Where Cowboys Fly and Cattle Set Sail: An Epic Food Journey

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WATERLOO STATION, Australia — The helicopter swung down to a cluster of Brahman cattle, hovering close enough for the dawn sun to be seen in their eyes. Born and bred on a fenceless expanse of golden grass and red dirt in the Australian outback, where horses, dingoes and crocodiles share the land, these animals are wild enough to charge a chopper.

But not this time. After some defiant staring from a bull, the herd turned toward a landmark called Revolver.

“Pressure and release,” said Jake Mason, the helicopter’s pilot, as he pulled back into the big blue sky of northern Australia. “You show them what you want, then let them do it.”

It was the start of a long and unusual food journey rarely seen by outsiders. Eventually, many of the cattle at Waterloo Station would end up on giant trucks called road trains to cross the outback, then on boats to Indonesia, where they’d be fattened and slaughtered according to guidelines blending Islamic practices with Western ideas of animal welfare.

Few supply chains offer as distinct a cultural blend — and few countries ship more live animals overseas than Australia, exporting a million cattle a year, on average, since 2017.

To critics, the practice is needlessly cruel. In 2011, Australian officials briefly suspended the trade over concerns about mistreatment, mostly once the cattle reached Indonesia. But in an increasingly fragmented world, both countries have doubled down on what, in their view, amounts to a model of globalization. Northern Australia has ample land to raise cattle, but not enough affordable feed to bring them to their full weight; Indonesia has plenty of agricultural waste for feedlots, and 275 million people who are hungry for beef, from Islamic butchers.

“There is a very good symbiosis,” said Bill Farmer, a former Australian ambassador to Indonesia who oversaw an industry review after the temporary shutdown. “It actually suits both countries very well.”

Epic scale and geography define the move from open range to dinner plate.

Australia’s Northern Territory is often called the last frontier. It’s a hot, fierce wilderness twice as big as Texas with a population of fewer than 250,000. In the N.T., you’re a fool if you don’t drive with two spare tires and tons of water. Last December, a couple who had been lost for days walked nearly 40 miles before finding help after their car got caught in a flood.

Live export provides about 13,000 jobs out this way. And at ports and cattle stations, the business, which began in the 19th century, tends to be spread out.

The largest ranch in the United States, King Ranch in Texas, is 825,000 acres. The largest cattle station in Australia is 5.85 million acres, while the largest in the N.T. sprawls across four million.

Waterloo Station, while considered relatively small, is roughly three times as large as New York City. A couple of dozen people call the place home. Rocky ravines line the landscape. Electricity comes from a diesel generator. Children are taught by what are still called governesses, and grunt work is shared — workers and owners alike wash their own dishes.

It’s a similar situation at huge neighboring stations like Bunda, where distances can be hard to fathom. Rounding up tens of thousands of cattle requires flying far and wide to find a few animals, then a few hundred.

“There’s a helicopter pilot and a bull runner I know who does 1,000 kilometers a day,” said Troy Setter, chief executive of Consolidated Pastoral Company, which owns Bunda. At 600 miles, that’s farther than Paris to Prague.

At Waterloo, flying is also the only way for cowboys to do their work. Hamish Brett, 45, often pilots his own helicopter between the three properties he owns as the head of Brett Cattle Company. Nearly half the members of the young staff have helicopter licenses or are getting them.

“It’s a good skill to have in this environment,” Mr. Brett said.

It is also dangerous. His parents bought Waterloo in 2004 from John Quintana, an American rodeo champion. Mr. Quintana was killed when his small plane crashed in 2013. Mr. Brett’s older brother, Dougal, died after a helicopter crash in 2015 at Waterloo.

During muster season in late August, Mr. Brett, who is also a licensed veterinarian, was happy to show two visitors around for a week — usually on the ground.

For most pilots, that is where the learning starts. Mr. Mason, who is a heli-muster leader at just 23, spent six years on horses and motorcycles learning how the mind of a cow or bull works. He spends so many hours in the air now that he can easily maneuver his two-seat flying machine, a bubble of glass with an engine, as if it were a toy.

“Cattle want to go where the water flows,” he said while flying with a reporter, speaking with the laconic pace of a grizzled ranch hand. “They want to go downhill.” Long pause. “Where the river goes.”

