RECLUSIVE South Australian pastoral millionaire Tom Brinkworth has rolled the dice in the largest cattle purchase by an individual in recent memory, buying 18,000 head from the Australian Agricultural Company on the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory.
Mr Brinkworth will move the cattle by foot more than 1500 kilometres from Longreach to Hay in southern NSW in a massive droving operation, following old stock routes in the tradition of legendary beef baron Sidney Kidman.
A spokesman for Elders – Elders brokered the deal – described Mr Brinkworth's purchase as typically audacious at a moment when cattle prices are depressed due to the high dollar, interruptions in the live cattle trade to Indonesia, and widespread drought in western and northern Queensland.
The first of nine mobs have begun the long journey – expected to take between five and six months – to Mr Brinkworth's recently-purchased Uardry Station near Hay on the Murrumbidgee. These cattle will be dispersed to other Brinkworth properties in NSW and in South Australia.
A spokesman for Elders said the South Australian pastoralist had a history of "getting the timing right'' in his stock purchases. He had paid market price for the cattle believed to be about $400 a head.
Good rains across NSW and into Victoria and South Australia have improved the outlook for beef prices generally, but drought in the Northern Territory and in Queensland's northern frontier is threatening to decimate an industry buffeted by a high dollar and a suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia.
Australia's beef cattle exports are worth about $5 billion a year, but the industry is struggling to sustain that level of activity. The country's cattle herd numbers about 28 million.
Bob Katter, the maverick member for Kennedy, said unless cattle farmers in drought-afflicted western Queensland and towards the Gulf of Carpentaria got assistance from governments, up to one in four would go broke.
Mr Katter described the situation as "desperate''.
Mr Brinkworth, 76, was not available for comment about his mega-cattle purchase. He was on the road, supervising the beginning of the vast droving exercise.
Malcolm Hunt, an Elders general manager responsible for southern Australia, said Mr Brinkworth had taken a "calculated gamble'' at a moment when the industry was facing difficulties.
Mr Hunt said the South Australian pastoralist "has a lot of country he needs to stock".
Mr Brinkworth controls 99 properties spread over 1 million hectares of grazing and cropping country in NSW and SA on which he runs 80,000 head of cattle and 350,000 sheep.
He has made no secret of his admiration for Sir Sidney who controlled about 35 million hectares of land at his peak, making him the world's largest cattle producer in the pre-World II era.
The Brinkworth family's purchase of Uardry station with its rich Murrumbidgee river flats was partly aimed at providing a drought-proofing option for properties further south.
Uardry will be used to produce large quantities of stock feed.
But in cattle country around Cloncurry and further north towards the Gulf and up into the York Peninsula the story, by contrast, is bleak.
Noeline Ikin, whose family runs a stock-feed business in western Queensland and who is standing for the Liberal National Party against Mr Katter in Kennedy in the September 14 federal election, described the situation across the state's northern tier as "extremely bad''.
Ms Ikin said a majority of cattle producers in northern Queensland were in financial difficulties and needed urgent assistance to prevent their businesses from collapsing altogether under the weight of increased debt levels and low cattle prices.
"Eighty five per cent of cattle producers in western and northern Queensland are struggling to meet interest payments on their bank loans,'' she said.
Property prices have dropped in some cases by 45 per ent and desperate farmers in drought conditions have offloaded stock in Longreach recently for as little as $20 a head.
This is less than the cost of transporting a beast to the saleyard.
Ms Ikin noted that stress levels were rising across northern Australia, domestic violence was becoming more prevalent and suicide rates were increasing among cattle-growing families.
Queensland's Agriculture Minister, John McVeigh, recently declared one-third of the state drought-affected.
This would enable government assistance to flow to stricken areas, but cattle producers in those locations worry that whatever assistance is forthcoming will be too little and too late.