For more than 65 years the McKay family of Umbearra Station has grown their beef cattle operation in central Australia, and now they are one of the biggest Red Angus herds in the country.
Around 25 years ago Thomas gave Red Angus a go, and they did well.... we currently run roughly 4500 breeders and 1500 steers- Kimberley McKay, Umbearra Station, NT
But this wasn't always the case, and the road to where they are now has also been a story of generational transition.
Angus and Kimberley McKay along with their children Oliver, Millie and Aubrie operate their beef business across roughly 8228 square kilometres of land, three hours south of Alice Springs on the Northern Territory/South Australian border.
In 2019, they expanded their Umbearra property, purchasing the adjoining Idracowra Station.
"It doubled our size," Mr McKay said. "Not often properties come up for sale, and rarely adjoining so we had to jump at it," Mrs McKay added.
Mr McKay began managing the family's Umbearra Station after returning from boarding school when he was 18. Soon after at 24, he and Kimberley (19 at the time) took over the operation as Angus' father Thomas stepped back.
"Thomas' father Leith McKay bought Umbearra Station over 65 years ago," Mrs McKay said.
"Leith never lived here, he had managers. When Thomas was 18, he took over management for Leith.
"At 21 he bought the adjoining Kelgera Station, and he lived here until he was in his late 50s, retiring 16 years ago to a property in South Australia, and Angus and I took over from him in 2006.
"We've been running it now for 15 years."
During the 13 years Angus and Kimberley spent managing the station, Thomas stepped back allowing them to make their own decisions which resulted in them changing producing certified organic bullocks.
Previously light steers were sold, however, Angus and Kimberley made the choice to switch to selling heavier bullocks.
"It was a personal choice, we liked growing the cattle out. It is satisfying putting a bullock onto a truck," Mrs McKay said.
"Bullocks get to anywhere between 600 and 700 kilograms at two years of age," Mr McKay said.
"They are for the certified organic bullock job and are mainly sent to Victorian processors."
In Central Australia most producers are farming organically, therefore when several stations in the area opted to get certified the McKays did the same.
"We grow cattle organically anyway, so it was a simple step to get access to better grid prices and value per kilogram," Mrs McKay said.
"It was two weeks of solid bookwork to get certificates, but it was a trend in the area that all the neighbours did together, and worth it for the extra dollars in organic certified."
The bullocks are grown out at Umbearra.
The McKays also have entered a benchmarking program with leading livestock industry consultant and veterinarian, Phil Holmes, and a group of other producers, who they have been working with now for 20 years.
This brought about change, including a rethink of their target markets and genetics.
For 50 years, Angus' father Thomas ran a Shorthorn/Santa Gertrudis herd.
"In the early '90s he put Brahman bulls over (their cows) for the live export job up north," Mr McKay said.
A shift in focus to move away from live export and concentrate on the domestic market led them to introducing Red Angus to the mix.
The fertility, growth rate and muscle of the Red Angus attracted the McKays.
"Around 25 years ago Thomas gave Red Angus a go, and they did well. They seem to do well in this area," Mrs McKay said.
The McKay family has been purchasing Red Angus bulls for close to 30 years.
Mr McKay said initially they sourced their bulls from the Hawker family, Anama, Clare, SA, and Drayton Park, Tintinara, SA.
"In the later years they have been from Paringa (at Yea) in Victoria. We run up to 200 bulls," Mr McKay said.
"The perfect bull for this country is a pretty average herd bull - we don't want huge growth, birth weight or milk.
"Most of the bull selection is based on milk values, and big 400- and 600-day weights. For us here, it is fairly desolate, and we cannot sustain big milk values."
Currently they are running about 4500 breeders and 1500 steers, but once they recover from the drought, they strive to have around 5000 breeders.
"It will take a year or two to get to that," he said.
Idracowra has been fully destocked for two years, with the end goal to restock with Red Angus breeders.
Fertility is the biggest profit driver for Umbearra Station.
"Everything revolves around fertility," Mr McKay said. "Growth rates of bullocks is second."
The McKays run an intensive heifer program where all replacement heifers are joined to Red Angus bulls and pregnancy tested before joining the breeder paddocks.
"Heifers are weaned in September, and we get them to around 300 kilograms for joining, which in good years is 12 to 16 months old," Mr McKay said.
"All maiden heifers are repro scan pregnancy-tested-in-calf. Anything empty is culled and they are then lifetime mated to the bull.
"We cull again at their second calving and then they are left to themselves in breeder paddocks."
Their focus on fertility has enabled them to achieve an average pregnancy rate in the low 80 percentile.
"We have been control-mating for 20 years now to get to that fertility level," he said. "In a good season we can get 86-87pc."
The self-replacing operation keeps most of the females for the heifer program, except for any broken coloured animals.
"We have quite of lot of Herefords on the surrounding properties, and if they get into our cattle a baldy faced animal is produced," Mrs McKay said. "Anything with a baldy face is pulled out, not joined and treated like a steer - we like to keep a nice solid Red Angus line."
In the past few years, the McKays have dabbled in using Santa Gertrudis bulls over some of their mature Red Angus cows to get a slicker coat.
"We want to tailor make a really slick animal," Mr McKay said. "We are trying to keep 90pc Red Angus, and if we start getting too much Santa type, Red Angus go over them again."
One of the biggest challenges for the McKays right now is raising a young family and navigating their growing business.
"We have a seven-, three- and two-year-old, and find it really challenging to run a successful business and raise a family at the same time," Mrs McKay said. "When Idracowra settled we had our third child three weeks later. It was a crazy time, but we are doing this for them."
Idracowra Station has no infrastructure which has created a lot of work for the McKay family who must install cattle yards and solar water points.
"Unlike Idracowra, Umbearra has 28 water points, and every single watering point has a really good working set of cattle yards - it is fully developed," Mrs McKay said.
"In the last six years we pulled down old windmills and put in solar bores to make things easier with staff not having to crank over old engines."
They are, however, benefitting from what is probably their best season five years. "We had a terrible run of seasons, five to six years of the driest on record, worse than the '50s," Mr McKay said.
Fortunately, the season began to break in 2021, when they received 325 millimetres (13 inches) of rain.
Mrs McKay said the country coming out of drought was recovering well and the cattle looked magnificent.
"Our average rainfall is 9-10 inches (225-250mm), but it varies every year," she said.
"Some years we can get up to 28 inches (700mm), some we get as low as 15-30mm.
"A few years ago, we [Umbearra] only had 34mm, and Idracowra had 15mm. We had to move cattle on quickly."
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