They sit in a tightly-knit circle of foldout camping chairs, surrounded by hay and sleeping cattle. Two families and three generations in Team H Cattle Care are enjoying well-earned moments of relaxation after the day’s competition.
Hayden King is wearing faded blue jeans and a blue button up shirt. He mills about, looking out from under his royal blue trucker cap, Team H’s signature colour, inspecting the animals and their enclosure space.
The blue hat is a point of difference Hayden says helps his small team look professional and stand out among its bigger competitors. He will swap it for an Akubra, in the same royal blue, during events when handlers are not allowed to display team logos.
At just 20, Hayden is one of the youngest full-time cattle handlers at the Royal Melbourne Show, as well as Team H co-leader with longtime friend, Matt Rigano. The “H” originally stood for Hayden. But he says represents the team as a whole.
Hayden earlier competed in the Hoof and Hook competition, commonly known as the beef carcass event, in which handlers show off live cattle before they are sent to the abattoirs the following day. Hayden laughingly says, “Hoof and Hook sounds a bit nicer.”
He speaks of his work with passion. His love for the wide-open space that only country life can offer is evident when he describes the Garfield property, far southeast of Melbourne, where he keeps his cattle. “It’s beautiful there, and always green.”
Both his parents had owned and handled cattle, but sold their farm in the outer area of Garfield, to move closer to the town when Hayden was just four. It was during high school at Marist-Sion College, in Warragul, that Hayden’s interest in cattle was sparked. His grandmother, Margaret Button, recalls him coming home from school one day and asking if he could enrol in the school’s cattle handler’s program. He was only 14 at the time.
From there, she says, he went on to be one the youngest students to branch out on his own, starting with one cow on a friend’s farm and progressing to his own plot of land and his own cattle. She has no doubt Hayden has plans to own a farm one day. “If he makes up his mind he’ll do it. He’s not a kid to give up.”
Hayden’s wakes early early each day to check the cattle, making sure they have food and water, before returning home and getting ready for his full time job at an accounting business in the neighbouring town of Bunyip.
He then drives home to re-check the cattle and see his grandparents, who look after the cattle when he is at work. He repeats this five days a week. He helps out on another farm on Saturdays and tends to his steers on Sundays. The dirt, sores and scratches that mark his hands attest to his strong work ethic. Hayden also studies accounting at RMIT, in Melbourne, more than an hour’s drive from his home.
Relating to his inner city classmates can at times be difficult. He recalls a moment when a classmate said he had never gone over 40 km an hour in a car; Hayden sped at 100 km down a quiet country road the first time he drove. On one occasion, a young woman, from a rural area, knew he was from the country based solely on the boots he was wearing.
Hayden concedes country life has probably led to his missing out on some things his city counterparts have experienced. But the parties and nightclubs never enticed him and he says that the cows keep him entertained. Most importantly he enjoys what he does and wouldn’t want it any other way. “I enjoy seeing Melbourne in the rearview mirror,” he jokes.
His social media presence is minimal. He operates a promotional Facebook account for Team H and a rarely-used personal profile, a far cry from many other people his age. Like most aspects of his life, the Internet serves a direct function to his work on the paddock, allowing him to contact people he has met at other shows and friends he has made through the industry. This easy communication helps farmers and handlers create a sense of community, in what can sometimes be solitary work.
It is this community that drives the industry and that has made Hayden who he is today. Garfield, Team H, his small plot of land and the cattle are just as much a part of him as he is of them. It’s a kind of life unique to country towns and it’s in country towns that Hayden wants to stay.