Bush telegraph in the digital age

Technology features just as much in country life as it does in the city, affecting how our food reaches the table.

Adam Pollock, a second generation stock agent, can remember growing up in Gunnedah in Western NSW. Weekends were cut short so his father could sit by the phone on a Sunday night to wait for his stock sale allocation number. Now, with mobile phones, that is a thing of the past. Adam can be anywhere where there is network coverage to receive the call.

“The technology has made such a positive impact on the way we do business,” says Adam. As a go between for the farmer and buyer, no longer does he need to drive two hours to quote the cattle he is going to sell on behalf of the cattle grower. Instead, he receives an image on his smart phone sent from the farmers’ smart device. Not only does this save an incredible amount of time but also saves wear and tear on vehicles and reduces fuel costs. “I can see it right there just by sitting at home,” said Mr Pollock.

Smart phones and tablets have become an extension of our bodies in our urban existence, we can read the news, check our train timetables, turn on the coffee machine and so much more. Much of our busy lives have become reliant on these little devices and they have transformed the way we do every day things.

The bush is not exempt from this phenomenon. The transformation in people’s lives living in country areas has been just as dramatic. In many instances, technology has revolutionised how the food we eat makes its way to the retailers’ shelves.
Stock yard 03 by Noel Fisher

It’s Tuesday and I’m heading towards Gunnedah to see one of the largest and most competitive livestock sales in NSW take place. With a population of about 10,000, the stock yards represent an important part of the district. City dwellers don’t venture out this way much, but for the surrounding rural communities, this place is a central part of their lives – the life blood of the people.

I am introduced to Doc Morrison, the manager of the sale yards. He greets me with a big country smile and hearty hand shake. He is not dressed the way I expected, there’s no Akubra or Stenson; just a wide brim number that almost looks like a Bunnings straw hat. No moleskins, just a pair of denim jeans, but a great deal of rural hospitality and enthusiasm.

“I’ll be right with you, it’s my turn on the catwalk, are you right to look around for half an hour?” The catwalk is the narrow raised paths above the hundreds of individual cattle yards that the stock is ready to be auctioned by the stock agents to the buyers. An encounter with another person coming in the opposite direction involves someone giving way.

Stock yard 04

As he disappears in the direction of the noise and activity I chat with Eliza Gallen, from the local Council who own and administer these sale yards. Coming from a long line of stock agents herself, she points to a plaque on one of the yards and tells me, “that’s my grandfather, they named the new section of yards after him.”

As she greets the buyers and agents by name – Eliza has known most of them her whole life – one really feels the sense of community, the unmistakable kinship that can only exist in places where the inhabitants are such a close knit group.

Doc reappears and gives me the cook’s tour of his domain. He points to a small button on the cattle’s ear and says, “that’s how we track the cattle all the way through the sale.” The button is part of the National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS). Introduced in 2006, all cattle are now identified by the NLIS tag that contains a microchip. Costing around three dollars, this nondescript button allows stock to be tracked from birth to slaughter. It contains property numbers of where the cattle were born and every time they are sold, transferred or moved – the national data base is updated.

Prior to the introduction of the electronic tagging, cattle were given tail tags at the sale. These often fell off and only identified the cattle at the sale yard. Using the electronic system, the condition and health of the nation’s herds can be easily monitored and illnesses and disease can be tracked to a source very quickly, ensuring a stable and safe food supply.

Stock yard 08
The tiny NLIS microchip that tracks the livestock from birth or slaughter.

Adam tells me that when the ear-tagging system was first introduced, many in the industry thought the sky would fall and there was much doom and gloom. “But in a couple of months we realised how beneficial it really was,” said Adam.

Livestock is sold by weight and the buyers and sellers are still experts at judging and assessing the cattle without the aid of technology. This aspect of the business still comes down to a keen eye and experience.

The cattle push, bustle and make an unholy racket as hooves crash on the metal floor as they crowd into the scale. Even in this crammed area, the NLIS tag can be read by the electronic readers as they enter. A team of people in the small office behind the weigh station record and weigh the batch before they are moved into the holding pens to be shipped to their final destination. A curious sign adorns the window, “Do Not Wash Windows”. I’m tempted to ask what it means but the busyness of the tiny office doesn’t present me with an opportunity.

Stock yard 06
Sales yard team members process the cattle by weight using the smart technology.

High tech mixes well with low tech out here. Although the cattle can be tracked using an app on a smart phone or tablet via their electronic NLIS tags, there is still a bloke with a spray can on a stick to mark the cattle in the stock yard, primarily for the benefit of the rider.

Stock yard 09
Spray can on a stick!

His job is to move the cattle around the yards on horseback separating out the cattle sold to different buyers and start them on their journey to the weigh station. He used to wear an Akubra to keep the sun at bay, now it is a riding helmet, with a brim attached using press studs. It seems even out here that work health and safety rules have made an impact.

Stock yard 07
Modern regulations have caught up in the bush, the Akubra has been replaced. It looks a little out of place.

I bump into the photographer from rural publication The Land who says “you picked a good day for it.” Thinking she was referring to the weather, I responded by looking up toward the sky. “No, they’re all dressed up as they are heading to AgQuip after the sale,” she said. AgQuip is the largest rural trade show in Australia and is also happening this week in the town.

As the iPhone clock clicks over to 1:00, the sales are all complete. The last of the beasts are exiting the scale at the weigh station, corralled and waiting to be loaded onto trucks. The buyers and stock agents all finish chatting and head off to the trade show where they will meet up again and with others from further afield. Even with all the new technology, the spirit of the community, mate-ship and hospitality is very evident.

As the distinctive smell of ammonia from the urine of hundreds of cattle lingers in my nostrils, the noise of the beasts, auctioneers and buyers ring in my ears, I realise none of the atmosphere and traditions of generations can be replaced by technology. While it undeniably has made some of the jobs a little easier, just as it has in the city, the heart and soul of the Aussie bush is still very much a part of the traditional landscape out here. – Photo and story by Noel Fisher