Home » As farmers struggle to find workers across Australia, many are turning to man’s best friend to get the job done

As farmers struggle to find workers across Australia, many are turning to man’s best friend to get the job done

Border collies Buck and Rebel do not shy away from hard work. They run all day, herding cattle into their pens and keeping them in check.

It’s clear from watching them that, as farmers around the country grapple with workforce shortages, these are some of the most efficient workers in the industry.

“There’s a lack of workforce that we’re finding in the bush these days, and a lot more people are starting to use working dogs,” central Queensland grazier David Steel said.

“They’re really becoming a more valued part of the team.”  

Husband-and-wife team David (right) and Kelly Steel with their working dogs Buck and Rebel.(ABC Capricornia: Aaron Kelly)

Mr Steel and his wife, Kelly, run a 4,000-hectare cattle property at Bauhinia, south-west of the beef capital, Rockhampton.

The couple’s six border collie working dogs are integral to their day-to-day life on the land.

“We couldn’t do our job without them and they’re definitely worth every penny … a good dog is worth two men,” Kelly Steel said.

“They don’t care what time it is that you leave in the morning, and they don’t care what time it is you get home at night; you flick open the cage door, and they’re happy to go.”

Muster dogs fetch big bucks

The Steel family has taken “a couple of days off” to take part in a working dog trial and sale at Gracemere in central Queensland.

It’s big business, with prized border collies and kelpies fetching big bucks.

A tri-colour female border collie, Cabra Glebe Liz, sold for a whopping $40,000 at the four-day trial and sale, which concluded on Sunday.

The record-breaking sale surpassed the Guinness World Record for a working border collie — a dog in the UK named Kim which sold for $38,893 in 2021.

A young boy and man sitting on hay bales with a prized border collie dog

Cabra Glebe Liz had the crowd in awe as she showcased her talent and ability in the ring. She sold for a world record $40,000.(Supplied: JEM Photography)

Livestock manager and long-time cattleman Gary Wendt knows all too well the value a well-trained working dog brings to any farming operation.

“I don’t go mustering without them. They’re a valuable item in the workforce, that’s for sure,” he said.

The record price for a working dog in Australia is $49,000 for a 20-month-old kelpie sold on the New South Wales Central Tablelands in 2022.

And as graziers and farmers struggle to find reliable workers and feel the pressure of rising labour costs, property owners with livestock are relying on working dogs to keep their operations running, according to Mr Wendt.

A border collie jumps in the air to round up cattle.

A dog trial and auction at Gracemere attracted plenty of action on and off the course.(Supplied: JEM Photography)

“As we all know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re running a cafe or a property. It’s hard to get workers,” he said.

“The dogs are their workforce. [The farmers] get up in the morning, saddle their horse, and ride out with five, six or seven dogs, whatever they need.”

‘Sun up, to sun down’ on the job

Working dog sales in Australia are not only attracting top dollars but also interest from overseas.

“As far as dog prices go these days, I think it’s got to the point where people are really starting to realise that a good working dog can do a lot for you,” Mr Steel said.

“They’re prepared to pay for them, which is good, and the dogs just keep fronting up from sun up to sun down.” 

A black and white border collie standing up on grass.

David Steel says property owners in the bush are using dogs like Rebel more these days.(ABC Capricornia: Aaron Kelly)

The ABC TV series Muster Dogs recently put working dogs and their tireless efforts in the spotlight.

Winton’s Keri Prandolini joined long-term friend Steve Elliot in the latest season of Muster Dogs.

She said the value working dogs brought to safe and effective farming was once again being realised. 

A woman wearing an Akubra hat, dark shirt and jeans with a black and white border collie dog.

Keri Prandolini travelled from Winton to central Queensland with her border collie, Slim, for the event.(ABC Capricornia: Aaron Kelly)

“I think it really showcased the dogs and the handlers over both seasons,” she said.

“It’s been really good to show people who aren’t aware of what goes into training a dog.”

With lucrative mining jobs luring away workers who might otherwise have been part of a new generation of farmers, Ms Prandolini said border collies like her trusty companion, Slim, were stepping up to the job.

A border collie dog rounds up brown cattle on a dog trial course.

The skills of the dog on show during a competition.(Supplied: JEM Photography)

“It’s super important, especially at the moment,” she said.

“It’s harder to find workers, and younger people seem to be going to the mines and so forth, and to have dogs to help you … they’re priceless.”

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