IT’S 1921 and a young bloke called Jack McArthur is helping brand foals on a station in Central Queensland.
Bred out of Stockhorse mares and thoroughbred stallions, the foals would result in a dual purpose horse that was good around cattle but fast and worth a bet at the occasional local picnic races.
There was one mare that wasn’t a Stockhorse, but a successful ex-racing thoroughbred. Jack knew this and objected to the foal being reared as a Stockhorse but no one believed him.
So he watched as it was “branded”, literally as a Stockhorse. Months later, it was weaned and he offered to buy it. He looked after that horse, broke it in, trained it up, and with still no luck in proving it’s breeding, named it “Mystery Lad”.
In 1925 he took it into Rockhampton and won the Rockhampton Newmarket, Rockhampton Cup and the Bolton Handicap, all in five days.
This hat-trick started an illustrious interstate career for the phantom gelding, but filled the young man’s pocket with £1200. With this, he bought Lot 33 in St Lawrence, and named the 4000 acre block, Mystery Park after the horse.
Some 89 years later, his family has built on another 15,000 acres and in 2005, Jack’s great grand-son, Rob McArthur and his wife Ainsley added another 11,000 acres. Mystery Park is now a 30,000 acre beef business and I’ve just spent six weeks working there.
The McArthur family of Mystery Park, St Lawrence. Photo: Sarah Coulton, QCL. Click on the image for a gallery of images from Sam's time with the McArthur family at Mystery Park.
I’ve grown up with cell-grazing (a type of grazing system for livestock), so after meeting Rob at a function last in year in Rockhampton we got chatting and when I heard he wanted to implement a more efficient grazing system, I offered my experience in electric fencing and setting it up with them. In six weeks we’ve installed 13km of electric fencing, chopping up 1500 acres into 75 acre paddocks. This will increase their carrying capacity, pasture quality, pasture growth and stock health.
Rob and Ainsley’s business is not your “traditional model”. A formula based not on breeds, brands or annual routines but the just bottom line. Their business is dictated by a benchmark of a gross margin of $X per head or per LSU* (livestock unit) more specifically per year. If they can’t breed or grow out cattle to make that margin, at $3 per head per week for agistment, they’ll meet it carrying other people’s cattle. They operate with around 6000 head, 1700 of which right now are agistment cattle and 500 or so are “trade cattle” where they buy and sell, and put weight on in the process.
Most of their cattle are breeders where there’s no discrimination on colour or blood. Mobs are made up of cows that deliver a calf every year, are low maintenance, handle the country well and of course convert grass to beef and milk efficiently, if you tick those boxes, you stay. With their finger on the pulse, drought is manageable.
Cells or paddocks are rated at X LSU’s per hectare, per 100mm of rain. Then with a 12-month rolling rainfall, they assess monthly where growth is at. If things are drying up, they can see it on paper before it actually does. This then means they can de-stock or minimise risk for droughts and other tough times to best ensure their business and animal health is not compromised.
Like most commodity producers, the area of the farm is the only constant. Variables like markets, rainfall, number of cattle and grass growth are always changing, so Rob and Ainsley budget, observe and plan to ensure they reach that gross margin benchmark.
Their way of life
The above business model works well, as from a guest’s experience, Rob, Ainsley and their six children live very well.
This family unit is as happy in spirits as their bodies are healthy with a nearly self-sufficient diet. They eat their own beef, pork, eggs, milk and pick and dig from an impressive vegetable garden.
Ainsley says it seems their way of life in 2014 is similar in many ways to what it would have been in 1924.
“It’s funny to see, how this trend of organics or self-sufficiency is almost talking us in a full circle,” she says.
And with a local supermarket well over an hour away, it almost has to. Other than their almost self-sufficient diet, and doing cattle work on horseback, that’s about it for comparisons to 1924 on Mystery Park.
Ainsley’s Apple fever is rife with iPhones, iPads and the kids use massive Apple desktops for most of their distance education. I previously wrote a piece on their distance education and how having come from a strict private city-based school myself, this model was a shock. But its standard is high and effectiveness is even higher.
That said it wouldn’t happen without Ainsley’s energy and commitment with the kids from 7.30am to 1.30pm. After lunch, the kids shoot off to work with Rob and leave Ainsley to do office work.
The kids often lend a hand as the oldest two Andrew (10) and Lachlan (8) can ride to work cattle.
On my last day at Mystery Park, Lachy turned 8. But there was no McDonalds, no indoor play arenas, sleepovers or pass the parcel. We’re two hours from a major town, so groups of mates will happen in boarding school. That’s just the way it is, and what they’re used to. He had his favourite cake for smoko and was given six chickens, his first pocket knife, a water bottle holder for his saddle and an iPad mini. He loves his iPad, what kid wouldn’t. But he’d spend more time in the sandpit with his six-year-old brother Hamish, playing cricket or mucking around with his brothers and sisters doing what kids do out here - letting their imagination run wild, and then catching up with it. I’ve not known such a safe and stimulating environment for kids as this place.
Although it’s exciting to be moving on in the next leg of the journey in my “Get Muddy On Tour” I was sad to leave such a genuine, happy, progressive and productive family unit. I was inspired by their business model, family model and living model.
Some farm businesses don’t budget or manage on a per head basis, but are more specific and use LSU’s or DSE. We use DSE (dry sheep equivalent) down south, but LSU (livestock unit) is what’s common here. To maintain weight, 1 LSU = a 400kg dry (not pregnant) female or a male. 1 lactating cow with a calf is 2.2 LSU. With the calf feeding off her milk, her feed intake is over double. This tells us we can carry twice as many dry females or steers in a paddock than lactating cows for the same time. LSU’s help us determine, budget and forecast feed requirements.