Once the cattle clustered at a water point, Mr. Mason flew especially close to guide the group into fenced-off yards. He often left the smallest calves behind — the ones near mothers with “big bagged-up udders.” It was a small act of compassion that he said was common in the heli-muster ranks.

But even for steak lovers, the scenes that followed were more wince inducing.

In tight quarters, the smallest calves were branded, castrated and vaccinated. Lockie Kallis, 23, the lead stockman, also cut the horns off them to keep them from hurting people or one another, creating a steady drip of blood.

The “weaners,” cattle big enough to be readied for export, were moved out by truck to a quarantine station closer to Darwin. Mr. Brett — playing his veterinary role — walked through their ranks, eyeing them for symptoms of illness: snot in the nose, signs of fatigue.

Another jaunt by road landed them at the port. At dawn, the entire wharf seemed to rattle with cattle clomping out of two-tier trucks and onto a narrow ramp leading to the Girolando Express. The livestock carrier, built in 2014, looked like an oil tanker crossbred with a cruise ship. Its windowless decks can hold about 4,000 cattle.

Workers moved the startled Brahman along by standing behind them and yelling or banging the side of the truck, since cattle are especially sensitive to noise, until they boarded the boat.

Advocacy groups insist that the journey is unethical. “There are inherent risks with transport, and when you add a sea voyage to that, it accelerates those risks exponentially,” said Jed Goodfellow, the policy director for the Australian Alliance for Animals.

Tom Dawkins, chief executive of the Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association, said that losing even a single animal was costly and unwanted. Darwin is closer to Indonesia than to Sydney. The Girolando’s journeys, typically to Jakarta or Lampung, last about four days.

Shipping sheep from Australia to the Middle East takes longer and is considered more problematic, with a mortality rate of around 0.21 percent. The mortality rate for cattle shipped overseas from Australia last year was 0.08 percent, according to government figures.

Andrew Fisher, the director of the Animal Welfare Science Center at the University of Melbourne’s Veterinary School, said many of the cattle add weight in transit, a sign that they do not find the journey especially stressful.

Indonesian slaughterhouses have proved harder to manage. In 2011, an investigative report on Australian television showed cattle struggling against workers trying to cut their throats.

Dr. Fisher said the handful of slaughterhouses featured in the report lacked the facilities to properly control the animals — they were built for smaller Indonesian breeds.

“It was a very difficult situation for both man and animal,” Dr. Fisher said.

The suspension that followed, lasting more than a month, infuriated Australia’s cattle stations and Indonesia’s slaughterhouses. In a class-action lawsuit filed by cattle stations, it became clear that the government could have focused narrowly on problematic slaughterhouses.

The Bretts, who were lead plaintiffs, estimated that they had lost out on sales of tens of thousands of cattle. In 2020, the judge overseeing the class-action case ruled against the government, and the Bretts were awarded about $2 million. Other companies are awaiting payouts.

In the meantime, much has changed. A pilot program with more monitoring is now the industry standard, with electronic tags on every mooing export’s ear to track deaths and slaughterhouse practices. The most significant shift included adding nonlethal stunning to the process — knocking the animals out before they are killed, a practice that some Muslim countries do not consider halal, but that Indonesia has found to be in line with Islamic practice.

“In terms of slaughter, it’s getting better and better,” said Fauzan Khumaidi, a technical adviser for Great Giant Pineapple, an Indonesian pineapple behemoth that sells its rinds to local feedlots. “It’s not a problem for the slaughterhouses to fulfill the Australian policy.”

Many station owners worry that more regulation is coming, that the life they love will eventually be outlawed. It’s too much of a throwback and too global, they say — can a world of pristine locavore food photos on Instagram make room for the grime and logistics of international cattle raising and killing?

“Nowadays, people in cities have no connection to the land,” Mr. Brett said after mustering.

But for now at least, the allure of station life — and a form of globalization among neighboring democracies that mostly works — remains as strong as the dust cloud winds that blow through the Northern Territory. The Australian government has not moved to restrict live cattle exports, even as New Zealand recently decided to ban livestock export by sea. At Waterloo and elsewhere, Brahman herds are growing and being readied for the journey north.

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