Before the sun rises, a group of young, fit men and women from across regional Queensland are pulling on their dirty boots and broadbrim hats. They have only had a few hours’ sleep, after working until the early hours of the morning drafting cattle. Still sore and sun kissed, they down a quick cuppa or energy drink and make their way back to work. 

The fog is starting to lift at the foot of Mount Walsh, where some 2500 head of cattle are waiting to be painted out and drafted off to be sold. Their age, origin, breed, size and health will all influence how they’re penned and what price they fetch. Like most agricultural sectors, graziers are price takers, not makers. The financial success of their business is heavily influenced by factors outside their control, like weather, input costs and the global economy. 

Vendors come from across the Wide Bay, Bundaberg, South and North Burnett to sell their cattle at the Burnett Livestock Exchange in Biggenden. It’s one of the few remaining family-owned saleyards across Australia that believe there’s “no better feeling than getting the best possible price” for their clients.

Just a few years ago graziers were getting as little as $2 a kilogram, but they’re finally being rewarded for the science and planning involved in “putting a good bull over their cows”. Elsewhere, big corporations are buying out saleyards to capitalise on the strong market conditions.        

What was once an industry dominated by middle-aged men, has transformed into a career of equal opportunity. There’s a jovial camaraderie between the workers, where men and women of all ages “show up and do their jobs” without complaint. With dirt beneath their fingernails and sweat on their brows, they sit down to mid-morning “smoko” of barbecued bacon and eggs before the auction starts. It’s clear from their chatter and watching them work, they care deeply about the animals and each other. It’s hard work, where a slow mosey can become a rush in seconds, without warning.   

With the help of young couples like James and Emily Cochrane from Burnett Livestock and Realty, photographer Paul Beutel is documenting an iconic Australian industry that’s a major contributor to our country’s economic prosperity. 

Spend a day watching them work and you’ll agree an Australian industry that feeds fellow Australians is an industry worth fighting for.