I recently received an E-Mail asking for a bit more details about my time working on a cattle ranch. So, in response to this E-mail, I wrote this post, where I just want to give my thoughts and experiences of working on one.
Unlike most of my other posts where I tackle a specific question, in this post, I just want to share some stories. Stick around if you want to learn more about working as a farmhand on a cattle ranch in Australia.
So, before we start, I want to clear up a couple of things. This post will only share my personal experience, not all things I mention in this post can or should be applied universally.
Where and why did I work as a Jackaroo
Let’s first set the scene. I did work as a jackaroo (think of it as an Australian cowboy) for a bit more than three months. The station was -like many Australian cattle stations- in the middle of no-where. The closest village was about 120km (75miles) away; otherwise, there was just sand, fences, and animals.
I found this job via Gumtree (if you look for something in Australia, you’ll probably use this site), like pretty much all my other jobs. The pay was decent, the owner seemed nice on the phone, and it wasn’t that far away from the place I was currently staying. What’s more, I never worked at a station before, so I was hoping to learn lots of new things.
I knew almost nothing about the tasks I had in front of me, besides some picturesque descriptions I could find online. But that was fine with the owner (let’s call him Andrew from now on). So, I headed in the direction of no-where with the help of my navigation system, which was more or less successful. Andrew also provided a map; without it, I might still be lost in the outback.
What did I do to earn my paycheck
I had three daily jobs: Feeding and monitoring the cattle, checking the equipment, and painting the house. The latter was only added because the station I worked on wasn’t that big, so I had to do some additional work to get to my daily hours.
For two days, Andrew showed me where I had to go and what exactly I have to check every day. He also shared quite eagerly the story of the station and his experience working here.
I learned a lot during those few days, and without further ado, Andrew told me he was going to leave for a couple of days. Something he already mentioned earlier, but I didn’t know how soon the day would come. I previously said the station was quite small; it took about 6 hours to check all stations and do the feeding (I had to refill the cotton seeds every few stops). According to Andrew, about 700 heads of cattle lived on the station.
My last job was to repaint the house, which was damaged by the constant onslaught of sand. I actually quite enjoyed painting, which is also something I didn’t do before. I tried my utmost to do a good job, and the more hours I spend painting, the better and faster I got. Sadly I don’t have any picture before I finished painting.
The upsides of working as a Jackaroo
Before I go into the meat (pun intended) of this article, I first want to shine a light on the upside of working as a Jackaroo.
Self-reliance is probably the most significant point when talking about my experience at this station. I worked on a lot of farms before this, but there where always other people around to help. This time it was different; I was entirely on my own. If I screw up, I have to fix it. What’s more, if my car breaks down on the way to one of the feeding spots, I would have to figure something out. Luckily, that never happened.
I guess this doesn’t necessarily apply to all stations in Australia. Often you operate as a Team and work together to find solutions. But the smaller the station, the higher the chance you have extended times working alone.
Fixing stuff you have no clue about
This somewhat ties with my prior point on self-reliance. Sometimes things break, and when you are the only person around, you have to fix it. It doesn’t matter if you have any clue what you’re doing or not; in the end, it has to work again.
I love fixing things; it’s an excellent opportunity to understand how stuff works. For example, one of the troughs was overflowing a lot. They all operated the same way: the water keeps flowing until the swimmer reaches a high enough point to close the valve. The swimmer of this particular trough had a bent connection making it impossible to reach the closing position. Quite an easy fix once you understand how it works.
Honestly, I think this is something that helped me a lot even after leaving the station. Just because you don’t know how it works or what you have to do, doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out.
Attitude is key
Sometimes things just don’t work out as you hoped, and that’s fine! Not everything has to work perfectly, and there will be days where nothing seems to go your way. The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter as long as you stay positive and keep going at it the next day.
The car above (The son of the owner came over to check something on the property) got stuck in quite a bad mud puddle. It took us nearly a week to get it out again because of the rain that came in the next day. In the Australian outback, rain causes floods and mud everywhere, making it quite challenging to drive. Equipped with a shovel and lots of other tools, we kept trying until eventually, the car got out.
Working on a station (but also anywhere else) it helps to detach yourself from the actual results and just try your best every day. Staying positive and laughing about your failures is a powerful skill to possess.
Relatively light work
Don’t get me wrong working on a station is hard work. But it’s relatively light work compared to the watermelon farms I worked on before. At least when it comes to physical exhaustion.
Working as a Jackaroo is not for everyone, while being one of the lighter farming jobs (most of the time), it still requires lots of energy and strength. One day, you might have to lift a sick cow onto a trailer, good luck with that! It’s certainly not an easy job, but probably also not the hardest one either.
Lots of “free time”
Working as a Jackaroo is less of a job and more of a lifestyle. Your whole day revolves around making sure everything runs smoothly. Most days, this works in your favor giving you a couple of hours in the evening to relax and use the internet (if you have some left*). On other days you might be lucky if you’ve enough time to eat dinner and shower before you go to bed.
Working hours mostly depend on the things that have to get done in a day, like on most farms. One important thing to note, if you care for a station all by yourself, you probably won’t have a day off.
*Internet in the Australian outback is provided via satellite; those plans are often limited to a certain amount of data per month.
