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Branding at Cantaur Park
Cantaur Park has been on the edge of a monsoon trough playing havoc in far north Queensland. Unlike further north, Cantaur hasn’t been receiving torrential, flooding rain, but the days have been grey and misting with enough rain to intensify the green landscape, heighten the grass and soak the ground. Today, there’s a break in the weather. Sun streaks are casting shades of blue across the landscape and a cool easterly wind is drying the damp. Mac Shann, with employees, Mick Bradford and Julianne Leadley, is grabbing the opportunity to bring in the first mob to begin the season’s branding. Weather permitting; the next few weeks will be hectic with mustering and branding.

A few hours into the muster they are moving through brigalow, ironbark and buffel country not far from the Suttor River which opportunely provides Cantaur Park with 12 km of river frontage. Dark clouds have reformed and suddenly the mustering team is drenched by a downpour. As they push the cattle through the boggy ground the muster is slowed considerably.

While the district was in serious drought when Mac and his wife, Gayle first came to Cantaur Park in 2000, better seasons returned in 2004 and since then the property’s condition and productivity has turned around. With more than 2500 head of cattle, Mac and Gayle run a commercial and stud herd of Droughtmaster cattle as well as a horse stud. They run around 1000 breeders, including 100 registered cows and keep about 80 stud and commercial bull calves each year to be sold.

In 2000 when Gayle’s father, Alan Atkinson, bought Cantaur Park and offered Mac and Gayle the chance to manage the property, it was a dream come true. They could begin their lives together on the land and for the first time, build their own business. While Cantaur Park, 350kms west of Mackay in central Queensland, was considerably smaller than the vast family properties each had grown up on, at 13,000 hectares it was manageable for the two to run independently - only needing to bring in contractors a few times a year. This, they agreed, was ideal. But in 2002, when Gayle suffered horrific injuries when she was caught in a post-hole digger, their way of life altered dramatically. Among multiple injuries, Gayle lost her right arm, the use of her left arm and still endures constant pain.

Despite an incredibly challenging time since the accident, Mac and Gayle have continued to build their cattle and horse breeding business with great success. By taking on her caring role and making modifications to both the house and the yards, Gayle says Mac enabled them to stay at Cantaur. “It’s a huge job for him, but we’ve figured out how to make it work. We just wanted to get our lives back to as normal as possible. And with Mick and Julianne (who are both so capable) joining us, we have been able to continue to manage and expand our operation.”

When talking about their business, Mac and Gayle’s passion for their cattle and horse work and long term plans is palpable. Gayle handles some of the bookwork, keeps records on computer, books mares in and talks to clients, selects and classes the cattle, runs the website, musters on her quad bike, drives the unmodified station vehicles and helps out in the yards. “I love being able to contribute to the day to day work,” she says. “It’s really important to me to be able to take part.” The days for all four at Cantaur Park are generally fairly full working on property improvements or stock work. “We usually discuss what needs to be done at dinner each night and then meet at the shed each morning,” Mac says. “Sometimes we work together, at other times we go our separate ways to do whatever needs to be done.”

Mac and Gayle, Gayle’s parents, Alan and Alison Atkinson, her two sisters, Sherri and Kylie and their families, and her cousin Rob Atkinson and his family, formed the Monty Atkinson Genetics Sale (MAGS). In the last four years the MAGS sale, held in Charters Towers, has surged ahead and last year, despite a tough time in Queensland and was one of the strongest that year.

Gayle says her family’s interest in breeding bulls began with her grandfather, Robert Lamont (Monty) Atkinson. “In 1910 two north Queensland graziers brought a couple of Zebu (Bos indicus) bulls into the area from the Melbourne Zoo,” she explains. “In 1921, Monty made an important observation when taking two mares to a blood stallion at Bluff Downs Station near Charters Towers. When seeing the progeny of the Zebu/British cross he couldn’t help notice their condition compared with the rest of the cattle. These were the descendants of the bulls sent north 10 years earlier. Monty then set about developing what ultimately became the Droughtmaster breed.”

The following year, 1922, Monty and his father Bob, purchased a Zebu bull calf from the Taronga Park Zoo. Unfortunately the calf died of travel sickness on the boat trip north, hampering proceedings for a few years. But then in the early 1930’s, a consignment of Brahman cattle was imported north by a syndicate of graziers, including Monty’s brother Ken and the CSIRO, giving Monty access to three red, half-breed bulls,” Mac says. “In the following years the best progeny of these crossed with the Shorthorn and Shorthorn/Devon (Bos taurus) herd were kept. As drought, heat, ticks and general hard times were causing severe losses in British herds in the north Monty aimed for a fertile breed with strong traits.”

