ALEC ‘Butch’ Walker’s family grazing property is 960km from Brisbane and it takes six hours to drive the perimeter of the 22,250ha farm.
The organic beef property that’s been in the Walker family since 1959, is 35km from the remote QLD town of Blackall and by most people’s standards it’s isolated.
The crippling drought has meant a tough few years for Butch, his mum Peta and sister Cherie.
But ironically this farming family has never been more connected with Australia and the world.
Through his camera, Butch a stockbroker, grazier and amateur photographer, is able to share snapshots of his life on the land.
This authentic look at life on a sprawling Australian cattle station has attracted interest from America, Spain, Taiwan and around Australia.
For Butch, photography and social media allows him to bridge the city-country divide, one photograph at a time.
“Instagram is my main channel and it’s bloody amazing,” says the 29-year-old.
“It’s opened up so many opportunities for me.
“I have a Spanish guy here at the moment and he just can’t get over it. He says it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
“I can’t really remember when I first picked up a camera. We were doing long walks with cattle – 20 to 30km and it can get fairly boring sitting on a horse all day. I’d take a camera with me for something to do. I just kept learning and got more obsessed about it.”
As well as shooting photographs with his mobile phone, Butch enjoys the effects he can achieve with old-school film and large format cameras. He says the old-school cameras also handle the dust better – and lately due to the drought there’s been plenty of that.
“Most of them are mechanical so they don’t require batteries,” he says.
“When you’re mustering they’re 14hour days. I love what I do but I also enjoy that through my photographing I’m able to give people a decent insight into this live. I generally try to give them context, through the photo or through a caption.
“I became very aware of the power of taking images and video out of context through the Animals Australia live exports situation.”
Butch, as he’s known to family and friends, grew up on the family property and after school completed a Commerce degree at university.
He thought he wanted to be a stockbroker, buoyed by early success he enjoyed during his teenage years, spent dabbling in the markets.
But after talking to friends who worked in the industry he realised life in an office could never match the freedom he enjoyed on the farm.
So he returned home to work alongside his father, Graham, aka Butch senior. But the partnership wasn’t destined to last long.
Butch Snr was killed in a farm accident, throwing his son into the deep end.
Now Butch, his sister Cherie and mum Peta oversee the day-to-day operation, continuing the organic, grass-fed journey started by his dad in 2003 – well ahead of the trend.
“My father converted to organic , he had always selectively bred for good traits genetically. We had a good natural base for protection against ticks and parasites and climatically we don’t really need any chemicals out here.
“When he first came across the idea there was a 30 per cent premium on organic meat … it was a fairly easy conversion. There’s quite a few organic producers out here now.”
Breeding: We breed our own bulls and females. They’re introduced and joined around 15-16months of age. The gestation for a cow is nine months.
Mobs: They stay in mobs of 200 to 300, something that’s easily handled. When the weaners are six months of age they’re pulled off and fattened to about 420kg live weight. In good times we fatten to about 580kg. At that point they’re generally 18months of age and we muster and truck them to the abattoir at Grantham.
Breeding: Santa Gertrudis are 3/8 Brahman and 5/8 Shorthorn. They have some of the highest marbling scores outside of Wagyu and an ability to do well in this environment. They’re also very protective mothers, which is important at the moment because we have a huge dingo problem. Two mothers form a crèche, around six to eight calves while the rest of the mothers go have a feed. We’ve lost about six calves in the past couple of years which doesn’t’ sound like much but they’re worth about $1400 at the moment.
Selling: We sell predominantly through Arcadian Organic & Natural Meat Co. It’s a business set up by a couple of blokes from out here and it’s a really good partnership. They buy as a wholesale buyer and get the beast killed. They pay us a per/carcass rate. Arcadian distributes the meat and most of it goes to the US but the lighter stuff is sold through Coles and Woolies. It also goes to Saudi Arabia, Russia and Korea. A bit goes to China but we aren’t doing big volumes.
Carrying Capacity: We currently have 2700 cattle on the property. In a good year we can carry 3500. Conditions are pretty ordinary. We have records going back to 1876 and 2013 was the driest year on record. Last year we fed about 400tonnes of grain composite feed and over 2000 bales of hay.
Breeding history: Because I’m taking over from my father and grandfather there’s nearly 60 years of breeding there. Financially that’s very hard to quantify. You can’t compare what you have today with buying and selling straight off the market. Some of our cattle have very good weight gain and they’re physically quite large for their breed. This year we’re selling down a lot of our weaners but maintaining our core-breeding herd.
Drought: I was home during the 2002/03 drought an in a lot of ways it was worse because it was really bloody hot. I’ve been told by older blokes that every drought is different and you always learn something new. No one really knows what’s coming.
Market: The market is good and I think will be good for a fairly long time, even with a good rain event. There’s big domestic demand, they’re just screaming for cattle. Last week I think Roma had 10,000 head – that’s a pretty big yarding. Usually I think they have between 5000 and 7000 at a sale. Prices reflect the fact that demand is outstripping supply.
Photography: I’d like to produce a book or exhibition of my photography. Generally the cattle work comes first but if I can get into a position without throwing a spanner into the works too much I will take photographs. If there’s nice light and a bit of interest going on I’ll spend all day on the camera. We use a plane out here for mustering and I’m a pilot so that opens up a lot of photographic opportunities – it gives people a lot of context in terms of the vastness.