With the theme of the recent Angus National Conference going “Beyond the Beef”, when looking to the future of the industry it’s hard to ignore the up and comers who are making their mark in agriculture through their own individual journeys.

In one of the panel sessions hosted during the national conference, the crowd had the pleasure to hear some of these stories from young members of the beef industry, Damien Thomson, Bonnie Cox, Brianna Maslen and Chris Metcalfe.

Each panel member had an excellent story to share, speaking about their life and career journeys so far, their passion for the agricultural industry and their experience being involved with Angus Australia through the Angus Foundation Scholarships, Awards & Bursaries program.

Firstly, Damien Thomson gave the audience some insight into his family beef operation, Shacorrahdalu Angus, which runs approximately 130 stud cows across Autumn and Spring calving herds and 440 commercial females across a number of properties in NSW.

Speaking of their story so far, Damien spoke about the development of their operation from the beginning consisting of the purchase of 40 heifers, through to 2009 with the purchasing of their current property, through to the first of their annual helmsman sales in 2021.

Outside of his involvement on farm, Damien also is commanding a career off farm, currently working for AuctionsPlus as a senior market analyst within their Market Insights Team. Damien’s role sees him analyzing markets across the agricultural industry, from cattle to goats, formulating commentary and forecasting reports.

Through his involvement in the Angus Australia Scholarships, Awards and Bursaries program, Damien has taken a keen interest in his personal and professional development through applying for numerous programs and scholarships made available through the Angus Foundation.

His first foray into the Angus Youth program saw him attend the Angus Youth National Roundup in 2019 in Armidale, where he was awarded the Bulliac Studmaster Award and was presented embryos, donated by the Hill Family of Bulliac Angus. From these embryos, Damien has bred animals that have contributed to the diversity of his breeding program, creating a full circle moment when he sold progeny from this award at the family’s inaugural sale.

“At 21 years old, I’m going to my first Roundup. I didn’t know anyone at that point, I rock up and I am one of the oldest in the whole Roundup and I’m put in charge of one of the groups for all the different activities,” said Damien.

“I thought, ‘here we go, I’m not going to know how to do any of this’. Luckily enough, I had some young guys in the group that knew what they were doing, and we worked it out together and to this day, that Roundup was one of the best events that I’ve ever been to.”

“In that first Roundup, I had looked at the scholarships and bursaries and came across the Bulliac Studmaster Award. I thought, this is something I’m eligible for and I’ll put my name forward for that, and fortunately enough, I won.”

“I never thought there was a single chance and in terms of talking about the last four years involved in the Angus Youth program and the benefits that I’ve enjoyed through that, the more tangible ones have come from this Bulliac Studmaster Award.”

Making himself known through applying for these opportunities like the Bulliac Studmaster Award, Damien has taken part in numerous Angus Australia initiatives, including the GenAngus Future Leaders Program, the Beef Australia Scholarship, the Trans-Tasman Travel Bursary and the ARCBA Young Breeders Workshop Scholarship.

“I’ve had that love of cattle for as long as I can remember, since we’ve had the farm in ‘98, and I probably lacked that connection and that belonging to the people early on, not being connected to this community being from Canberra and not knowing what the Roundup was until I was 21. Being involved in the Angus Youth Program and thinking back over the last four years gives me an absolute buzz and it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.”

Also joining the panel was the Inaugural Angus Foundation AuctionsPlus Cadetship Recipient Bonnie Cox. Bonnie had returned to the beef industry and the Angus Youth program after a period away, having previously been involved through attending Roundups over the years.

“I did grow up getting dragged into the junior judging ring and going to the Roundup, and I absolutely loved that, but as most young girls do that adore horses, I tried to pursue that coming straight out of high school and that led me to move down to the south coast of New South Wales,” said Bonnie.

“But I found after a couple of years of doing the horses, there was something missing. I definitely found that it was the agricultural industry that I was missing, and most importantly, the beef industry.”

“I knew that Angus Australia did have a wide range of Angus Foundation opportunities for the youth to get back into the industry with and that’s how I found the AuctionsPlus Cadetship. I didn’t know if I would make it and I had a couple of people really convince me to apply, put my name down and just give it a go. And I did, and I was lucky enough to get it.”

In her cadetship experience, Bonnie spent four weeks working across the AuctionsPlus business, learning about the day-to-day operations. Following her cadetship period, Bonnie was asked to stay on as a member of staff at AuctionsPlus, a role she is still in, working as a Market Operator.

As part of the scholarship, she also took part in the Marcus Oldham Leadership Program, an experience she credits as one of her most valuable experiences.

