Birch branches out
Ken Wilcock speaks with beef industry identity George Birch whose involvement with livestock has spanned more than five decades.
BORN at Nanango in 1935, George Birch’s earliest days were spent between attending the little one-teacher school at nearby Grindstone and helping his father with the usual jobs associated with running the dairy farm where the family lived.
In 1946, the family moved to ‘Wattlecamp’, a dairying and grazing property further out from Nanango.
With all the education he felt he needed, George left his new school of Johnstown West half way through seventh grade at age 13.
Initially he found some stock work with Roy McCallum and later with Dalgetys. That took him to cattle sales in the North Burnett from where he would walk a lot of cattle south to places such as Yarraman and Linville for various graziers.
Linville was a particular favourite as it was a six or seven day pack-horse trip down the river where you could catch a fish every night if you wanted to.
In his early 20s, George took on contract mustering work for cattle dealer Harold Fraser who at the time owned ‘Greystonlea’. Initially this involved droving sizeable mobs of up to 1800 head to Kumbia for sale and later a major mustering and droving job at a property in the Cloncurry district.
With just three companions the task involved mustering around 1500 head at a time, walking them to Malbon trucking yards, accompanying them on the rail journey to Wondai then walking them to Kumbia once again for sale. By the time they pulled up they had shifted around 10,000 head.
It was a pretty rough existence with horses that needed to be broken in before they could start mustering and a camp that offered no more than corned meat, tea and damper.
But life soon took a major turn for the better when George became engaged to Val Hunt.
With the imminent responsibilities of married life, George thought he had better look for something better than contract mustering.
Gerry Henderson was buying for Redbank at the time and paths crossed when George was camped in the old Nanango saleyards with a mob of bullocks on the way to Yarraman. Gerry said they were looking for a couple young buyers and that George should apply.
Thinking he was unlikely to get such a job George didn’t bother at first but after a call from Gerry a week or so later he put pen to paper and got the job.
He started with Vestey’s at Redbank in 1960 in a career that would ultimately span 26 years.
Initially he booked up for Jim Elliott in Brisbane and after 4-5 months was supposed to go to Chinchilla to buy for Riverstone (Tenterfield).
But in the end, Gerry went to Chinchilla and George instead went to very familiar territory in the Burnett. He and Val married in 1961, rented a house in Goomeri for a while then bought their first home in Murgon.
For the next seven years George covered the Burnett region, north to Monto, south into northern New South Wales and at times west out around Charleville and Quilpie.
In 1968 he was transferred to Darwin as livestock manager for the Angliss meatworks.
He and Val and their three young children took up residence in Nightcliff Road which became home for the next five years.
Life was still pretty basic in those days without supermarkets as we know them today.
As George recalled it wasn’t until the early 1970s that you could buy fresh milk and you always carried a supply of dried food just in case. But the wharfies always unloaded the beer so that was something.
Maintaining a supply of cattle in the wet season for the butcher shops was another problem.
This was achieved mainly by walking cattle out to the Stuart Highway from Stapleton and Finniss River and side loading directly onto trucks on the highway through portable yards.
It was not until the time of their leaving the Territory that refrigerated fresh meat started arriving from the south.
The quality of the cattle at that time was another matter.
Despite upgrading getting underway the Shorthorn influence was still strong and the meat of such poor quality that many people preferred to eat buffalo.
Part of the reason for the lower quality cattle being processed through Darwin was the limited shipping services at the time and hence not having access to all available markets.
Darwin meatworks tended to concentrate on plainer cattle and cows whereas a lot of the better cattle would go to Townsville or Wyndham.
Production from Darwin was typically 3MX grade cow and bull going to west coast USA. If they did do bullocks which yielded cuts, they would be sent by refrigerated transport to Townsville for shipment.
Bullocks in those days were often 8-9 years old.
Vestey’s own cattle from Wave Hill, Kirkimbie, Limbunya and other dedicated bullock blocks in the western areas used to go to Wyndham. Somewhat surprisingly, Wyndham seemed to have better outlets than Darwin.
From the south, Helen Springs bullocks used to go to Townsville or Darwin. If they went to Darwin they would be sent by road train to Larrimah and then on by rail.
In that sense Darwin was out on a limb and disadvantaged.
George recollects that most of the non-corporate producers would not go past Katherine and pay the extra cost to go to Darwin. As well as the freight there was the risk of losing extra cattle due to heat.
The cattle that were put on the fattening places in those days would be a pretty good lot of bullocks to average 270-280kg.
With the advent of trapping and helicopter mustering it was common to pick up big old piker bullocks sometimes 15-18 years old that had previously been missed in musters.
To keep the works ticking over George drew on a vast supply area stretching from Kalumburu in the most northerly part of Western Australia to Massacre Inlet in Queensland just to the east of the NT border.
Cattle from these extremities and places in between such as Bathurst and Melville Islands were transported by barge.
The decision to use the barge from Massacre Inlet came about when George negotiated with Pat Delaney and John College to buy bullocks off Wentworth Station.
The idea was to walk them to Booroloola and truck them from there to Darwin.
But the aboriginal stockmen started to lose dogs to crocs as they tried to cross the numerous rivers in their path.
Reluctant to ride into the rivers they instead would put the bullocks across then ride 10-15 miles inland where it was safer to cross themselves but that meant having to re-muster the bullocks that had since dispersed on the other side of the river.
They would only get several miles further on before encountering another river and doing the same thing all over again.
When they did arrive at Booroloola two weeks late with the first mob, early storms caused Buntines to bog a road train. That’s when the alternative of using the barge looked pretty attractive.
However no matter how hard Vestey’s tried to make a success of export processing in Darwin, the odds were stacked against them.
Location, atrocious roads, a limited kill season, limited shipping, availability of labour and poor quality cattle all conspired to make life difficult. The effect of poor quality cattle on the economics of processing is evident when average weights towards end of season might be only 130-140kg for Top End cows and 160-170kg provided they could get some of the better western cows.
As the children grew older, there was a need for better schooling and George asked for a transfer.
They left the heat of Darwin for the cold winters of Tenterfield in late 1973 and export processing ceased at Darwin from that point on.
The very first sale he attended as the new livestock manager for Riverstone saw the market start to drop in what was to become the great beef slump of the 1970s.
Riverstone closed in 1982 but George continued buying for the company throughout northern New South Wales. In 1986 he was offered transfers to Townsville, Dubbo and Sydney but at that stage he had bought a bit of country and preferred to stay put.
That brought to an end a 26 year association with a company that George described as very good to work for.
Since then George has bought cattle on a commission basis for various operators and continues to do so.
Son Bruce and his wife Prue live in Tenterfield. They operated a successful livestock and real estate agency business there and Bruce now occupies a senior management role with Ray White.
Eldest daughter Margaret and husband Chris live in Toowoomba where Margaret continues to pursue her nursing career. Daughter Kerry and her husband Ben run a grain and grazing property near Mt Tyson.