VIDEO: Cattleman Rob Cook conquering life and farming from his wheelchair

By: Tom Dickson, Video by: Tom Dickson, Matt Wood

Presented by

Quadriplegic farmer Rob Cook and his wife Sarah have built a thriving Brangus beef business using technology to ensure he never has to stop contributing to the operation. TOM DICKSON found out how it’s done.


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You may have heard of Rob Cook, the Northern Territory cattleman who snapped his spinal cord in a helicopter accident while preparing for a cattle muster.

Maybe you’ve read his name in a competitor list at an Australian rodeo or more recently heard him tell his story at one of his motivational speaking engagements.

Rob, along with wife Sarah and two sons Braxton and Lawson, are using modern technology and a barley sprout growing shed to intensify their Brangus cattle enterprise and set a new standard for Australian grown beef.

Cameras, sensors linked to phones, automated remote weighing systems, computerised watering, a feed mixer wagon and a host of other mechanisms help Rob combat his own restrictions, but these same devices also assist in the labour-starved state that Australian farming currently finds itself in.

The accident may have broken his back, but it has in no way broken his spirit or his passion for farming and the cattle industry in Australia.

Rob has just enough movement in his right hand to operate his wheelchair, mobile phone, cattle crush and drafting gates. There are numerous other modifications they have adopted around the farm to assist with his involvement, but he is still very much in control of the operation.

Growing barley sprouts indoors to produce a high quality and consistent feed source is not unique, but it is still in its infancy in Australia.

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All hands on deck. Sarah, 3rd from right, and staff members harvest the days' ration of barley sprouts. It’s the most physical part of the feeding operation.

Certain sceptics claim it’s not financially viable, however, Rob believes growing barley sprouts forms the backbone of their operation at ‘Werribee’.

"Without the guaranteed, high protein nutritional feed that I can rely on 365 days of the year none of this would work," Rob says.

This man has such a presence about him that after about five minutes chatting about our common interest in farming I became oblivious to the fact that he is confined to his chair.

We are just two Aussie farmers sitting in the shade of a tree talking about the exciting future we see for farming in Australia.

I find it very humbling just being in his presence. Later in the day, I glance across to see him sitting alone in his chair under the same tree where we had been chatting earlier.

It reminds me of a seasoned stockman sitting astride his faithful horse watching over the mob and is an image that will stay with me. I am left thinking that Rob sits taller in the seat of his chair than most horsemen do in the saddle. 

 

Old memories, new memories

Rob Cook grew up on what he says is the most remote cattle station on the edge of the Tanami desert in Northern Territory. Like most adventurous young men in the outback, he was open to having a crack at anything that could provide a bit of an adrenalin rush.

While many young blokes his age were collecting footy cards, Rob has great memories of collecting bumps and bruises while mixing it with some of the best bull and brumby riders in Australia.

He trained and successfully gained his helicopter pilot’s licence to later on help with the mustering on his family’s massive cattle station.

It was during one of these outings that Rob received life-threatening spinal injuries, but through sheer guts and determination, and a lot of help from Sarah, has returned to a life of running his own cattle operation.

While Rob says memories of a past life will always be a part of who he is and will stay with him forever, it’s a new life and new memories he is now creating.

His excitement about what he and Sarah are achieving with their barley sprout feeding regime is infectious and inspirational.

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Sarah and Rob Cook. Together they are steering the future in Australian farming proving that with hard work anything is achievable.

Though Rob has swapped his horse for an electric wheelchair he is no less of an Australian stockman and with his wife and two sons, he continues to raise the standard of beef production in Australia.

The Cooks are breeding, fattening, finishing and now retailing their tender sprouted meats brand locally in Bundaberg and nationally via internet-based sales.

Rob controls every aspect of his beef product, from the careful selection of breeding stock in the predominantly Brangus herd to selling the meat out of his recently acquired butcher shop, Tender Sprouted Meats, in Bundaberg.

The Cooks bought the butcher shop because they wanted to maintain control of the quality of their meat after slaughter.

After spending the day chatting to Rob and Sarah, and getting the full sense of the passion they share in their product, I think given half a chance he would come into your kitchen and cook it for you as well.