“It’s absolutely changed my life, being able to do the Cadetship. I knew I’ve always wanted to be in agriculture and specifically in the beef industry, but I didn’t really have the best idea plan of where to go and what to do,” said Bonnie.

“Since doing the cadetship, it’s really changed my outlook and where I think that I might go in the future within the industry. Being able to have these new contacts and new networking opportunities through AuctionsPlus has been an absolutely invaluable experience.”

Lending his insight to the panel was Western Australian producer Chris Metcalfe. Chris joined the panel from his home east of Albany where with his family he runs a mixed family enterprise of cattle, sheep and cropping over 18,000 acres.

Highlighting the benefits of working on farm with his family and in particular his privilege to learn from his father, Chris spoke about returning to the family operations after exiting the industry for a time to obtain a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

“I decided I definitely wanted to return to the family farm and join the business and grab all the opportunities that came with being involved in the ag industry and the lifestyle that it offers.”

“I also understand it’s a privileged position to be in, to have a farm to come back home to and I try to not take that for granted during the tough days,” he said.

“Traditionally we’ve been a Murray Grey operation, then not long after I came back to the farm the opportunity to purchase the Koojan Hulls Angus Stud became available, which we jumped at and bought that off Lew Smit.”

“I’m sure many knew Lew Smit and the impact he’s had on the Angus breed and the legacy he has left so it’s a real honour and humbling experience to be able to continue the life breeding of Lew. If I can one day leave half the legacy that Lew left behind, I think I’ll be doing well.”

Chris had been involved in the 2021 cohort of the GenAngus Future Leaders Program, and he highlighted the opportunity that it presented to engage with other likeminded individuals.

“Being from Western Australia and being heads down bum up on the farm, you probably don’t get to get away quite enough and build a network, so for me to build a network of young people and still learn from some more industry experts was a great opportunity and it’s led to opportunities like this.”

Finally joining the panel was Brianna Maslen, who was awarded the inaugural Angus Foundation Research Grant in 2021. Brianna is currently doing her PhD through Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Wagga Wagga, NSW.

Brianna brought to the panel a different perspective of the beef industry, having not come from a background in agriculture but with a passion for research, particularly in animals.

“While I grew up with limited knowledge of the beef industry, I was always passionate about research, particularly in animals,” said Brianna. “This passion eventually led me to CSU, where I did my undergraduate degree in Animal Science. This is where
I started to learn about the different livestock industries. But it wasn’t until an honours project based on cattle was offered to me that I began my research career in the beef industry.”

“In my honours project, I focused on researching the changes of microbial communities, otherwise known as profiles in beef cattle, as they are placed on feedlots. This project and the results discovered led to my passion for microbes and what they could do potentially for the beef industry.”

“As the research is still quite new and the door was open for further study, I began my PhD. The project is currently focused on investigating the relationship between faecal microbial profiles and the production traits such as weight gain and immune responses in Angus beef cattle.”

“From the start, my project was only possible due to Angus Australia’s Angus Sire Benchmarking Program.

This collaboration came about because the Angus herd at CSU is annually benchmarked by Angus Australia, and we saw this as a good way to combine our resources and essentially design a better PhD project. As this was successful, I was able to access CSU’s Angus cattle herd, sample faecal matter during benchmarking and get data for my project, including weights and immune response phenotypes,” said Brianna.

“Even with this collaboration, my project method was still weak due to funding limitations and sampling size. However, in 2021 I was awarded the Angus Foundation Research Grant, and this has allowed me to take to greatly strengthen my project.”

Panel facilitator Jake Phillips, Angus Australia, highlighted that the four panellists showed the variance that can be found when it comes to the people that make up the beef industry.

“I think that’s just a great example of the diversity and the breadth of quality people that we’ve got in our breed that we need to be really proud of,” said Jake, before putting the question back to the panel with “What does investing in people actually mean to you?”

“I really think it means bringing in people from all different walks of life. I find that we can find new ideas from looking in places where we wouldn’t really think that someone could come into the industry from,” responded Bonnie.

She continued, “I know a lot of people that have recently come into the industry that grew up in town, and they come into the industry with a completely different outlook. They bring these new ideas that you often think, oh, I never thought about it that way, so investing in people is really giving everyone a chance and seeing different places that they can come from.”

Supporting this, Brianna added, “I came from no agricultural background at all. My family doesn’t work in an agricultural business, I just had a passion for animals.”

“If I hadn’t been offered an opportunity within the beef industry, I wouldn’t be here and I think I’m lucky that I am here now because there is a big avenue for growth in what I’m doing within the beef industry. It’s been done a lot in humans, but we’re not quite there yet with animals so I’m really keen to take this forward and see what it can do.”

