Eight decades spent working with cattle

9th March 2017 12:38 PM
UPDATED 10th March 10:21 AM
Bruce McKenzie talks about his years in the cattle industry. Bruce McKenzie talks about his years in the cattle industry. Allan Reinikka ROK240217amckenzi

BRUCE McKenzie's 88-year-old hands tell a story.

Each wrinkle serving as a reminder of when he loaded cattle onto trucks headed for the saleyards.

Each freckle, a memory of the days he spent in his saddle, mustering.

The boy who grew up at Alton Downs on Coolarah Station and rode to school on horseback ended up moving "down the road a bit" to Pearl Creek Station, where he married the "girl next door".

Bruce learnt a lot about the cattle game when he moved to become the station manager at Pearl Creek and began to attend nearly every weekly sale at the Gracemere saleyards, which were located at the Rockhampton showgrounds at the time.

Having spent his close to nine decades in central Queensland, the local man has lived through the cattle depression and seen the beef industry change significantly.

Bruce has witnessed cattle prices fluctuate "year in and year out" but says prices have been the dearest cents per kilo and per head over the past year he has ever seen.

"I think in the early 80s and before the beef depression in the 70s the value for money was just as good.

"I don't know if financially you're any better off than back then," he said.

Having kept journals over the years of price swings in the industry and patterns, Bruce said the saleyards were the very thing that "saved him" during the cattle depression.

 

November 4th 1974, Bruce McKenzie sold 58 heifers to a meat agent for Solloman Islands.
November 4, 1974 Bruce McKenzie sold 58 heifers to a meat agent for Soloman Islands. Allan Reinikka ROK240217amckenzi

Starting back in 1976 the industry fell into a depression due to what Bruce believed to be a mix of shortage of demand overseas and seasonal conditions.

"The saleyards saved me during the cattle depression, they saved me because I sold and I had a cash flow," he said.

Not only have prices changed over the years but the saleyard aesthetics have developed with the times.

Bruce recalls the "early days" in the Gracemere yards, when the ring was simply a big enclosed wooden selling ring with wooden seats.

"It was changed to timber selling pens and covered walkways later on," Bruce said.

"A plane would fly from Brisbane with buyers and the sale would even be held up because the plane would come late."

With tears welling in his eyes, the retired stockman remembered back to what his wife would say to him every weekend when he would work relentlessly at the saleyards.

"My wife used to say to me ... I worked most weekends in the 70s and 80s, most weekends I worked to take cattle to the saleyards," he said. "I lost my wife two years ago. Sorry I get a bit emotional at times.

"She said 'you're working when everyone else is resting', but I did it because I loved it. But it was my life."

To this day Bruce still heads out to the weekly Gracemere sales each Friday.

When asked why, he said "to keep my brain from becoming scrambled".

"Better to smell the cow dung then to look at brick walls," he joked.

LIFE AT COOLARAH

BRUCE was born and bred at Coolarah Station and spent his whole schooling life there.

"I spent my whole school life there, going to Alton Downs school," he said.

"My sister, my brother and myself used to ride a horse to Alton Downs school, which was 4 or 5km every day."

Eventually Bruce went to Rockhampton Grammar School for two years "because he had to go somewhere" and, due to there being no bus back in Bruce's schooling days, he boarded at the school.

After finishing school, he moved on to a different station to work in CQ.

 

Bruce McKenzie with sons kenneth and Andrew at Aust. Prime cattle Championships Beef 91 and their prize winning drought master bullocks.
Bruce McKenzie with sons kenneth and Andrew at Aust. Prime cattle Championships Beef in 91 and their prize winning drought master bullocks. Contributed

Before moving onto a different station, Bruce ensured Coolarah was properly irrigated and established with the help of his two school mates, Les and Eric Wise, who he says were "top blokes".

MOVING ON TO PEARL CREEK

PEARL Creek, which was a property out at Duringa, was the next stop for Bruce.

"I went to work there under a bloke called Jack Walsh, who was the manager and a top cattle man," he said.

"A lot that I learnt about the cattle game, I learnt in those years while I was there from 1951 to 1957."

In 1957, Bruce took over managing the station after marrying the "girl next door" in 1956.

"At Pearl Creek 75% of my working time would be in the saddle, mustering and dip, mustering and dip, you never stopped," he said.

SALEYARD LIVING

OVER the years Bruce's relationship and understanding with saleyards has changed and grown.

From not having much to do with selling at yards, to nearly selling every week of the year, to more or less only selling directly to butchers, Bruce has experienced it all.

In the early 40s, Bruce and his family used to drove their cattle from Coolarah Station to the Laurel Bank turn-off at Alton Downs.

From there stockmen from the saleyards used to come and meet them at the turn-off and take the cattle in from there.

"We did that probably once a month, not once a week like what's done now," Bruce said.

"When I took over management at Pearl Creek I became involved a fair bit in saleyards there because I used to go to buy mainly young heifers at Baralaba saleyards, Dingo, Blackwater and Emerald saleyards."

From around 1967 on Bruce started selling every week at the Gracemere saleyards.

And thanks to the help of journals and documents, the local man has kept track of every cow, bull, heifer, steer and bullock he has sold.

The price fluctuations within central Queensland, the cattle depression and everthing in between.

"I've got everything recorded in financial years," he said.

"In the early days I brought a truck and started to cart my own cattle because when we got to around 1975/1976 I sold 40 times in the year," he said.

"I was the most continuous seller at Gracemere for quite a few years."

The biggest change Bruce said he ever saw at the Gracemere saleyards was the live weight scales.

"This was open auction price per head, right up until 1979, when they changed to live weight," he said.

 

Bruce McKenzie with his grand son Riley McKenzie at Gracemere sale yards.
Bruce McKenzie with his grand son Riley McKenzie at Gracemere sale yards. Allan Reinikka ROK240217amckenzi