They are just that committed in making sure they produce the best so that you can experience eating the best in the world.

 

Only the best

Rob and Sarah are investing all their energy into sprouting a more intensive way of farming beef cattle where they maintain control from the time the calves hit the ground until the steak hits your plate. 

The husband-and-wife team work together on their Bundaberg cattle property in Queensland to create a better future for their family and for the broader farming community.

Relying on their love and respect for each other to get them through hardships and obstacles they encounter along their journey, the Cooks are emerging as modern pioneers in the agricultural industry.

Love, respect, commitment, hard work, determination, passion, foresight and planning are a few of the key elements included, but it’s more about capitalising on a growing demand in Australia for top-quality produce.

Australia is perfectly positioned, geographically, to profit from supplying our part of the world with agricultural products.

Any upsurge in tourist numbers will drive an increase in the demand for a consistent supply of top-quality food products into the restaurant and general tourist industry.

Rob recognised very early that when the public purchase a good steak or other meat product, they tend to enjoy the dining experience more and have better confidence in the quality of the product when it can be traced back to its origin.

The idea of tracking the product from paddock to plate is gaining momentum in the domestic market, both restaurant and private consumer, and the international market as well.

Rob and Sarah have encountered many obstacles along the way, but their passion for the Australian meat industry is what drives them.

Their operation is EU accredited and is Australian Certified Organic. You won’t find any trace of HGPs or hormones in any of their cattle and the accreditation allows them to sell into markets including Russia.

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Strict organic management regulations are adhered to at "Werribee". You won’t find any chemical residue on the farm and HGP’s are not administered to the cattle. 

The first two stages of their four-stage program comprises joining and calving down a one thousand Brangus - Brahman Angus cross cow herd on their 3500 acre property known as ‘Tandara’ located about seventy kilometres north of Bundaberg at Agnes Waters.

At weaning the steers are transferred to ‘Cabbage Tree’, a 1000 acre backgrounding property just north of Gin Gin.

At Cabbage Tree the weaners are paddock grazed with the introduction of some supplementary feeding in preparation for the more intense feeding program implemented at the fattening property, Werribee.

Rob stresses that he keeps a very closes eye on individual weights of the cattle, but places more emphasis on condition for weaning and introducing them into the intense feeding program for finishing.

He places a lot of importance on keeping the cattle very quiet and eliminating unnecessary handling where possible.

 

Werribee – ‘backbone’

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"Werribee". The backbone or spine of the Cooks paddock to plate enterprise.

The property is named Werribee because Sarah’s research revealed it is an Aboriginal term for backbone or spine and Rob says the property is actually the mainstay of their entire operation.

This is where they finish their steers on an intensive 120-day feeding program consisting mainly of barley sprouts.

Rob says the property used to be an organic aloe Vera farm.

"We’ve since converted it into a finishing farm," he explains

"Given its meaning, we figured the name Werribee was pretty relevant to our situation because I’ve got a broken spine and this is basically the backbone of our operation."

"We grow a little bit of hay and silage and then we’ve got a sprouting unit that grows us barley fodder. We mix those three products together with a bit of molasses and even some sweet potato to add a bit of variety each day and feed that out into the feed troughs in the cells where the cattle are fattening."

The easiest way of describing the shed is that it’s no bigger than your normal double-car garage. Sprouts are grown in a hydroponic type setup, but it’s the engineering that’s gone into the process that makes it so productive. 

"We put 350kg of barley grain onto the trays then the computers simply water the grain over a five-day period," Rob relates. "It has growing lights for the last couple of days to make the grass green."

"Essentially that 350kg of grain turns into one-and-a-half tonne of fresh, healthy barley fodder on day five."

Using simple mathematics, if you multiply the weight of grain by four you are actually reducing its cost by four times as well – $200 grain becomes $50 grain.

Rob’s response is loud and clear when asked if this type of farming will become more popular.

"Without a doubt, it’s just logical," he asserts.

"With what we’re doing and what we’re achieving it makes sense. If we expanded and had another unit producing another tonne and a half, so we’re ultimately mixing up three tonne of feed for the cattle then we could double our carrying capacity.

