Roma Saleyards celebrate 50 years of cattle sales and look to the future despite ongoing drought

On any one day, up to 12,000 head of cattle are brought in from all over Queensland, and even the Northern Territory, for sale at the Roma Saleyards.

The saleyards in southern Queensland are the biggest in the country and for a time were the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Cattle are purchased on the ground in Roma and taken throughout the state and as far south as Victoria.

As they celebrate their 50th birthday, the Roma Saleyards have become more than just a place to sell and buy livestock.

They’re a meeting point, a social occasion and even an unlikely tourist destination.

Hard times and challenges

In 1969 the Roma Saleyards were built with timber yards and a capacity for 3,000 head of cattle.

Ossie Behrend joined the board of the Roma Saleyards in 1970 when an average yarding was 3,000 or 4,000 head of cattle.

“Back in the early days — the cattle slump came — and it was very ordinary but the average price in the early 70s was $50 or $60 a head.

“Now, if you have a good bullock, they can make $1,900 a head,” Mr Behrend said.

In the early years, Mr Behrend said, the Roma Saleyards were running at a loss.

“In 1974 and 1975 there was no money coming into the board. Both councils had to prop it up and there was very little development done until the market improved,” he said.

Mr Behrend, 80, said the place remained a meeting spot for people long after they had retired from the industry.

“A lot of people are like me, they are retired and no longer have cattle, but we all still take an interest and we come out and have a discussion with people and see what is going on — it is a good place to meet.”

In their 50-year history, the Roma Saleyards have seen 11 million head of cattle sold to a value of $5 billion.

Selling in the big dry

While many businesses which operate in the agriculture sector see a downturn during the drought, saleyards flourish as graziers start to destock — but prolonged drought can take its toll on the quality of the cattle.

“Ironically saleyards flourish in these times because vendors have to sell their cattle, which is something we don’t really like to see but unfortunately that is a fact of life,” Councillor Peter Flynn said.

“With the prolonged drought, what we are seeing is that the quality of the cattle that are coming now is starting to drop back.”

With parts of western Queensland receiving small amounts of rain, some graziers are taking advantage of new grass growth and holding onto cattle for a few more weeks before they sell.

Mr Behrend said Roma had received about 180 millimetres of rain for the year, compared to an average rainfall of about 600 millimetres per year.

“People are very resilient but we hope we get something this summer and break the whole thing up,” he said.

A tourism boost

While traditional visitors include agents, auctioneers, buyers and transporters — the Roma Saleyards have become a tourist attraction in their own right.

Every year, they welcome up to 4,000 travellers who take a free guided tour.

Guide Geoff Thompson said the idea was born six years ago when an increasing number of people were coming for a look.

“They were going away with as little knowledge as they had when they came in,” he said.

Mr Thompson said that in addition to keeping tourists in town an extra night, the tours had helped to raise awareness about the industry.

“The best thing is that we have people aware that producers look after their livestock as best they can,” he said.

“We enjoy doing it and we only do well out of a well-fed animal and we do the best we can.”

Mr Thompson said his role as a tour guide was also to demystify the process and the relationship between buyers and sellers.

“I enjoy asking people — especially school groups — to tell me what the auctioneer says,” he said.

“Only about one in 10 can tell me.”

A tradition for the future

As the industry becomes increasingly technologically focussed, saleyards have proved they still have a place, despite some predicting they would become a thing of the past.

“If we go back to the saleyards years ago, I remember 30 years ago, the AMLC [Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation] said there wouldn’t be a saleyard left in Australia,” Mr Behrend said.

“They are still here and they are still all over the country.”

He said when selling online started, people thought it would “annihilate the industry”.

A man, wearing a blue shirt and a tie, smiles to camera.

The Maranoa Regional Council is expanding the Roma Saleyard to include new bull-selling facilities, upgraded yards and a multi-purpose facility.

Councillor Flynn said the $8 million project would be mainly funded by the Queensland and Federal governments, topped-up by the local council.

“The ratepayers and the saleyard users only have to find around $300,000 dollars, so given the multitude and magnitude of the project it will not be very costly for the region,” Councillor Flynn said.

He said that while the upgrades would not increase the capacity of the saleyards, they would provide new facilities, including new yards to address health and safety issues around loading and unloading cattle and drafting them into the pens.

Article credit —

Photo credit — PHOTO: For half a century, buyers have been inspecting cattle at the Roma Saleyards. (ABC Southern Qld: Baz Ruddick)