The hidden side of Cattle Ranching
I did lots of online research and even talked with my predecessor about working at a station. I wanted to ensure I am both capable of doing the job as well as prepare myself for what might come. I got the same general introduction to cattle ranching, some words on isolation from my predecessor, and the usual talk about hard work. Well, working on exclusively farms in Australia, I already had a general idea of what was coming my way. But oh boy, was I wrong. I had no idea about the really challenging aspects of the jobs that I would come to enjoy for the next three months.
Nothing for Animal lovers
I really like animals, so naive me thought working with them would be amazing. Well, it’s my fault for being credulous. Stations have no interest in providing for the animals beyond the absolute minimum to ensure profits. I believed this paradise-like environment portrayed in many Beef-ads or described in a lot of blogs (not pointing any fingers here).
Stations are like all other businesses; they don’t have the luxury nor the need to create such a paradise: It’s all about efficiency and keeping the wheel spinning. Don’t get me wrong I am not saying this is the fault of the farmers; it’s really not. The whole system is build up this way. Either you comply or you go out of business.
Lack of food is one of the results of this practice. The Australian outback isn’t the best place to look for food, save from some shrubs or trees that somehow managed to survive these living conditions.
Feeding more isn’t a solution either, because you’ll run out of cottonseeds (the feed used in the outback) before the next delivery comes in. All you can do is watch and go with it, hoping that they manage to survive on their own accord.
The biggest challenge I faced was the time of separation. Young cows will undergo a fattening program, a couple of weeks before they are auctioned at the market. All Weaners (young cattle) are drafted together and relocated into a small feeding lot. They spend the next weeks in this pen, getting additional hay to the regular feed of cotton seeds.
Not knowing what’s going on, these weaners will continue to call for their mothers for more than a week. Day and night, you’ll hear them call, and their parents answer from further away. Continuing for 10-14 days before they finally abandon hope.
For me, the animals themselves are the hardest part of working on a cattle ranch. It leaves you no choice but to either ignore the things that are happening around you or noticing them, just to be dismissed. It’s best to stop thinking of these animals as living creatures and simply see them as property; otherwise, you run the risk of going insane over time.
The first time this got abundantly clear to me was when I saved a dying cow (she got caught in the fence). I reported this event to the owner, and he thanked me by saying: “I saved him a couple hundred bucks”.
A week before I left the farm, we let the weaners go free again. Apparently, there were some issues, so the auction was postponed. Not that this saves them from their inevitable fate, but at least they had a couple more days with their herd.
=> Sidenote: please don’t chuck these issues on the owner; he’s quite a nice guy. It’s a fantasy to produce meat with the interest of the animal at heart. Cattle ranching, by definition, has to take away the most basic right to life from the animal. Only you can decide (for yourself) if your comfortable with that or not.
Surrounded by death
The Australian outback makes it abundantly clear that death is a prominent part of it. You don’t have to look far to find a carcass, some bones or injured animals. It’s really surprising how fast you get used to the presence of death around you.
Anyway, this is another thing I wasn’t aware of before working on this station. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people actually leave the station for this reason. So if you consider working on a cattle station in Australia, make sure you know what you’re getting into.
This little fella’ suffered a hip injury and isn’t able to walk properly. He’s a bit slow compared to the rest of the herd, making him a lot more vulnerable to starvation. I made it a habit to drive a bit further, so he has a chance to get some food as well, but I don’t know what happened to him after I left the station.
For the next images, I used an NSFW-filter. They show some graphic elements of everyday life on a station. View these pictures at your own discretion.
Sickness and disease are also familiar sights, but there’s very little you can do about it. Either the animal is lucky enough to recover and live with the remnants of the disease, or it dies (or is shot). Calling a Vet out to the station is only ever considered if the whole herd might be affected. Your job as a jackaroo will also include dealing with the occasional death in the herd. The picture below shows a cow that died in a water trough. I had to get her out of there and tow her for about a kilometer. Next, I had to do repairs on the trough. That’s just part of the job, and it’s essential to be aware of this BEFORE you start working on a station. Sadly, these points aren’t mentioned that often.
Another common issue I faced on the station was with the fences. Cattle sometimes get trapped in the gap of the fence, making it impossible for them to escape. On multiple occasions, I had to use a wire cutter to free a cow. This is quite a dangerous endeavor, they often are in a state of panic, so you have to approach them very carefully and avoid any sudden movements.
A far more common sight is a dead Kangaroo trapped in these fences. They often try to jump over the barrier and end up getting caught. In most cases, they die before you get around to free them (they move during the night).
During my last week at the station, I saw this little guy lying on the ground. I really wanted to help him, but honestly, I lacked the know-how. In the end, there was nothing I could do for him.
Isolation and Risk-factors
The only warning I received before working on a station was the challenge of isolation and the risk of working on your own. I don’t mind either of these factors, which is why I decided to go for this job in the first place. Compared to the other hurdles, this really seemed neglectable to me. But I can also understand that this might also be very different for some folks.
So would I work on a station again? Probably not. I am definitely grateful for all the experience I was able to gain during those three months. I’d also love to spend another year in Australia working on different farms (if the opportunity arises, I might just do that). But I probably stay away from working with livestock again.