Working on an Australian Outback Cattle Station

Working on an Australian outback cattle station isn’t easy.

In 2010 my friend Erik and I drove to Mt. Isa, Australia to watch the rodeo. We didn’t care about the rodeo really, but we thought it would be a good chance to meet a real cattle station manager and convince them to give us a job on the station. It worked, but it was going to hurt.

Nick and Ian - Outback Muster Team
Notice the black wrist guard. I’m pretty sure I broke my wrist out there… but we never got it x-rayed so no-one will ever know.

How to Find a Cattle Station Job

There are smarter ways to find cattle station work than what we did. Use for classified job postings. If I were to do it over again, I would take advantage of the government offices and employment agencies. Australia has great social services so there are lots of opportunities to get support from government when seeking a position. I bet there is always a station job somewhere in Australia. Most Australians don’t want to do this kind of work. It’s filthy, hot, remote and low paying.

It is an amazing adventure.

My Outback Australian Cattle Saddle

Planning an Outback Adventure

The intelligent and planning types will use classifieds and government help. That’s not what we did.

Our plan involved getting a camper-van and driving deep into the outback. If I were to do it again, I would get a station wagon (Ford Falcon or a Holden Commodore Wagon) in one of the main cities. You can get a reliable one for about $3,000 AUD. Those vehicles are great to sleep in. That helps you avoid spending a fortune on accommodation while you look for work.

Oban Cattle Station - The Furthermost Water Trough

If you drive out there, you can always just stop at the local pub. Honestly, I think that might be a great way to find a job quickly. Pubs are the hubs for everyone in the community and if you’re willing to talk to strangers, chances are someone will point you in the right direction quickly.

How we Became Station Hands

We were in Brisbane when we learned that the Mt. Isa Rodeo was scheduled in a few days.  We drove out there to meet station owners. We weren’t certain that this was a good idea, but we just wanted to get out of town.

Driving from Brisbane to Mt. Isa is not an easy thing. Australia is bloody huge, mate. We drove really slow at night because kangaroos are everywhere and they like to jump into your headlights. Seriously, don’t even drive at night there. The roads are littered with dead kangaroos who are mowed down my unstoppable road-trains at night. The road-trains don’t slow down for you either. It’s a really, crazy drive.

Oban Station Outback Workshop

The rodeo wasn’t a great place to meet station owners. Many real station owners don’t even care about the rodeo and those that do attend are often surrounded with friends who they don’t see often. Not a lot of station managers had any interest in talking with us.

My friend Erik found a list of all the stations in the Mt. Isa area and just started cold calling all of them. That is what worked for us. Matt McDonald called us back, we met him at McDonald’s and followed him out to the station. It felt like he was driving 300 kilometers an hour. This guy was the real deal. A true badass cattle station manager.

Cattle station work is hard but mostly boring.

Australian Muster Horse in Cattle Yards

The Boring Cattle Station Jobs

Most of our days are boring. The most common days are full of salt lick runs, bore maintenance and/or caring for machinery/property.

Salt Lick Runs

A salt lick run is a job in which you load a ute (a really tough small truck for all my Americans) with twenty 60 lbs. white plastic bags of salt lick. Then you spend just about the whole day distributing these bags of salt to the cattle in all the separate paddocks.

Because the paddocks are so big, this is a job for 2 people working all day. You spend the whole day driving 120 km an hour on dirt roads. When you arrive to the next paddock, you have 2 jobs. One, Check the water bores to ensure they are working properly. Two, pull out a bag of lick, cut it in half with a big knife and pour all the salt into old tires so that the cattle can come and eat it.

You do this to about 10 paddocks and spend most of the day driving. This was one of my favorite jobs.

My Australian Muster Horse - NickBore Maintenance

Bore maintenance is another fun job because of the surprises we get when we come upon a bore that hasn’t seen a human soul for a few weeks.

