, is one of the North Australian Pastoral Company’s (NAPCO) best cattle-fattening properties – a sleight of hand that defies what the eye can supposedly see. In good seasons, Mitchell grass and native sorghum (which has been regularly harvested at Monkira) spring up almost magically from bare earth, while bluebush and clover are staples. In sandhill country, the succulent parakeelya is common.
Originally called “Mackhara”, the property was first taken up by John Costello in the 1870s, then purchased by Sidney Kidman in 1902. The early homestead was built at a time when occupational arguments with local Aboriginals saw rifle holes incorporated in the stone walls. Until the 1930s, the floor was made of compacted fat and ashes, and ceilings were fashioned out of calico. Times were indeed tough during the 20th century. In 1919, despite the station having a vegetable garden, beri-beri (a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1) claimed the lives of seven people, including the Chinese cook. Fresh(ish) goods arrived by camel only once a year from Marree, SA.
NAPCO has owned 373,000-hectare Monkira since 1939 and evidently looks after its staff, because there have been only eight managers in the last 80 years. The current boss is Anthony Desreaux, who grew up outside of Tibooburra, NSW, and worked as a ringer from the age of 14, first on “Naryilco” in south-west Queensland, then on “Quinyambie”, just over the South Australian border, and then on “Gidgealpa” on the banks of Cooper Creek in South Australia. He was also a South Australian champion rodeo rider.
Anthony’s wife Deb was born in Broken Hill, NSW – “a townie, but I always had friends from the bush and grew up with harness racing horses – love them”. She met Anthony when he was contract mustering and fencing in the area, and when he decided to go back to the land, offsided for him. “We went to a property in the Central Highlands, but weren’t treated well,” she recounts. “So we moved to the Territory, to Scott Creek, about 80 kilometres south-west of Katherine, where Ant ran a camp for Brunei Meats. We were going to leave when we were offered the opportunity to manage the place, so stayed on for about two years. We applied for Monkira about four and-a-half years ago.”
On the station, Deb has been a ‘Jill of all trades’. She cooks, teaches the kids, does the bookkeeping and helps with stock work and pasture monitoring, conceding she does “a bit of everything, including gardening”.
Monkira has been home to six year-old son Ty (named after Ty Murray, the world champion rodeo rider) for most of his life. He’s somewhat reluctantly (“I don’t want to do stupid radio!”) getting an education via School of the Air, guided by governess Kathryn Bell, a Sunshine Coast girl who’s in her third year of study. She wants to work either on a station, in Mount Isa or with School of the Air when she graduates. “I don’t know how I’d handle living back in town – I’ve got a good life here,” she says.
Ty’s sister Abby, 13, studies at Townsville Grammar School. During school holidays, she returns to Monkira both for R&R and to work. “When kids hit high school, NAPCO puts them on the payroll,” Anthony says. “They get around $60 a day for mustering. NAPCO actively encourages kids to stay on with the company.”
NAPCO also obviously wants minimum staff turnover. Newcomers go through a three-month probation period (for managers it’s six months), then are reimbursed for their travel expenses. They earn good wages and seven weeks’ paid holidays, of which they must take at least four weeks but can cash in the other three in credits for uniforms.
Most of the staff members are 18 to 19 year-old jillaroos, who are expected to work on a variety of tasks, from fixing gates to shovelling gravel from the back of a truck. “Last year, I swore I’d never hire jillaroos again, but these girls have changed my mind,” Anthony says. “I hope they stay on next year.”
Jess Twyford, tall and reticent, might take some convincing. She grew up on a cane farm near Bundaberg, Qld, and developed a love of the country, especially considering her grandfather was always a caretaker on properties and she “used to go ‘out there’ all the time”. Jess was jillarooing around the Gulf Country until Deb asked her to come south. “She’s very handy,” Deb says. “She can weld, drive a truck, has good mechanical skills – her father’s a truck driver – and she can ride any horse.” Despite being extremely happy on Monkira working with horses, mustering and chasing cattle, Jess simply prefers the Gulf climate.
From Proserpine, Qld, Nikita Weller is completely the opposite. “There’s no humidity out here, unlike the coast,” she says. After quitting a job as a manager of a variety store, she came out to Monkira, having worked in the district before as a jillaroo. “I love the isolation out here, and working with horses and cattle,” she says. “My ambition is to save up enough money to have my own cattle property, anywhere out west.” And the hard part about working on a station? “Getting to know everyone and their personalities,” she says.
Working on stations for most of her life, Sally Fletcher, who was dux of correspondence school in 2005, has no such problems. The petite 18 year-old’s parents are on Argadargada Station in the Territory (off the Sandover Highway south-west of Lake Nash) and, though she loves working with horses and mustering on bikes, her real ambition is to be a mustering chopper pilot. “There aren’t too many women chopper pilots, but that doesn’t worry me,” she says confidently. “I’ll do it.”
Head stockman Dwayne Booth was born in Charleville, Qld, and raised in Birdsville, Qld. His father was manager of South Australia’s Cordillo Downs and Dwayne spent about six years there after leaving school, moving on to work for Kidman in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. Out of the pastoral industry for about eight years, he spent half of them working at the Moomba gas field before coming to Monkira with a fencing contractor. Anthony offered him the position of head stockman, and he’s glad to be back working on a property. “I love riding horses – it’s what I live for,” he says, grinning. “You can take the boy out of the bush …”
Of Aboriginal descent, Dwayne possesses a keen sense of the richness of a combined indigenous/European history. Dark eyes sparkle as he talks about the little-known remnants of history on Cordillo, such as the bronc yards where horses were bred, broken and sold. “I don’t believe in using those old stockyards for firewood,” he says. “That was the way it was, eh? They should be preserved.” He obviously approves of the National Trust classification of the old yards on Monkira, put up by George McQueen, who was manager from 1961–1976.