In addition to retaining some of the better attributes of the Bos taurus breeds Monty wanted a breed with a dominant colour, docility, an ability to withstand country of extremes, a resistance to ticks and an absence of eye cancer. The Droughtmaster Stud Breeder’s Society began in 1962 with Monty as patron of the breed from 1966 to 1985. Droughtmasters today have seen huge successes and general popularity because of their adaptability and easy care. “Monty was a pioneer,” Gayle adds. “Continuing his work has been a proud legacy of his first and now second generation.”

The Lamont Stud, named after Monty, sells up to 40 bulls at the annual MAGS sale. Giving strong emphasis on their bulls’ temperament, fertility, confirmation, bone and weight for age, Mac and Gayle strive to achieve the best in their herd by strategic selection of sires and rigorous culling. With extensive knowledge and a long history of cattle and bull breeding they run a skilled and professional operation.

Both Mac and Gayle grew up on vast, isolated cattle properties in north Queensland. Gayle’s family station, the scenic Valley of Lagoons, was located at the headwaters of the Burdekin River while Mac was raised at Myall Springs, at the head of the Burdekin Dam. Mac’s parents, Sue and Harry Shann, run a high quality herd of Brahman cattle at Myall Springs and are just two and a half hours north east of Cantaur Park. Since the inception of the MAGS Sale, Mac’s family have been infusing Droughtmaster bulls along with Brahman bulls.

Meeting at a campdraft in 1997, Mac and Gayle became frequent visitors to each other’s family properties to help out with mustering and met socially at every campdraft they could make. Hooked on the horse sport, they both became well known and successful competitors. Still following the annual winter campdraft circuit, Mac consistently places among the country’s top competitors and Gayle sometimes judges. Campdrafting is high on the agenda for Mac and Gayle’s extended family and their many friends. “Because it’s an extension of what we do most days on a horse, it’s common for station people to get involved in campdrafting,” Mac says. “Apart from being keen to improve our campdrafting skills, it’s a great chance for family and friends to get together socially.”

Forming their horse stud soon after they married in 1999, in 2006 Mac and Gayle purchased One Moore Daddy, a stallion from the champion mare, One Moore Spin - Australia’s highest progeny earning mare of all time and the second highest money earning cutting horse in Australian history. One Moore Daddy, trained by Australia’s leading cutting horse trainer, Todd Graham, competed successfully in cutting futurities as a three year old with Todd. “He was then placed in the skilled hands of Cameron Parker and shown in challenges as a four year old achieving what no other horse has before,” Gayle says. “He won all four futurity challenges, including the Cloncurry Stockman’s Challenge and Paradise Lagoons. Seeing him win at Cloncurry last year was fabulous. He’s an exceptionally talented animal; but his success is largely due to Cameron who showed him for us. This year, Mac will campdraft him.”

One Moore Daddy’s success has not only expanded Mac and Gayle’s horse operation significantly with clients eager to purchase stock, but has given the couple an exciting new venture. “We’ve bought six brood mares this year to add to our breeding program and booked 100 mares for servicing in 2008,” Mac says. “We’re in the process of building a new horse complex for One Moore Daddy and his upcoming yearlings that we plan to breed and sell.”

After coming to Cantaur Park last year to help build the horse yard, Mick Bradford was invited to stay full time. Mick has known Mac and Gayle for more than seven years and says he has grown to respect and admire their courage and togetherness. “Working with them gives me a terrific chance to handle quality cattle and young bulls and to train horses for campdrafts,” he says. “I’m gaining a huge amount from their knowledge and experience, and their dedication to improving their property and business is amazing.”

Julianne Leadley came to Cantaur Park in 2005 and like Mick, has fallen for station life. “Working on a cattle property is so different from anything I’ve done before,” Julianne says. “And Mac and Gayle are such an inspiring couple, I feel very privileged to be part of the team. Working side by side, they take on the challenges that are constantly presented and always handle them in such a positive way – they just get on with it.”

Playing a valued part at mustering and branding time, Julianne helps take samples for DNA testing to track the calves’ sires, loads the ear-tag guns and immunises the cattle. And with her interest in all things equine, she spends a lot of time exercising, feeding and rugging the horses. “I just love working with horses and preparing them for Mac and Gayle when they go away to campdrafts,” she says. “I’ve become interested in equine massage – the horses love it and it’s nice to be able to give them something back. Being on a horse, even when it’s pouring rain, just makes you feel so alive.” Julianne also helps with household chores, meals and maintains a striking garden. “Each day I spend about three quarters of an hour massaging Gayle’s arm and I really enjoy that too.”

With lots of hard work and pure determination, Mac and Gayle have developed Cantaur Park to a point where they can now achieve all they have longed for. Maintaining they haven’t really done anything special, Mac says it’s just been a matter of getting through a huge ordeal and getting on with things. “It’s just that we love our lifestyle here and I guess that’s what it all comes down to – the love.”