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Rob keeps a watchful eye on proceedings as one of the girls adds molasses to the barley sprouts

"It’s an easy way to farm, its foolproof; we don’t have to wait for Mother Nature to give us some moisture to plant. We do it all on our own every day."

At Werribee, the Cooks can turn off 400 head of cattle, fattening them from 350kg up to 600kg.

"If they are in for 120 days, putting on two kilos a day, then they’re already close to that 600kg mark," Rob says.

"We intense feed them for that last little period before they go off to slaughter and that’s where it gets really interesting with what we are doing after we get them slaughtered."

 

Knowing your food

Rob says it all stems with the passion for the industry, which came from his childhood.

"Sitting round the table with mum and dad eating a steak and there’s just no better feeling than knowing where that steak comes from," he says.

"Since we’ve said goodbye to the Territory that’s exactly what we’ve wanted to give to our consumers.

"So essentially we are breeding, backgrounding and fattening and we are now going to be locally slaughtering our cattle and then running it through our own butcher shop, Tender Sprouted Meats, in Bundaberg."

 "We want to be able to give to our consumers that sense that they’re a part of this journey," he adds.

"Essentially we are eating an animal and there’s no glorified way of making that sound better than it is, but if consumers can feel they know where it’s bred, where it’s fattened and they know it’s humanely slaughtered they can feel better about the end product.

"Education of consumers will play a big part in the future of agriculture in Australia."

The Cooks intend on selling directly to the local market through the shop front and as the brand grows, tap into the internet and sell over the web.

 

Mix of technology and hard work

Labour is a big cost factor with every aspect of agriculture. Through technology and some innovative ways of farming Rob says they are slowly minimising the impact of costs on their operation.

Sensors automatically send phone alerts if the water supply to the sprouting shed runs low and cameras are used so that Rob can remotely monitor water points and stock.

A recently acquired Faresin feed mixer wagon prepares the daily feed ration for optimum digestibility. The mixer wagon has made the job of daily feeding a simple one for Sarah or one of the backpacker staff that comes and goes on a regular basis.

Find Faresin mixer wagons for sale

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Meals on wheels. The sight of dinner arriving in the Faresin feed mixer quickly gets the attention of the Brangus steers.

They are about to install an automatic walkover weighing system to further aid management and monitoring of stock weights.

The system also works as a drafting gate. It is possible to program a weight, of say 350kg, and then it will automatically draft off anything above that weight ready for transport back to Werribee for finishing.

It will do the job of three men. Weigh, read the electronic tag, record and draft. No wages, no sick days, no holidays and no whinging.

And of course Rob’s mobile phone serves to keep him in contact with those around him. He tells me how one of his female backpacker workers repaired the gearbox on the truck by going underneath it and filming what she could see with his phone.

She would then show the footage to him and he would tell her what to do. Backwards and forwards she went till the job was done and the truck was back on the road again, proving nothing is impossible if you have the will to succeed.

 

Behind every good man

The saying, "behind every good man is a good woman" is true, but in this case I think it is more like "beside this good man is an extraordinary woman".

 "Without Sarah by my side none of this would be possible," Rob confirms.

"For Sarah’s 30th birthday I bought her a pair of gloves and a welding helmet. Then she learnt to weld, which is pretty cool."

"Sarah has input into everything we build. She has a heavy combination licence so drives the truck and dog trailer carting stock between the properties. It’s phenomenal."

"Plus, keeping the house running, kids to school and football. She just never stops."

 

Looking forward

Farming can be a tough game in many ways. His advice to others is to always keep in mind what drew you to farming in the first place.

"It’s simple really," he says.

"The demands and stresses on farmers are as big of an issue today as they have ever been, there’s the pressure of the drought and all the forms of depression running around, but I think people just need to step back once in a while and remind themselves why they are in agriculture and let that passion bloom again.

"Finish one thing and feel that sense of accomplishment and then move onto the next thing," he adds.

"We’re just young fellas having a go.

"We may not get it right all the time, but we’re not going to get too caught up if we get it wrong. We’re just going to keep looking forward and focus on the positives of life in agriculture."

You can also read the full feature in Farms and Farm Machinery magazine issue 328. To subscribe to the magazine, click on the relevant links below:

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