Mann of the land

Tom Mann has been acclaimed for a lifetime of expert management of rangelands in northern Australia.


From the saddle to the cockpit to the spreadsheet, there wasn’t an unfocused element of Tom Mann’s grazing business. After more than 50 years managing rangelands in northern Australia, he’s helped to set the industry standard and is recognised as a cattleman who has driven change. That legacy has been honoured by the Australian Rangeland Society with this year’s inaugural Excellence in Rangeland Management award.

Today, Tom’s family owns and operates hundreds of thousands of hectares of grazing country in northern Queensland. They haven’t always followed fashionable approaches, but, rather, have found success at a crossroads of smart economical decisions and land management ingenuity.

“I’ve always preferred to move my cattle on horseback as it allows you time and opportunity to really observe the country around you,” Tom says. “You need to be aware of small changes in the grass ecosystem to make the best decisions for your business.”

“Tom is one of the best in the industry at following the market, knowing how much feed is on hand and accounting for erratic wet seasons,” says Bob Shepherd, a principal rangeland extension officer with Queensland’s Department of Agriculture. “Many people dabble in trading cattle, but few do it well, and even fewer do it well and maintain their country in good condition.”

For most of his life, Tom’s passion and drive has been centred around the Charters Towers region – a stark contrast to his parents’ nomadic professional life. They took him on an incredible trip when he was a young jackaroo in the early 1950s. Tom was working with the Scottish Australia Company on Nive Downs, a large sheep and cattle property at Augathella in south-western Queensland. Just as he was finding his groove, his mother wrote to Tom, asking him to accompany them on a six-month European tour. Tom was torn. He was committed and extremely happy in his job and didn’t want to let his employers down.

“Fortunately, I managed to summon up enough courage to show Mum’s letter to our formidable manager, Mr Brown. Without hesitating, he replied that I should go. I explained that I had no wish to jeopardise my career and promotional prospects. His immediate reply was that it would only enhance my career,” Tom says.

And that it did, as within a few years of his return he was an overseer on another of the company’s properties, Kynuna station. “The only possible loser was my father, as first-class fares on the P&O liners of the day were well beyond the capacity of the wages of a jackaroo!”

Perhaps to ensure he wouldn’t always have to foot the bill, Tom’s father started entering his son’s name into land ballots. Eventually Tom drew Lochwall, a 12,140ha block 60km north-west of Charters Towers. In fact, he drew two other properties at the same time, but Tom was determined to graze cattle and Lochwall was the best block for it.

It wasn’t long before the new landowner caught the attention of Eve Allingham, the daughter of long-term local graziers, and the pair were married in 1965. Through the division of her own family business, the pair acquired Hillgrove, a jewel of the Upper Burdekin pastoral district. Although Eve wasn’t one to work in the cattle yards, Tom said she kept a close eye on all movements of cattle and people over their entire tenure. “She knew far more of what went on than I did,” he says.

Tom’s savvy business skills and proficiency with cattle trading soon saw them build a portfolio of seven properties spanning almost 2,400sq km and 20,000 head of cattle. A self-confessed obsession with tax law aided Tom’s smart and informed business decisions, allowing them to expand. “The first few years were very grim, but it started me off in the income tax act,” he says. “I used to go to bed with it – I couldn’t read enough! I’m an early seller – that’s my main thing – and I suppose, as backup to that, I always reckon the tax value of your cattle is the only true value you have.”

Tom is flippant about his approach to pasture management systems. “It was the dollars I was more worried about,” he says. But it doesn’t take a deep scratch of the surface to dig up a compelling history of visionary land management experiences. The Dalrymple Landcare Committee was the first of its kind formed in a broadacre grazing area in Queensland. Attached to the Charters

Towers Cattleman’s Union, it was the brainchild of a small committee (Tom Mann among them) who were concerned about the degraded state of grazing land in the Dalrymple Shire. He was also awarded the 2007 Northern Australia Beef Research Committee’s medal, acknowledging excellence in the field of production in the beef industry in northern Australia.