When poised with the question of whether the industry is doing enough to support the emerging members, the consensus was that there was plenty of opportunity existing in the industry currently, however as always, there was room for further growth.

“It’s an interesting question. Saying, is it enough?” said Damien. “I would certainly think that it is enough, however there’s certainly areas that could be improved.”

“There’s definitely more things that we can do in terms of bringing people from metropolitan areas that haven’t got that experience, I think this is a really big area that we can improve on just by opening up those opportunities.”

“I think probably the lowest hanging fruit that I can see is not necessarily from industry, but from the community within industry. One of the things we heard a lot about at GenAngus from Pete Clark, 21Whispers, was that we were the superpowers,” he continued.

“We were the ones that can do anything we wanted for believing in ourselves. It’s a pretty hard, long process of getting it wrong and then thinking you’re okay and trying again. One of the things that can really make that a lot easier is if someone else believes in you, and particularly going to the next level and putting young people in charge of something and giving them ownership, I think, is really important for that early development.”

When asked about the challenges for the industry that current and emerging members may face in the future Damien highlighted some topics that had been focused on throughout the course of the conference, but also in the consumer space in recent times.

“There’s no bigger challenge than the sustainability piece and working through carbon accounting, access to different markets through carbon neutrality, and there’s a lot more there that we need to know about, but that’s by far beyond the biggest challenge,” he said.

“I think there’s more work that we can do in extension and to educate people and give them the opportunity to learn more about different things that they can do.”

Adding his perspective on the topic, Chris provided a personal example of positive ways the industry is trying to cater to its challenges, using his story of his father’s imagery and their family’s story appearing on the packaging of beef products sold out of Woolworths.

“I do think there’s a bit of a disconnect between city people and farming people, and we have a responsibility to bridge that gap between the consumer and the producer,” he said.

“Over in WA we’ve got some vegan activists that run around doing crazy stuff and promoting agriculture in a really bad light and I think we need some faces of the agricultural industry to try to counter that and promote ag in a good light.”

“If I have city people come to the farm, I often get pretty nervous of how they’re going to react to being on a farm. And 100% of the time, they love the experience, they love everything to do with it and want to know more.”

He continued, “Then when they find out that we sell beef to Woolworths, they can’t wait to go in there and basically buy the beef and now with Dad’s mug on the packaging, they like that even more. So, I think what they really like is the story behind it.”

“The price comes into it, the quality comes into it, but the story plays a big role. So, if you’ve got the animal health down pat and you’ve got the sustainability down pat, then the story comes into it. They like to know that a family or an organisation has basically put love into the bit of meat that’s going on their plate,” he concluded.

Referring to what has been shaped from her work and how the disconnect between producers and the research going into the industry can halt the process of the research, Brianna also highlighted the importance funding support has to the continued scientific development that works to better the industry.

“I know research usually starts in a little bit of a weird corner and a lot of producers may think that it’s not quite what you need on farm, but I think we’re coming up with unique solutions and they sometimes can’t be brought across in the correct ways,” said Brianna.

“We start somewhere and then we can’t get that out, and we also can’t get any feedback back about what producers want. I believe cross talk there does need to get better.”

She continued, “Also if we have more funding, we can do more things and get to the goal a little bit quicker. And that’s what everyone wants, we just want to make beef production better.”

Bonnie also highlighted the importance of education as a necessary touch point for development to better the sustainability of the industry.

“I would say education in a space where we see the disconnect, especially in metropolitan areas where city kids are growing up and they don’t really know how beef, or an egg or milk comes onto their plate.”

“I think if we have education in these spaces, in schools, especially in metropolitan and urban areas, there’s going to be more of a connect and people are going to understand more what farmers are, what we do and we’re not going to have as much trouble with people thinking that we’re doing the wrong thing, or we can have a better conversation and people can get more excited about what’s going to be on their plate.”

Echoing this, Chris concluded the point by highlighting the work the industry bodies are doing in the space and how supporting these endeavours are a good way to assist industry.

“If I could invest in the beef industry, I’d keep doing what MLA are doing and invest in programs like Red Meat, Green Facts or the Livestock Collective, and have these organisations that can promote ag in a positive light.”

“If you can get someone like the Livestock Collective to go to work and act on our behalf and promote us through social media, social influencers and marketing campaigns and shows like MasterChef that promote agriculture in a good light, it’s going to benefit us all.”

Feature Image: Chris Metcalfe, Brianna Maslen, Bonnie Cox & Damien Thomson at the Zoetis Angus National Conference

— Cheyne Twist, Senior Marketing and Communications Officer