Walcha breeder Erica Halliday is passionate about the Australian beef industry.
Erica Halliday says she works in the “best boardroom in the world”. When the fourth-generation Angus breeder heads out the door each morning it’s into the beautiful New England high country to do what she loves: breeding stud cattle.
Passionate and driven, Erica wants to make a difference in the Australian beef industry using genetics from her family’s ‘Ben Nevis’ stud.
“Ultimately we’re focused on producing a high quality steak for the consumer,” she says. “To do this, the cattle we’re breeding need to be the best they can be on the outside but also just as good on the inside, because genetics and nutrition combined are key to achieving our aim.
“Ben Nevis sells bulls to clients across the country – we help our clients and their success is also our success.”
Erica operates the Steel family’s stud at Walcha, with her husband Stuart and their children, Jack and Maggie.
Erica’s father, Bruce Steel, who died at the age of 93, was not only her inspiration but her teacher, and he and his wife Cherry were her greatest supporters.
The Steel family has lived at Walcha since 1860 on the property ‘Mingary’, and has been breeding Angus since 1918. Ben Nevis Angus stud was established in 1947, when Bruce returned from the Second World War and bought the Ben Nevis portion of land from his bachelor uncles.
Despite Angus being unpopular at the time, Bruce was passionate about the breed’s ability to not only produce the highest quality beef, but be profitable and sustainable for the people who chose to breed them.
“My parents were ahead of their time promoting Angus, and Ben Nevis was one of the first studs in Australia to hold an on-property bull sale selling entirely yearling bulls,” says Erica.
By her own admission, Erica is competitive. With a keen eye for good stock, she found early success in judging competitions, winning Angus Australia’s National Beef Judging Competition at age 22, held during the 1993 National Show and Sale at Wodonga, Victoria. By 23, Erica was judging at her first Royal Show in Sydney in an official capacity – one of the youngest people to do so at the time.
The breed was Charolais, and there were 124 head (a good size showing for a breed at any Royal Show), with the largest class consisting of 24 females with calves at foot. While it was a tight squeeze, Erica managed to fit all the exhibits in the ring at once – determined to give all the exhibitors the chance to “have their showing”, despite being advised by stewards to cull them before they entered the ring.
“Everybody deserves to be seen, just because the judge may not like your cattle on the day doesn’t mean somebody in the crowd won’t,” she says.
Since then, Erica has judged beef cattle at every Royal Show in Australia, as well as at countless local shows and hoof and hook competitions. To expand her knowledge and experience of the beef industry, Erica studied marketing and beef production at the University of Illinois in America, spent time working in a feedlot in Colorado, and was invited to judge at the Denver International Livestock Exhibition, also in Colorado.
She has always been keen to play an active role in the Australian beef industry, being a member of the steering committee of the Australian Beef Association in the mid 1990s; chairman of the New England Angus Breeders; and chairman of the NSW State Committee, a role that Bruce and Cherry also held, with Cherry being the first woman chairperson.
Erica was also a board member of the Australian Beef Industry Foundation, which creates educational opportunities for youth in the beef industry, and she is currently a board member for her old school, New England Girls’ School (NEGS), Armidale. She remains committed to encouraging youth involvement in the beef industry, spending time working with young people and sharing her experiences.
In 2014, Erica and Stuart were awarded The Stewart Award from the Angus Youth program for their commitment to the group – an award which her parents were the inaugural recipients of in 2009.
“Stu and I like helping people help themselves. I didn’t always feel like I had many contemporaries when I was younger. Sometimes I felt like the token female, but I believe tokenism does more damage than good, and you really need to earn the right to be in positions of authority.”
Erica says she has been dismissed by some men in the seed stock industry, “but that just makes me determined to be twice as good. My dad and my old school always enforced in me the belief girls can do anything.
“Stu and I make a great business team with mutual respect, and we focus on different areas – genetics and marketing for me, and management and nutrition for Stu. Stu is the biggest feminist I know.”
Erica met Stuart, another fourth-generation farmer originally from Scone, while they were studying at the University of Sydney in the early 1990s. Erica was studying agricultural economics and Stuart veterinary science. They married in 1998. Not wanting to be seen as “waiting for an inheritance”, the couple branched out on their own, forging professional careers for a short while before returning to the land.
Starting with no land, cattle or money, Erica and Stuart had to be creative. They did a Grazing for Profit course and came up with a crazy plan: they leased State Forest land, “full of blackberry, feral pigs and tiger snakes”, with the government paying them to fence off 1214 hectares in 2000; and convinced a coastal beef producer to agist 300 weaners with them, while the returns from the agistment provided cash flow.
The Banjo Cattle Company – a loose reference to how closely their country resembled that in which the movie ‘Deliverance’ was set, and at the time was the hiding place of notorious murderer, Malcolm Naden – was up and running.
As their resources increased, the couple bought cattle, starting with 30 Devon and Hereford females in 2001, and bred them up to a herd of 500 to 600 head, all the while continuing to agist cattle for cash flow. The Hallidays sold these cattle to lease better country across four properties in the Walcha district in 2007.
Erica and Stuart then moved into Angus and Wagyu production, starting with 250 Angus heifers based on Ben Nevis and ‘Glenavon’ bloodlines and using artificial insemination from Wagyu bulls “before it was trendy to do so”.
“We believed in producing high quality beef, and to do this we settled for running fewer cattle but of a higher quality and it paid off,” says Erica.
In 2008, with Erica’s parents going guarantor, the couple bought 313 hectares at Yarrowitch, on the escarpment, southeast of Walcha, while they continued to lease country. They had also increased their herd to 800 Angus females (200 of which were agisted cattle) spread across the five properties.
Eventually the Banjo Cattle Company was merged with the Steel family’s Ben Nevis stud enterprise, and when Bruce officially retired at the age of 88 in 2012, Erica and Stuart took the reins of the family operation based on 1100 females.
“I’ve spent most of my life working alongside my father, even while developing our own business,” comments Erica. “We were close and good mates – he was inspirational to me – and Dad and Mum were supportive of Stu and me starting from scratch, even if they did think we were crazy at times.”
Erica describes herself and Stuart as “custodians” of what they have today. “The cattle help fund the sustainability of this land. We don’t see this land as ours but as our family’s – everybody is still involved including my mum and sister, Kylie, and her 17-year-old daughter, Bonnie – and eventually it will be passed on to the next generation if they want that. Until then, our aim is to make it better.”
Published New England Living Spring issue 2017.
Story & photos Emma Downey