IT took three job offers before Murray Arnel felt ready to take up the challenge of becoming a livestock market reporter in the rural media.
Considering the experience he had already amassed at the time, it seems fair to assume “Muzza” was probably the only person in Australia who may have questioned if he was ready.
By that point in 1992, the Mallee-raised country boy had already gained a wealth of hands-on knowledge as a livestock agent, sheep and cattle buyer and official industry reporter.
That he still had reservations about taking on a role as a livestock market reporter for a rural newspaper underlines just how seriously Murray took the responsibility of being the “eyes and the ears” for livestock producers, and the level of importance he has always placed on the need for markets to be reported accurately and in depth.
It might be easy to imagine that the role of a livestock market reporter is a relatively simple one – a basic task of assembling key prices from a day’s sale, and adding a comment or two from someone who was there.
Not if you’re Murray Arnel.
For three decades, the Australian livestock industry been better off thanks to Murray’s decision to take a leap of faith back in 1992 and agree to become just the fourth prime stock reporter at Victorian agricultural newspaper Stock & Land in 75 years.
Over the years since, the “Murray Arnel” by-line has become cemented as an indelible stamp of credibility, an assurance to any reader that time invested reading any report below that name would be time well-spent, rewarded with reliable data, informative content and enlightening insights of value to any market follower.
“They (Stock & Land) had asked me a couple of times and I didn’t think I was up to the job,” he recalled during a recent interview for The Weekly Grill.
“The third time I couldn’t refuse.
“To be able to have that acknowledgment, that privilege to be able to report through the media outlet of a paper like that was a great thrill for me and one that I took very seriously.”
As a young school leaver Murray’s early career ambitions didn’t extend far beyond his home district of Wycheproof.
“I was a young bloke who wanted to go back and break a few sods in the Mallee, but the ‘67 drought fixed that,” he said.
So instead he learned wool classing at the Swan Hill Technical School and Melbourne College of Textiles and entered the workforce as a qualified wool classer in the bulk classing depot at the Portland Wool Stores.
Half-a-century later, those skills are coming in handy again, as he now classes his own fleeces in “semi-retirement” on his own farm near Echuca.
A life in the livestock selling game
Steve Grantham from Corowa agents expresses appreciation for Murray Arnel and his contribution as livestock market reporter at their annual Firstcross ewe sale in October 2022.
As strong as his love for wool was, it was about to be trumped by an even stronger passion: the lure of life in the livestock selling game.
In 1972 a job offer as a booking clerk with Australian Estates at Shepparton drew Murray from the wool stores of Portland to the sheep and cattle saleyards of the Goulburn Valley.
There he experienced the 1976 beef crash first hand, where thousands of cattle were shot and dumped into pits, a “demoralising” time for everyone, he recalls, “whether you were a farmer, a buyer, an agent”.
Gaining a solid grounding in the agency business, Murray moved onto Goval Meats (later to become Anderson Meats) at Shepparton, initially in the livestock department and then as a buyer.
This is where his livestock assessment and weight-guessing skills were relentlessly honed.
The Goval Meats business at the time had a big export contract for frozen lambs to the Middle East, and was processing some 58,000 lambs a week from three states in five different abattoirs.
“It was my job to monitor the numbers from the various buyers that were operating around the country to make sure that the numbers balanced at the kill floor,” Murray recalled.
“Along with the job in the livestock office you would go down to the lairages every day and you would look at the different lots of lambs that came in and I was taking the buyers estimates at night over the telephone.
“They would put a weight on them back then in the old pounds days of 32 pounds or something like that.
“And you’d go down and you would say, well that is what they look like, we will see what they look like when they are killed, so we were always cross referencing.”
The final foundation stones were laid for Murray’s long-term media market reporting career in 1982 when he joined the Victorian Department of Agriculture as an official market reporter.
Scales were only just starting to be introduced to enable livestock to be sold on a recorded weight basis.
“There was a mixture of liveweight and carcase weight scales over an auction sale, so you had to be proficient in both of them,” Murray said.
“We spent a lot of time at abattoirs in the reporting days just checking weights and seeing that we were getting muscle scores and fat scores right.”
“What was a good guess regarded as?” Kerry Lonergan asked during the podcast interview.
“We were always hopeful we could get within 2 or 3 percent,” Murray replied.
“If you were a lamb buyer buying for an abattoirs you would hope to be within half a kilo, if you put in a run of cows you would hope to be within 10kg, either way, top or bottom, and so that was the level of skill that was required.
“There are a lot of people around who have got a good eye for weight, and I was nowhere near at the top of the tree.”
Murray worked in that role for 10 years.
In hindsight, his experience since leaving school provided a consummate grounding for the long career as a livestock reporter in the rural media that was to follow.