While Dwayne reveres the past, he also accepts a future where agribusiness will be totally transformed. “Can’t drive around without a seat belt anymore,” he says, grinning as he buckles up in the LandCruiser ute. “OH&S issues are pretty important to NAPCO. You must wear a helmet when you’re on an ag bike and first-year jackaroos must wear a helmet when they’re on a horse until Anthony or I tell ’em it’s okay to go without.”
New employees undergo a two-hour induction course primarily concerned with health and safety – a theme that is regularly revisited. There is also motorbike, four-wheel-drive and first aid training as well as horsemanship clinics. On Monkira, Parelli horse training is practised with a passion. A US initiative pioneered by Pat Parelli (a horseman who studied under legendary old American cowboys such as Troy Henry), this method emphasises the necessity of building a bond between horse and rider. “It’s so old it’s new again,” Deb says, echoing the words of Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. “The horses have a good life and want to work.”
Anthony is equally converted. “I’ve been around horses most of my life, but judging by what I’ve learnt in the last four years, I should have been doing it years ago,” he says. “A lot of the older fellas look at horses as tools, I look at it totally differently. If you have a partner, it makes the job a lot easier. I can remember the days when you caught station horses and could expect real trouble. Now, you catch horses in the paddock, lead them to the gooseneck and they go in by themselves – they’ll actually walk on. Now they enjoy what we need them to do.
“The Parelli program is an excellent thing, especially for younger staff just coming into the industry. It teaches them the basics properly, and goes right up to whatever level of horsemanship you want to master. As Pat Parelli says, ‘If you take the time it takes,
it takes less time’. With things costing so much and margins reduced, you’ve got progressively less staff to work with and horses that don’t want to work are a real pain in the butt. You need horses that you can put anyone on and away they go.”
This program is just one of the advancements on Monkira. Anthony’s brief from NAPCO is to ‘look into innovations that will take agribusiness into the 21st century – to make Monkira a model property’. It’s an instruction he’s embracing wholeheartedly. “The goalposts get higher every year,” he says with enthusiasm in his voice rather than resignation. “I want everything on computer. I want Wi-Fi (cordless internet connection), I want to be able to use a mobile with Bluetooth to get on the internet standing by a dam. The technology available out there is breathtaking, and I want to use it all.”
Though Monkira has permanent ground water in the Diamantina River (the river channels flow through the middle of the property), part of the brief is to look at better ways of managing water. This includes remote water monitoring; measuring the quantities and flow rates in turkey’s nests and troughs with sensor weight pads in the dams and flow meters in the troughs. A computer-based system, it reports any problems or faults, and even monitors evaporation rates. A future aim is to put in remote-start pumps to feed the troughs. “Floodwaters can cut us off for a month,” Anthony says. “Once this is set up, we can check whether the cattle in other paddocks have water or not.”
On this huge property, communication with the staff at all times is a priority. NAPCO is putting in a high-wattage private repeater with a dedicated frequency, and plans to use GPS technology to track vehicles. “If a car’s not moving, we can go out and see why,” Anthony says.
Vehicle maintenance schedules are something else that will soon appear on computer spreadsheets. As with most properties, Monkira does all its own maintenance and is currently revamping the workshop, putting in a four-post hoist. “After a vehicle has been serviced, Palmtops can upload the details and we can keep track of what has been done,” Anthony says. “Everything needs to be more professional. Computers are a great way to ensure stock control – and I mean vehicle parts here, not cattle.”
Anthony is undertaking post-graduate study in Rural Systems Management at the University of Queensland at Gatton. He goes there for a week, picks up an assignment, comes home for 10 weeks, then returns to deliver a paper. It’s not surprising that recycling is a priority for him. With an engineer in Mount Isa, Qld, he’s designing a hybrid-system solar-panel generator that runs on recycled oil. While used batteries and old oil are currently sent to Mount Isa, he’d like to see most property
Anthony also wholly embraces NAPCO’s Land for Wildlife policy, citing the Neuragully Nature Reserve (a NAPCO/government project) as an example of how landowners can preserve both native plants and animals. Neuragully Waterhole has been fenced off with water pumped into troughs. In this way the company is looking after both the waterhole and the wildlife around it. “NAPCO leads the way in the pastoral industry when it comes to environmental issues,” Deb says. “It looks after the land – and the wildlife.”
Anthony and Deb are strong believers in paddock regeneration, and plan to spell some paddocks for another full season, despite the fact that some have been fallow since 2000 – “they’d been really flogged”, a station hand confides.
NAPCO is spending a lot of money on Monkira, with plans including a new kitchen, a front garden of native plants, lawns, a new meat house and storeroom, a staff recreation room, a new barbecue area and a new set of yards with a six-way draft. “A place like this needs complete and never-ending improvement,” Anthony says. “You’ve got to focus constantly on that.”
Making a rural living has always been chancy, whether you’re in a homestead or running a pub or general store. This is because everyone’s livelihood is based on how well the family on the land does – a gamble that’s completely dependent on unpredictable weather and ever-elusive rain. NAPCO’s long-term planning, governed by young guns like Anthony and Deb, increases the odds in favour of the pastoralist and, ultimately, everyone else.
This story excerpt is from Issue #51
Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2007