UP before dawn and mustering cattle under the scorching Territory sun is all in a day’s work for the young jillaroos living and working in the remote outback.
But even though the days are long and the work is physically demanding, 18-year-old Maddy Harley says there is nowhere in the world she would rather be than deep in cattle country.
After spending the majority of her childhood on Wondoola Station, 130km south of Normanton, Maddy grew up watching her mum and dad running 23,000 head of Brahman cattle in flat open downs in the Gulf Country before they moved to the NT.
“I was tiny but I have all these memories of being in the yards with my parents and just absolutely loving life,” she says.
“There’s no doubt it ignited the passion that I have now for the industry — even then I knew, deep down in my gut, that this is what I want to do, I want to work with cattle.
“They’ve got a mind of their own and they’re so intuitive, which makes them easy and hard to work with at the same time.”
Now finishing her Certificate III in Agriculture and Rural Operations at Charles Darwin University’s Katherine Rural Campus, Maddy can’t wait to run a outback station one day, just like her folks did when she was growing up.
She has become a part of a rising new wave of women taking on pastoral apprenticeships in the Northern Territory, which have risen by 54 per cent in a year.
It’s a reflection of the changing role women have in the cattle industry, as more and more females take on practical roles once reserved for men. “I think it’s a good thing because times are changing,” she said.
“There used to be so much stigma about women not being able do what men can do, but we’re just as capable and there are a lot more opportunities now — we’re not just wives, cooks, governesses or cleaners.
“The industry and technology is evolving so you it’s not just about brute strength anymore — you need to technical skills and be able to really understand and build trust with your animals.”
Sitting on the top railing of a cattle yard fence at the back of the CDU Katherine campus, Maddy shares a hearty laugh with a few other female ringers who are also finishing off their full qualifications.
As the dust settles, the girls are enjoying a short break after leading the last of a herd of female Brahmans through the chutes to get checked for pregnancies.
The midday sun is beating down and Lily Maks, 22, lifts her hat to wipe the sweat from her forehead.
Normally thousands of kilometres away, this is a rare visit to town for Lily and her good mate Annie Bowman, 23.
They both work as contractors at Kirkimbie Station, a 230,400ha property that runs 11,000 head of cattle in the southern Victoria River region.
“Because we’re contractors we travel out to a few different stations around the Territory when there’s work about,” she said.
“The head of cattle we’re working with varies on each station but the average would be a couple thousand.
“I love the station lifestyle and you become like a family of sorts because you live and work together and are hours away from your nearest neighbours.”
She said an average day for ringers like her started well before daybreak.
“When it’s time to muster we’re up early at about 4am, to get the horses ready or load up the quad bikes,” she said.
“Then we ride out to the paddock where the cattle are, lead them out and bring them in one big mob to the yards where they’re processed.
“We can walk them for 10-25km to get there, but it all depends on the size of the station.
“You get to see some big horizons out there working the land but the heat is always a challenge especially when you’re dealing with 39C days from September to April and have to work from dawn til dark.
“It’s tough work so you’ve got to have the passion for it and be ready to sweat it out.”
Originally from a New Zealand, Elizabeth Horne, 26, says the harsh weather conditions are one of the most challenging parts about working on Territory stations.
“This is my second year here but I grew up on a sheep and beef farm in New Zealand so it’s been a huge contrast coming here,” she said.
“But overall it’s been great. I’m glad I made this leap to come over because I’ve been learning so much, especially from the trainers here at CDU.”
Fiona Plunkett is responsible for the CDU’s workplace trainee program, in the pastoral and agricultural industry.
With the majority of their 200 students already working in 40 cattle stations across the NT this year, her team of trainers spends a lot of their time working remotely in dusty cattle yards.
“About 70 per cent of our apprentices here are women and a lot of them are from down south,” she says.
“You’ll only have about three per cent of students who are born and bred in the Territory.
“If you look around nearly everyone here is from somewhere else, but they come to train in the Territory and wind up staying.”
She says there has been a gradual but profound “holistic change” in the Territory pastoral and agricultural industry with more women coming through the ranks.
“It’s not the rough and tough way that it used to be 50 years ago,” she says.
“I had a camp of nearly all girls during a muster this year and even though we don’t have the physical power that the boys might have, you just have to work smarter.
“Things were definitely more male dominated before.
“I guess the Territory was always a bit further behind on this front because of the NT’s larger scale, it’s far more remote and it’s got a lot harsher conditions but like I said, we’re working smarter now.”
Team leader Alison Haines agrees innovations in techno- logy have helped boost roles for women in the industry.
“There’s a lot more going on now, it’s not just chasing a cow or working in the yards,” she says.
“There’s a lot more data jobs with the national livestock identification scheme, so there are these technical assistant roles in the pastoral companies now.
“So I encourage all girls out there considering a future in this industry to have a go because it’s not out of reach at all.
“There are female head stockman, female head managers and working in those technical data positions in the NT and you could be the next one.”
Biloela apprentice Lily Maks
Annie Bowman, Elizabeth Horne, Ann Bedersen, Kayla Kurnof and Lily Maks
Katherine Vet Cares Hayley Jaenke