Duties include things like:

  • Fueling the diesel generators up to pump water from the ground
  • Checking the oil in the diesel engines that pump water from ground when the water levels get low
  • Scraping the algae and cattle debris from the cattle’s water troughs
  • Devising mechanical solutions to anything that broke recently
  • Fishing dead kangaroos and pigs out of the big ponds that feed the bores

Yes, the last one is disgusting. I remember using a long pole to try to lift a dead kangaroos and pigs from the water. The animals jump in the water to drink and cool down, but can’t climb out.

They drown slowly, but as their bodies decompose, they float back up to the surface. We need to take them out, otherwise the cattle will get sick from drinking dead kangaroo/pig tea.

I distinctly remember pulling up a long dead kangaroo and watching it fall to pieces. Because it fell into so many pieces, there was no way we could fish them all out. The smell was overpowering. Perhaps the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Caring for Machinery/Property

We change a lot of oil, pour a lot of concrete, organize lots of building materials and straighten out a lot of fences.

Australian Cattle Station Saddle Shed

Fencing can be fun because you can make a lot of progress and spend the day outside working with a variety of cool tools. Barb wire strainers and post driving tools are a good way to mix it up.

We learned to weld and we learned how to fix things in ways we never thought of before. In general, if something is broken, you can just hit it with the ute and everything will sort it’s self out.

Much of cattle station work is about waiting. We spent a lot of days doing busy work just to keep paid and on station. Essentially, sometimes you just need to chill out and wait for something more important to come along. The real adventure is when the important stuff comes along.

The Exciting Cattle Station Jobs

The exciting jobs made the adventure one of most memorable of my life. Exciting jobs include meat runs, cattle yard work and most notably, big cattle musters.

Meat Runs

On a remote cattle station, we don’t buy beef from the supermarket.

How to Butcher a Cow in the Australian Outback

About once a month we go out with a rife, a clean tarp and a collection of knives and tools for sharpening them. One unlucky old steer becomes our protein for the next few months.

This was one of our favorite things to do. I think everyone that eats meat should be required to kill an animal and turn it into dinner. If these pictures gross you out and you’re not a vegetarian, you’re probably living in a fantasy world.

Butchery on Outback Cattle Station

Learning to cut up an animal and eat them is an important part of life. This was one of our favorite days on the cattle station. We killed the animal, cut it to useful pieces and brought those pieces back to process. At the end of the day we had all the meat we could eat for the next month.

Musters and Yard Work

That road train (pictured below) is full of cattle. We spent half the day loading the cattle in that double decker road-train. To get the cattle there, we had a team of 5 on horseback, 2 on dirt-bikes and a guy in a helicopter to bring all the cattle in from the outskirts of the paddocks.

Outback Australian Cattle Station Work - Road TrainOn the first day we brought them in from the huge paddocks to the small yards. Yards are steel cages which allow us to push individual cattle through series of smaller and smaller yard sections. At the end of the last yard is the ‘run’.

The ‘run’ is a narrow steel alley which only allows a single steer at a time to move down the lane. At the end of the lane is a ‘crush’.

Cattle Yards and a Road Train - Australian Cattle Station

The ‘crush’ is operated by a person who waits for the cattle to stick their head through. That person then slams it shut so we can catch the animal by the neck. We can weight them, inject them with hormones, neuter them or cut their horns off while they are stuck in the crush.

We loaded something like 7,000 cattle into road-trains like you see above. The road-trains would leave our station and drive the cattle to Darwin, Australia. From Darwin, the trailers are loaded onto a large ship and brought to places all over South East Asia for sale as live animals.

It’s a pretty bonkers operation.

Working on an Australian Outback Cattle Station – The End

Working on an Australian Outback Cattle StationAfter the musters, we are filthy. This gives you an idea for how gross it gets.

Here is a podcast from the past. Erik and I sit down to discuss the adventure:

Please feel free to leave a comment below with any questions or comments on this article. I would love to hear from you.

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