Opinion: The low hanging fruit putting our industry at risk

Stephanie Coombes, 05/02/2021

As we strive to promote and protect our industry, we cannot deny that there are people putting it at risk.

Stephanie Coombes. Image courtesy of Stephanie Coombes Creative

I am not talking about animal activists, but people within our very industry.

Too often I see our own people using social media to inadvertently undermine the hard work that others in our industry do.

Photos and videos of cattle injured, bogged, tied up, jumping rails, husbandry procedures being carried out incorrectly; captions and comments referring to cattle as “sluts” and worse.

I have an album on my phone labelled “Idiots”, where I collect screenshots of people posting photos, videos and comments that honestly make me shake my head and wonder what they were thinking.

How did we get here?

It wasn’t that long ago that we would take our photos with a camera, have the film developed, and said photos would go into an album. A roll of film had limited usage, so a higher level of thought and intent was put into each picture.

These days photos and videos can be shared instantly, with the entire world. We are only limited by the storage capacity on our device, which can be cleared with a tap of our finger.

Many people use smartphones as an alarm to wake up in the morning, as a torch, or a music storage device. It is then put in their back pocket and taken to work.

I don’t think it is unreasonable for a someone to expect to carry their mobile phone on their person throughout the work day, whether or not they have access to mobile coverage.

Furthermore I do not think it is unreasonable for someone to expect to be allowed to capture photographs and videos of their work – particularly when you work in an industry that offers incredible scenery and experiences which so many others don’t get to experience.

So, what can we do?

While the use of smartphones, cameras, and social media has come up for discussion in industry, a coordinated approach has yet to be adopted, and as such our industry remains vulnerable.

You may think that our priority should be to restrict the ability for people to take photo and video footage, to prevent them uploading something harmful to the business and/or broader industry. However, that’s not where I think our focus needs to be, at least not first.

1) We need to acknowledge that sometimes our own people don’t do the right thing

Actions speak louder than words. It’s one thing to promote the good work many in our industry do, but we can’t pretend that there aren’t people out there treating country, animals and people poorly.

An email I received just last year put it like this:

“When I joined this industry I thought I’d see a proactive industry demonstrating land and natural resource stewardship, or at least taking steps towards it. The reality is I do not see that across the board in my work. I see stations forced to destock after only one dry season due to over stocking. Wet and pregnant cows not fed lick until it’s too late in the season to be of any help to them, or not fed lick at all. Huge problems with erosion, large-scale land degradation (scalding) and invasive weeds on major waterways, with little to no action taken from management to curb it. I see paddocks flogged back to the dirt, minimal use of spelling and no regular burning to reduce woody thickening in paddocks. Natural springs left unfenced leaving cattle to destroy the banks and eat everything within 2km of the water. These are just a few examples.”

It’s up to us to do better. To take responsibility for our people and how we train them. To do everything we can to ensure they won’t be engaging in poor practices which could result in a negative outcome (even if it isn’t publicised). There are so many great initiatives in this industry, and so much great work being done – but we can’t deny that we still have a lot of room for improvement.

2) All persons need to be educated to assess content and commentary

There’s two main categories of risky content.

A) Photo/video footage showing the wrong thing being done – this one is easy, the issue here isn’t so much that footage exists, but that someone was doing the wrong thing in the first place.

It’s not just a matter of telling someone to remove the content, but the actual issue of doing the wrong thing needs to be addressed.

No one should be able to capture footage of someone mistreating an animal, or any sort of poor practice, because it just shouldn’t be done in the first place. This includes the use of foul and derogatory language against animals. You can bet your bottom dollar that if I see someone using poor language online, I will either pull them up on it and/or make their manager aware (cue everyone blocking me on Facebook now!).

B) Photo/video footage which could be mis-interpreted – Things happen: animals lose condition, get bogged, dehorned and castrated. Animals get caught, bullstraps get used. Cattle charge people. There’s a reason behind everything that happens, but more often than not it’s not representative of commonplace practice and how the industry operates.

