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I've seen and know that helicopter mustering is popular in Australia and what I do not understand is why this works from a business perspective.

Helicopters are expensive and dangerous machines so it does not seem cost effective to round up cattle and livestock when it could be done, not as quickly, by people on the ground with ATVs and other wheeled vehicles. Not to mention the low-level flying is very demanding and tough on the machines and maintenance.

Surely it would be cheaper to employ extra people than pay the expensive hourly rate of a helicopter?

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    $\begingroup$ Speaking of "things you wouldn't expect would be profitable to do by helicopter but are", apparently helicopter-based cherry drying is a thing that exists. $\endgroup$ – HiddenWindshield May 2 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect it comes down to terrain and distances .. Some of the large stations in the northern parts of australia are really large (like 10-20,000 sqkm) - entegra.com.au/…. Also the videos I've seen often have a water component in them / water buffalo - and that's going to be hard work at ground level .. $\endgroup$ – Mr R May 2 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ @MrR I can confirm, having done aerial mustering, that without a plane it could take a whole day just to locate the livestock in a paddock. Undulating terrain, trees, gullies make it difficult to quickly travel the distance on the ground. $\endgroup$ – fabspro May 2 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Yes, that's why they're asking a question here. I'm not sure what the point of your comment is. $\endgroup$ – Chris Hayes May 3 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisHayes I suspect that Ron's point was that the statement "Surely it would be cheaper..." should really be "Surely I must be missing something...". $\endgroup$ – user2705196 May 3 at 13:07
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Two reasons:

  1. It is way faster and allows one person with a relatively cheap-to-run R-22 to do the work of several cowboys. You're paying for the cowboy 24-7 if they are on staff, which is usually the case on a sprawling and remote ranch/station where you have to keep them on full time (and the horse if using them); you're only paying for the machine (direct hourly operating costs at least) while it's running.
  2. It almost eliminates losses from stragglers that get missed and later become dinner for predators. This feature was a welcome surprise when gyrocopters and helicopters were first tried out. Originally, gyrocopters were used to help out with the cowboys, mainly to hunt for strays that couldn't be seen from ground level. When the R22 came out, being able to hover and maneuver in confined areas, it became feasible to do both the mustering and overwatch role from the air.

Between the two, the business case starts to favour the helicopter. If it didn't, they wouldn't do it. Granted, it is pretty dangerous flying, not for the faint of heart, but there are lots of young pilots keen for a thrill.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your note about "paying for the cowboy 24-7" might not necessarily be clear if someone isn't familiar with exactly how isolated (and enormous) Aussie cattle stations can be. Perhaps add a bit more context to that? $\endgroup$ – Sebastian Lenartowicz May 3 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @SebastianLenartowicz - Actually, it would be similar regardless of the area. Even in the US, the majority of cattle hands are either permanent, seasonal, temporary, or as needed. Very few will be paid hourly. This is a job without a punch clock. Maybe a time sheet can be used for part-timers and as-needed personnel. But, the hours can be so long and varied, that it would not make sense to pay per hour. On the other hand, an R-22 can be operated for $100-200 an hour, not including the pilot. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. May 3 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ I recall when reading about Aussie helicopter mustering years ago that the savings from the reduction in losses from overlooked strays was surprisingly high and is really what clinched the business case. $\endgroup$ – John K May 3 at 16:27
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Personally, I don't see how it's financially viable in most situations, but I'm guessing it's financially viable in a few situations or when shorthanded.

Although horses are expensive to "maintain", almost every ranch already has them. Feed and medical are the two largest expenses, and you're going to be providing that whether or not you are using them for mustering/herding. Horses fart and breathe, but besides that, they don't produce exhaust. I'm guessing they produce methane, but I've never measured it myself. They also produce manure that enriches the soil. Their hooves help break up the soil, which allows grasses and plants to prosper. Animals like horses, bison, and cattle are good the health of the land.

ATVs are inexpensive to fuel and somewhat inexpensive to maintain; they are not too expensive to purchase. ATVs produce toxic exhaust. Unlike horses, they compact the soil, which inhibits grasses and plants from growing. Over time, ATVs can be bad for the land, but using them on the same tracks can significantly help reduce this degradation.

Helicopters are expensive to purchase (or rent) and time-consuming to properly maintain. Fuel and maintenance costs will depend on the model. Helicopters produce toxic exhaust. Helicopters can cause loose soil to get moved, but this is usually not a problem, as the net effect is usually minimal.

There are two situation where I can see a helicopter being an advantage over horses and ATVs:

  1. When you are shorthanded. As the size the of the herd increases, and the size of the range increases, you need more cowgirls and cowbows on horses or ATVs to manage the task. A helicopter could help in shorthanded situations.

  2. When the range exceeds that which horses or ATVs can travel while having the feed/water or fuel they need. For horses, this depends entirely on the breed, condition, and age of the horses and the breed, condition, and age of the herd. If appropriate and sufficient food/water will not be available for the horses, but will be available for the herd, horses may not be viable. I have never seen this happen, but I could create a contrived example to make it happen, and it's possible such real-world examples exist. For ATVs, I think it's more obvious.

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to John K whatsoever, I will politely disagree with two of the reasons he posted:

  1. Speed. The limiting factor of moving a herd is typically the speed of the herd itself. A helicopter does not move a herd faster (unless you are doing something inappropriate with the helicopter and causing the animals undue stress).

  2. Stragglers. Skilled ranchers don't leave stragglers. Yes, mistakes can happen (such as an animal stuck in the brush and not being seen), but they are very rare, and a helicopter could make the same mistake. Since a helicopter pilot cannot hear an animal crying, a calf calling its cow, or its cow responding, I think the risk of stragglers would actually be greater with a helicopter. It's possible a helicopter provides some sort of advantage here that I'm not thinking of, but I have never flown a helicopter for this purpose, so I am not personally aware of any. A helicopter could sweep a large area after moving a herd, but I've always used fixed-wing aircraft for periodic sweeps of large areas, not a helicopter.

John did mention cost, and I wonder if this is a primary factor. Cost will depend on many factors and variables, so we don't have a clear picture. I can create theoretical situations where employing helicopters would be cost-efficient, and those in which they would not be. But since there are at least a dozen different variables at play, it would really depend on the exact situation.

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  • $\begingroup$ A lot is going to depend on terrain. In open & fairly flat country, I can see how a helicopter might be useful. Around here, where a lot of the open range grazing is small meadows interspersed with forested mountains, probably not useful at all. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 2 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Yes, definitely. In some terrain a helicopter would likely only represent a liability. That said, I watched, with a little disbelief, this guy who trims massive trees using a crazy rig with huge swirling sawblades attached to his helicopter via a shaft. Skilled genius, or a disaster waiting to happen... you decide! (And history will eventually reveal.) $\endgroup$ – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket May 2 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket Those are awesome! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_saw One was used by the villains in a James Bond movie in the 1990s, IIRC. $\endgroup$ – ceejayoz May 2 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @ceejayoz Yes, that is them! Good find! Now that you mention James Bond, I also have a faint recollection of one being used in one of those films or books... (3 minutes elapse...) I found it... The World is Not Enough (1999). I don't know if the aerial saw they used in that movie was an industrial one, or a creation of their prop team (or even full/partial SFX), but that's the general crazy idea! Here's a link to a clip from that movie featuring the aerial saw: youtube.com/watch?v=3aL1VF9zlfM $\endgroup$ – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket May 3 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie: But those amazingly huge ranches are the exception, not the rule. More reasonably-sized ranches do have the horses, and use them, especially in difficult terrain. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 3 at 23:27

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