‘Men’s shed with no commitment’ how livestock sales bolster mental health in the bush

Social connection is ‘one of the strongest protective factors’ against mental ill-health and, for farmers, livestock sales are the biggest meeting point

At Warwick, one of the largest saleyards on Queensland’s Darling Downs, hundreds of steel pens brim with animals ready for auction.

A dozen eager buyers follow whoever holds the megaphone through a series of steel catwalks and concrete walkways that overlook the pens of cattle.

But retired farmer Milton Rippingale stands on the periphery. “I’m just looking today,” he says. Rippingale sold his first cow in 1956 for £38. He has come to the Warwick saleyards every week since.

“For old blokes like us, it’s something for us to look forward to,” he says. “It’s my day out.”

It is a scene repeated at saleyards across the country. Chiefly a place of business, they also play an important social role.

“You get to know a lot of people at the saleyards,” Rippingale says. “There are some very good people and there are some absolute bloody grubs.”

Also watching the action is Jim Kane, a retired farmer. Kane and Rippingale met at the yards two decades ago, and spend each sale day catching up. “Oh, we get along all right,” Kane says.

Semi-retired farmer Peter Mutch is still in the business of buying and selling but he is waiting for the steer auctions, which are held last.

In the meantime, he says, he will “chat about the weather, price of cattle, and whatever you want to have a yarn about”.

The executive officer of the Australian Livestock Markets Association (Alma), Stephanie Whitaker, says sale day is one of the few opportunities for farmers, who spend most of their time working alone on isolated properties, to socialise.

“When it isn’t raining or the market is really bad, or there are floods, farmers can talk about it at the yards,” she says. “They know they aren’t alone and that helps them to deal with things – the burden is shared.”

Almost all the participants in the research say the saleyards are a place to connect with others and three-quarters said they were useful for information sharing and learning.

“I remember one man saying, ‘It’s just like a men’s shed but with no commitment’,” Whitaker says. “He has got all the benefits of meeting and mixing and having that sense of belonging and purpose with people at the sale … but it’s all care, no responsibility.”

Whitaker says the core economic function of saleyards means people have a reason to attend, even if they are just there to catch up with friends.

“Its got a sense of business. It’s not frivolous,” she says “You could say well, it’s not really about catching up with mates, but the catch up is a really great side-effect.”

Heather Ellis, who authored the report, says they provide a place of intergenerational connection.

“Younger producers I interviewed were going there to learn from older farmers,” Ellis says. “Older members of the community are able to share knowledge about drought, livestock management of weed eradication – that makes them feel valued.”

But Ellis says the male-dominated industry needs to make that same culture accessible to women.

“There’s been women getting elbowed while trying to bid for cattle,” Ellis says. One female stock agent Ellis interviewed loved the industry but only lasted a year. “She ended up completely broken – in terms of not being accepted,” she says.

The director of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, Prof Harvey Whiteford, says social connectedness is “one of the strongest protective factors against developing mental health problems, with poorer mental health and lack of access to services common in the bush”.

Farmers may not explicitly attend the sales for their mental health “but they are talking to their peers, sharing stories and building that connectedness”, he says.

As the bidding roles on at Warwick, semi-retired farmer Peter Mikkelsen watches on from the catwalk. He moved into town a few years ago. He still has a few cattle, but sells them directly to abattoirs. He says he is here to watch the market but doesn’t mind a chat, either.

“We talk about the rain if there has been any, and drought when it hits” Mikkelsen says. “We are a bit old to be talking about anything else, like girlfriends.”

And they all know they will be back next week. “We say: ‘I’ll see you at the next sale’,” he says. “That’s just how it works.”

Click here to read the article online ➡️ ‘Men’s shed with no commitment’: how livestock sales bolster mental health in the bush | Rural Australia | The Guardian