Impacts on SA cattle herd

Drought had the most severe impact on the State’s cattle herd particularly in the pastoral areas during the early years. Cattle numbers would build up in a series of above average years and wipe out fortunes in a single season. An example would be the 1864-65 drought as can be seen in the graph below when the State’s cattle herd halved. Gibbs reports that the area beyond Mount Serle  carried 30,000 cattle in 1864 but it fell to 7,761 by the end of 1866.(Gibbs RM, A History of South Australia, Peacock Publications, Kent Town, SA, (1969))

The following graph traces the state’s cattle herd from Proclamation to current times. It demonstrates the impact of seasons, disease and available markets on the herd.


  1. In 1837 cattle were first overlanded to fill meat shortage in SA and then followed by other droves from Victoria and NSW. Demand for bullocks for draft and meat increased as population expanded away from Adelaide. A drought in 1854 held the numbers down.
  2. From 1855 to 1857 the cattle population expanded with a series of above average seasons. However with no substantial markets for beef, growth faltered when supply exceeded demand.
  3. 1859 and 1860 were below average years and they took their toll on cattle numbers but with pleuro pneumonia hitting the herd (1863) and rabbits decimating pastures numbers collapsed, and with the 1864-69 drought numbers were at bedrock. By the1870’s boiling down works were established to dispose of the surplus cattle. Goyder’s Line established.
  4. HB Hughes established a canning plant at Booyoolee in 1864. In the decade 1869-79 the Australian meat preserving industry exported some 65,000 tons of preserved meats to England. This trade was stimulated by the demand for meat resulting from the shortage induced by cattle plague in England, and was aided by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 plus the virtual lack of competition from the Americas until late in the decade. Pleuro inoculation became available. Wire and post fencing replaced shepherds improving management efficiency.
  5. 1881 began a series of below average seasons resulting in a fall in numbers again.
  6. 1885 to 1892 a series of above average years and numbers again built up.
  7. 1890’s -average to below average rainfall years; 1895 freezing works established at Port Adelaide.
  8. Good seasons and refrigeration adopted and frozen meat trade expanded. 1907 – export abattoir established at Port Adelaide.
  9. 1914 drought and World War Two labour impact.
  10. 1916-23 extremely good seasons and numbers expand.
  11. Poorer seasons and rabbit numbers impact on pasture resulting in cattle numbers declining. Great Depression depresses cattle demand.
  12. 1930 – cattle retained during depression then a series of seasons where below average rains only last one year; Myxomatosis effective against rabbits, Pasture improvement and expansion in the South East.
  13. Cattle numbers boom due to depressed wool prices and great demand for beef from North America.
  14. American market collapses, State “overstocked” and two years of drought in 1976/77 result in a crash in cattle numbers and a further decline in the 1982/83 drought, probably to below sustainable levels.
  15. Gradual increase in numbers, (calici virus impact on rabbits) with dips as seasons vary, markets change and wool prices deteriorate.

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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