A good eye for beef

May 13, 2015

By Stephen Burns
Courtesy The Land


FIONA Sanderson has been interested in cattle for as long as she can remember.

“I remember being about five-years-old and cattle were all we talked about around the kitchen table,” she said.

The cattle breeder and judge who today lives at Boonah in South East Queensland, grew up in the Upper Murray at “Thologolong” where her forebears bred Angus cattle for many years, and her mother, Helen Sutherland, put together the nucleus of cattle which formed the Murray Grey breed.

It was inevitable as a young girl Fiona would become involved in the preparation and showing of stud cattle at local and major city shows.

“It was the natural thing we all did – all of my brothers and sisters were in the show ring, and I followed,” she said.

Fiona registered her stud herd, Murralong Angus, when she was 11 years-old.

“I purchased my first Angus cow from my father when I was nine and paid him 100 guineas,” she said.

“Her name was Thologolong Flossy 3 and I bred a lot of good cattle from her.”

From breeding to judging cattle was a natural progression for Fiona who has been judging cattle classes at local and major shows since she was 17 when she judged at the annual Myrtleford Show in Victoria in 1968.

Since then she has officiated in the show ring at every Royal show in Australian except for Darwin.

In 1976 Fiona took Murray Grey cattle to Canada to display the breed for the first time in that country at the Calgary Stampede, and at a major exhibition and field day at Red Deer, where she also judged two breeds.

Fiona has also judged in New Zealand, but said the highlight of her career was judging the Bruce Urquhart Trophy at Sydney Royal in 2003.

“It was a great thrill to be considered as good as the other great breeders who have judged that premier trophy,” she said.

“I was lucky because I grew up with showing and judging – it became second nature.

“Even though I was a young girl, a lot of the older men breeding cattle at the time took me under their wing.”

But the person Fiona credits most for her interest and her knowledge is her late mother, Helen.

“She was quite incredible – I think Mum taught me to look at an animal, and if my eye went to something in the animal there was something wrong,” Fiona said.

“So I needed to teach myself what was wrong.”

However, Fiona is still not satisfied with her knowledge.

“I wish I had asked Mum another million questions,” she said.

Fiona said she had always felt the skin of her animals beginning from when they were tattooed at birth and then again at branding.

“The tight and heavy skinned animals don’t seem to have the growth rate and the doing ability,” she explained.

“The harsh-haired animals also won’t do – cattle need a pliable and soft skin which reflects the quality of their breeding.”

Fiona is now spreading her knowledge among a new generation of keen young cattle breeders.

“It is an amazing industry to be involved in,” she said.

“My pet love is teaching young people – they are our future and they are so keen.”

Jackarooing was a great way to get a start in the agricultural industry, and Fiona was keen to promote the benefits of such a career.

At this year’s Sydney Royal she conducted the Cattle Experience for the second year.

Supported by the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) of NSW, the event was designed to explain the variations in cattle breeds, the reason for their breeding to suit different environments, and the ultimate marketing of each part of the animal.

“The program was all about getting the city folk to better understand what we do in the bush,” Fiona said.

“The show is like the ‘DJ’s’ window showcasing the bush to the city, and programs like the Cattle Experience bring home to all the background of our agricultural production.”

Fiona and her husband, Sam, are now living at Boonah where she continues to assist clients with their cattle breeding programs, is still involved in judging cattle at country shows, and mentoring young judges.

“I also run classes for kids who have little knowledge of cattle but are very keen on a career working with cattle,” she said.

With her long career associated with the show ring, Fiona said she was gratified she and Sam were presented with an Award of Excellence during the 2003 Sydney Royal by the late Patrick Keast, Junee Reefs, a former president of the Agricultural Societies Council of NSW and chairman of the RAS Cattle Committee.

Recognising the couple’s combined contribution to the show movement, the citation reads “In appreciation of outstanding services to the agricultural show movement.”

“It is something we are both very proud of,” Fiona said.