Tom spearheaded the producer uptake of phosphorus supplementation in cattle, revolutionising animal husbandry practices and reducing mortality rates in northern Australia. He was also one of the early campaigners for a poll Brahman breed, before animal welfare issues forced the industry’s hand in restricting the practice of dehorning.

Bob worked closely with Tom for decades, both in his professional role as a rangelands extension officer, and in various community and industry bodies. He’s generous with his praise of the Mann family’s success at land and pasture management and says the recognition from the Australian Rangelands Society reflects the high regard with which Tom is held in the beef industry.

“Not only does this award recognise good land management in our productive rangeland areas, but Tom’s incredible service to the overall beef industry through communication of his successes, failures and learnings,” Bob says. “He was financially successful because he did manage the country well.”

Bob is especially complimentary when it comes to Tom’s adoption of variable stocking rates and controlled burns as ongoing management tools, even when the rest of the industry became hesitant. “The use of fire has diminished greatly in 30 years and, with that, you see more woodland areas thickening and declining carrying capacities. Tom used fire well and, in turn, the pastures were incredibly productive and for the most part woody weeds were taken care of.”

Tom praises the influence of animal husbandry specialists through Queensland’s agriculture department. Of particular note was Wallace ‘Wal’ Taylor, who encouraged Tom’s penchant for technology and economics in conjunction with cattle management. “He was always thinking outside the square and that didn’t go down with everyone, but he knew his beef science and his computer stuff. He got me into computers long before I thought of it,” Tom says. “He also pushed me to get my pilot’s licence, but I think that was mainly so he could fly around.”

Tom has never believed in battling droughts on the ground, preferring to manage stocking rates with the season in hand. “One year I got sucked in when everyone in the district started feeding M8U [a nutrition supplement] and overdid it and the country looked terrible. There wasn’t a blade of grass left on the place. I vowed never to try to ‘outfeed’ a drought again.”

One of his mantras is ‘cash is easier to handle during a drought than cattle or hay’. So, when the cattle slump was on in the 1970s and Tom shifted some to agistment, he insisted on paying for the paddock so he could control how it was grazed.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, Tom and Eve welcomed four children into the family: Bill, Liz, Gordon and Jack. Tom and Eve were adamant that all the children should seek further education in any chosen field before they were allowed to join the family business.

Tragically, Gordon was killed in a car accident in 1988 and, to this day, his presence is greatly missed by them all. While none of the other three felt pressured to return to the family business, they all did, and in 2010 the aggregation was broken to allow them financial independence. Bill and his wife Milly moved to Hillgrove, while Jack and Yasmin took on Lochwall. They have both significantly expanded their operations in the ensuing years.

“We were never pushed into the game and although I am quite sure they are happy we have all taken on what is a long family tradition, there has never been any weight of expectation hanging over us,” Bill says. “Dad is a true ‘doubting Thomas’, and he can cast a very critical eye on the world at times, but it’s balanced by a healthy dose of positive enthusiasm, energy and passion for the industry and life in general. Being a great reader and early adopter of technology has also made him very aware of both historic and future trends essential for the type of strategic planning our family business has benefited from.”

Liz and her husband Rob Pearce and their children now live at Mernoo near Illfracombe. “Dad always told us that the land is forever and we only have it as caretakers,” Liz says. “It belongs to something bigger than us and we need to treat it with respect. Hillgrove was always Mum’s family connection, but it’s such a huge part of him as well. Despite his very ruthless, business mindedness, I think Dad is sentimental about Hillgrove and the legacy we as land managers leave.”

For Tom, now an 87-year-old widower living in Charters Towers, time with his children and grandchildren is the priority. He takes great joy in watching them thrive in their own businesses and continue the tradition of managing cattle enterprises in rangeland areas. While he remains active and his wit is as sharp as ever, trips are now at his leisure. “Travelling makes one appreciate home and what a great country of opportunities we live in here in Australia,” he says. “When you think of the barriers and obstacles facing so many in other parts of the world, there really is no limit to what we should be able to achieve in our country.”