Move into media
Murray joined Stock & Land initially as a prime stock analyst. However, with the closure of Newmarket in 1987 and with regional store markets beginning to flourish, his work quickly expanded to incorporate store market reporting, which he has covered for 30 years, travelling broadly across Victoria, the Riverina of NSW, South East South Australia and Tasmania.
His background might have been “old school” and firmly grounded in traditional market reporting disciplines, but forward-thinking and a willingness to embrace new technology have also been hallmarks of Murray’s career.
As the emergence of digital technology opened new avenues to communicate with rural audiences, Murray pioneered the use of video reporting and live streaming via social media to transport interested people from all over Australia directly into any sale he was covering.
Reflections on industry changes over 40 years
When he thinks about how the industry has changed over his 40 plus years of involvement, he nominates genetics as one area of “overwhelming evolving improvement”.
“What we have seen there is instead of being a vealer-producing grassfed industry that was focusing on domestic trade, supermarkets and that sort of stuff, it has evolved now into a weaner-breeding operation and these cattle now are being bred and grown through a series of backgrounding networks to focus on the feedlot industry,” he said.
“I think that is the biggest change that has come about.”
This has left a gap in official market reporting, he said, noting that the National Livestock Reporting Service covers no store sales south of Dubbo.
“80,000 calves have been sold in January this year and there hasn’t been one of those reported by MLA, so they’re missing a lot of the industry.”
Saleyards have also evolved, he said, with a trend away from “hot concrete yards” of old to soft floors with overhead roofing.
Livestock transport was another example of “extraordinary improvements” in efficiency having been achieved in recent decades.
How the media has changed
Few market reporters today have an innate understanding of livestock and the ability to assess a market for themselves, he laments.
“It was one of those things, it was just bred into me through the reporting service days, and the background that I had through watching the kill statistics come through at the abattoirs.
“I was doing my very best to have a grasp on what was going on in the marketplace myself as a journalist and then to be able to turn around and write with some degree of confidence and knowledge about what was going on, and understand how the industry works.”
‘The best stories are at the end of the road’
Asked what advice he would give young rural journalists today, he answered simply: “The best stories are at the end of the road”.
“You have got to get out and get on the road.
“I spent a lot of time on the road. My area was from Hay to Hobart, and from the South Australian border to Gippsland.
“I travelled widely, I got out and met the people, and I tried to understand what they were going through and look at it from their perspective.”
He was once told by a neighbour that his job as a rural journalist was to be “the eyes and the ears” for those who couldn’t get away from their farms.
“A lot of people don’t get off the land anymore, so you have got to get out there and you have got to notice what is going on, and if you’re not looking at it, I don’t think you’re seeing it.”
After 30 years serving the livestock sector as a leading market reporter, for Stock & Land and in more recent years with our team at Beef Central, Murray is now easing back on his regular market reporting role to enjoy a well earned break and the chance to work his farm and enjoy more time with family.
Wool classer, agent, buyer and market reporter extraordinaire.
For the last word, we have asked some respected livestock agents who have worked closely with Murray over the years to offer their thoughts and perspective on his career and contribution to the livestock sector.
(Further contributions are welcome in the comments box below)
Andrew Whan, Miller Whan & John Pty Ltd, Mount Gambier, South Australia:
“Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on Murray’s long career as he is someone I greatly respect.
“I’ve known Murray for nearly 30 years, firstly in his role at the Stock & Land as their Prime Stock Editor, before taking on the Store Cattle reporting.
“Murray’s reporting was always accurate, but his talent was that he didn’t just quote weights and prices achieved, but that he reported on how he saw the markets. i.e. comparable to other markets, quality, who was buying and where they were going! This was invaluable information to the reader.
“I’ve always enjoyed my many conversations and phone calls with Murray. He has always called a spade a spade.
“Congratulations on a great career and all the best for the future.”
Ian Richards, Richard Livestock, Riverside, Tasmania:
“I first met Murray at an RMA conference about 20 years ago, I was taken aback by his knowledge of livestock and livestock reporting.
From that day till now, we have kept in contact through his many trips to Tasmania, reporting on the Tasmanian calf sales and helping me with AuctionsPlus sales of Angus PTIC cows for Panshanger Estate Longford.
The difference between Murray and other journalists is his passion for his job and memory of past sales. I miss that now!”
One of the best in the business 👍🏻
Having worked side by side with Muz for 10 years, “market analyst” vs “market reporter” reflects his contribution to the livestock industry best.
Murray didn’t just report on what was happening, but provided valuable insight into the trends and drivers that contributed to the prices being received on the day. This was aided by the fantastic relationships Murray fostered throughout the industry, because they trusted him to get things right.
In addition, he was great role model and mentor for young journalists starting to ply their trade.
(Hope this doesn’t sound too much like a eulogy, but I guess at some stage we must all put down the pen and notebook!!)
Murray’s retirement has left a big vacuum in the way we see markets reported on since he retired. His sum of a market was very accurate of which I followed the Beef Central summary daily. Personally I think it would be great if came back.