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Cattle bred for Australia’s north

Grainews in Australia: With a little Canadian help, producers down under created Droughtmaster cattle

There probably isn’t a cattle farmer anywhere across the Canadian prairie in January that wouldn’t gladly trade places with an Australian farmer, particularly when the mercury disappears in the bottom of the thermometer. But the generally balmy climate down under isn’t without its challenges for stock growers either. The conditions cattle must contend with in the northern part of that country, not all that far from the Equator, can be even more devastating to a herd than severe cold.

As in Canada, the first cattle breeds brought to Australia by settlers originated in the United Kingdom. While they were well suited to the British climate, the unique challenges of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territories proved difficult for them to overcome. A hot, dry environment with limited access to water devastated British breeds in the region early on. It was those harsh conditions and other problems that led to the creation of Australia’s own Droughtmaster breed.

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“The cattle tick arrived (in Australia) from Asia in 1896 and decimated the herds,” explained Neil Donaldson, CEO of Droughtmaster Australia, at the breed exhibit during the Commonwealth Bank AgQuip expo in Gunnedah, New South Wales, Australia in August. “The tick decimated the herds that were all British-bred cattle.”

In the early 1900s some ranchers thought the solution was to incorporate breed genetics into their herds from animals common in more tropical climates.

“Some commercial cattlemen were looking at ways to sort out that problem,” Donaldson continued. “And the only way they could see clear was to use Zebu genetics. And the only Zebu genetics in Australia were in a zoo in Melbourne at an exotic animal display.”

Three Zebu bulls were taken from the zoo and made available to some graziers in the northern part of the country. A few years later, in the mid 1920s, one cross-bred cattle herd caught the eye of a certain cattleman who saw their potential.

“Years later a fellow called Monty Atkinson was delivering horses that he’d sold in the middle of a drought, and on his way through this property he found a Zebu bull with his half-bred progeny,” Donaldson said. “They were all surviving and doing really well while all the other British-bred cattle around them were dying from the drought.”

“He used the money from the sale of the horses to buy the Zebu bull and his half-bred progeny and went on from there to try and get a breed that was tick resistant, could handle the heat and humidity, could handle walking vast distances to water and feed, and handle very poor pasture.”

Atkinson’s efforts eventually led to the creation of the Droughtmaster breed, or Droughties as they’re sometimes called by local graziers.

“As time went on they were allowed to import Brahman genetics from America, although they had to come through Canada because for a while they weren’t allowed to import (cattle) from America,” he said. “So the bulls had to go up to Canada and do their quarantine there.”

“They used the Brahman genetics to update and fast track what they were doing. Over the years they eventually stabilized the breed to where it is now. It’s now the second largest breed in northern Australia.” The official description of Droughtmasters by the breed organization, which first formed its own association in 1962, claims these cattle embody high fertility traits along with easy calving and docility. But their biggest advantage is in their adaptability to dry, hot climates. Those same traits, however, have also kept the breed confined mostly to Northern Australia, apart from a small number in Mexico, South America and a few regions of Asia that share similar environments.

“It hasn’t spread a long way throughout the world,” acknowledged Donaldson. “But there are little pockets of the breed around the world. It’s uniquely Australian. And it’s something we’re proud of.”

About the author

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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