There’s a lot more to it, but people need to be educated to assess content before publishing. Stop and think – what are you trying to achieve by publishing this content? Is this content demonstrating the standards that industry operates by, and wants to progress toward, or is it showing our weaknesses and what we’re trying to move away from? How is publishing this content contributing to the success and sustainability of the pastoral industry?

C) All persons should be empowered to speak up if they think someone is doing the wrong thing, and they should be able to do it respectfully.

If you see someone either participating in poor practice, or recording something which can be detrimental to industry, you should be able to call it out without copping flak or being ostracised. But, that is not the case all too often, and speaks to the need for a culture shift within industry.

There are so many good stories coming out of this industry. But, each day, someone, somewhere, either does the wrong thing, or makes a poor choice.

Having a social media and/or mobile phones policy is insufficient. If staff are educated to a) do the right thing, and b) identify risky content, then why can’t they join in on advocating for our industry?

Let’s help them to help us, not hurt us.

So, I put the challenge out to everyone working in the pastoral industry for 2021 – what will do you differently? Can you level up your social media activity to contribute to this industry’s success, not its failure?

  • Stephanie Coombes is an agricultural scientist, a former Cattle Council of Australia national rising champion and co-founder of the Central Station website. With a diverse range of experience in cattle production, research and extension and livestock health, welfare and behaviour, she is a well known rural ‘agvocate’ and rural communications specialist. She is also a commercial photographer specialising in rural and regional Australia. She emphasises that the views expressed here are hers alone and do not reflect those of Central Station nor any persons affiliated with it. Central Station is a platform for the pastoral industry engage with the general public and demonstrate their values through the medium of story. 


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  1. Peter Letchford, 08/02/2021

    Well said Stephanie.
    Your first point regarding rangeland management has reached a tipping point beyond which it will be very hard to return. The condition of the rangeland also predicates a lot of welfare issues too.

  2. Susan Grey, 07/02/2021

    Well written Steph.

  3. Anthea Henwood, 06/02/2021

    Very well said Stephanie.
    Management accountability and making “station hand’ a profession not an “outback ringer” experience would help.
    The culture of nonexistent grass management and bad cattle handling handling is deeply routed in middle management and will not change without education and direction from city office and appropriate investment in humans on the ground.
    Translation- if you have made enough money to spend $20M to $110M+ on a property chances are you have not done it by being the back yard boy or boreman or lick deliverer for more than the token year and you are probably not paying these staff much. So senior management have no motivation to change without being held accountable.
    Our industry bodies do not make anybody accountable for anything.
    It takes a live export ban to make our industry change,
    Or we use social media as Stephanie has suggested.

  4. Shane Dunn, 06/02/2021

    I agree that there is some pretty ordinary practices going on out there.
    It comes back to management, the need to connect from the head office to the on ground reality of livestock work.
    You have business operators that don’t understand the hands on livestock business and good cattlemen that don’t have the business acumen – trust between both needs to be had
    You cannot expect a manager with 4 years experience in the industry to have the range of skills needed to run a dynamic business, teach their staff how to handle the livestock efficiently and with the respect needed to cover both the head office demands, the welfare of animals and the maturity to handle the staff demands.
    The industry sells the outback adventure as the attraction to staff rather than the long term approach of the professional business it should be.

  5. Chris Main, 06/02/2021

    Fantastic article, well said Stephanie!!

  6. Jody Brown, 06/02/2021

    I wholeheartedly agree with the observations ands views expressed in this article. We need to lift the bar and find a safe and responsible way of calling out and eliminating/improving poor behaviour and lack of respect/compassion for animals, country, and people. There are so many fantastic people in our industry, with abundant knowledge and passion, doing wonderful things, and we cannot risk the integrity of the foundation that they build by the actions of those whose behaviour and ethics are shown to be lacking. And the animals and land under our care deserve better than to be mistreated because nobody will speak up for them.

  7. Paul+D.+Butler, 05/02/2021

    Nice try Stephanie…….but no amount of education will change human nature. E.G……….folks trying to outdo each other with their social media posts in all faucets of life.

  8. Dan Lynch, 05/02/2021

    you are very correct in what you are saying, there is no need for the mistreatment of animals, land, people and machinery in our industry.


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