Far North Queensland cattleman Greg Brown called it quits last week after an eventful three-year term as president of the Cattle Council of Australia.
Mr Brown had the bull by the horns in more ways than one during the last six months of his term as head of the nation’s peak cattle producer representative body.
Within days of the airing of the Four Corners live export program that threw the Australian beef industry into turmoil in May, he suffered a serious injury caused by a beast in a yards accident on his property, Meadowbank near Mt Garnet. He was evacuated by helicopter to Cairns Base Hospital where he spent a lengthy period in recuperation, and wears morphine pain relief patches to this day.
Understandably, that episode limited Mr Brown’s direct engagement with the live export market closure issue, but it stands in his mind as one of the seminal industry challenges during his term as CCA head.
Somewhat perversely, while he gained ‘notoriety’ among some industry administrators for his willingness to share information with industry, it was precisely this candid and open approach towards information sharing that saw him gain widespread respect among grassroots beef producers.
His frank admissions earlier this year that there could be scope and some justification for examination of industry structures was a good example.
Rather than adopting a restrictive, ‘need-to-know’ approach, Mr Brown was keen to keep grassroots industry members as well-informed as practicable over developments in industry affairs, without being indiscrete.
Although he was a well-known figure around the North Queensland grazing community for many years, he only arrived on the national agripolitical scene in relatively recent times.
A foundation member of the old Cattlemens Union when it formed back in 1976, and again as an AgForce member following the merger of Queensland’s adversarial CU and UGA groups in 1998, Mr Brown spent the best part of 30 years content to operate at ‘local branch level’ in agripolitics.
He also focussed his interest on the R&D side of the industry, chairing the North Queensland Regional Beef Research Committee and sitting for seven years on the North Australian Beef Research Council.
“I’d been branch chairman at three different CU/AgForce branches over three decades, but was never motivated to go any further because I thought the leadership in that era was OK,” he said.
“However I started to become a little disillusioned with the directions being taken and decisions made, so I joined the AgForce Cattle board in 2005.”
A year later he became AgForce Cattle chairman, joining Cattle Council of Australia at the same time.
Just two years later at the industry’s annual meetings in Orange on November 2008, he was elected CCA president – a meteoric rise, given the previous history of CCA board advancement.
While there were still some ‘very good individuals’ currently contributing to industry affairs, Mr Brown said the agripolitical scene was continuing to struggle to attract enough first-class candidates to drive the process.
“That’s the case in broader politics as well, and it reflects a general attitude in society,” he said.
“The apathy is concerning. Only about 15pc of MLA members exercised a vote in last week’s AGM resolutions. I don’t really understand it, but I can’t see any immediate solution,” he said.
Appetite for change
He hoped that the current moves to examine options for industry structural adjustments might stimulate some greater levels of stakeholder participation, which would “only be a good thing.”
“I absolutely support the need for the emerging industry scrutiny over structural matters. One of the significant aspects of the current discussions going on is that the hatchet has been buried to some extent, and different interest groups are working with CCA in productive discussion. I sincerely hope it delivers an outcome which is very positive.”
Mr Brown said the recent live export episode was far from the primary influence behind calls for structural reform.
“It’s only a part of it. The fact that the live export recovery has been rapid and fairly comprehensive has probably taken some of the sensitivity out of that. It probably drew a lot of attention to the industry at the time, but much of the dissatisfaction with industry structures pre-dates this year’s live export issue.”
Mr Brown plans to continue to sit on a CCA working group looking into the formation of a structural/funding proposal to present to grassroots industry members.
While there was widespread appetite for change across the industry, he agreed that coming up with a model that would attract widespread support from all parties was a ‘huge challenge.’
“It will be impossible for any plan to satisfy everybody. But if we can gather support from a significant majority of beef producers, I think we would be doing well,” he said.
“I’m not sure that trying to cater for the small peri-urban beef producers on the fringes of capital cities is the right way to go, but we need to somehow engage with those people and bring them with the larger family-scale and corporate enterprises.”
Mr Brown said CCA could emerge as a more significant and influential organisation out of any structural reform.
At the time the peak councils and NFF were formed back in the 1970s, CCA was very significant, driven by strong leadership and an era when producers were desperate, looking for solutions to the beef slump and the need for representation, he said.
“Most of the big changes in the beef industry have come as a result of producers seeing a need for a greater share of the pie.”
One of the needs to reinvigorate CCA was adequate funding, to handle the enormous workload and multitude of issues managed by the organisation on industry’s behalf.
Mr Brown saw another of the other key milestones during his term as acceptance of MSA by major processors, and more recently supermarket retailers.
“We struck a lot of resistance earlier, but the vigorous uptake by major processors has been a decisive turning point in the industry’s history,” he said.
Blue sky approach needed in R&D
Given his length engagement with the R&D process, Mr Brown continues to be concerned about the industry’s approach to investment in research.
“For some unknown reason we are in a hiatus in terms of the significance placed on R&D. We don’t appear to have too many people thinking beyond where we are at the moment, and R&D needs a bit of that ‘blue sky’ approach to stay ahead of developments.”
“I believe the industry is taking a line now where we spend money where we don’t see any risk, and that will never do in the field of research. We need to devote a lot more money into the ‘higher-risk, but higher-return’ area.”
“It will be in areas like rumen bug research where we will see some big breakthroughs. Some of the concerns about genetic modification of rumen bacteria need to be revisited, and we need to look to the future a little more in examples like this.”
“Even without GM, we may be able to change that gut microflora environment to greatly improve nutrient absorption, without doing too much at all. It’s areas like this that we should be investing a lot more industry capital in, because the potential benefits are huge.”
“In this area, the beef industry has become risk-averse, and it’s high time we threw that mantle off and got stuck in, because at the moment we are making only very small gains.”
Mr Brown was the pioneer of the use of the browse shrub leucaena, in far north Queensland, using the protein-rich, drought-resistant legume to finish bullocks during drier times each year.
Commercial plantings started on Meadowbank in 1996 or 1997, but there was a trial plot of leucaena (Peru, a lesser perfoming cultivar) still growing on Meadowbank that was established by legendary tropical pasture researcher, Dr Joe Miller, in 1964.
“Forty seven years after it was planted, that plot is still going strong. So there’s often nothing new, in the areas of research – it’s the rate of adoption that tends to be slow,” he said.