When Australian troops were fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War 1, Gunnedah embarked on a commercial venture that continues to gather pace more than a century later.
In 1915, the Gunnedah Saleyards on Kamilaroi Highway - known then as the Shire Yards - were built for the princely sum of 2331 pounds, 15 shillings and one penny.
This month the saleyards were earmarked for a $17.6 million redevelopment and upgrade to prepare them for industry changes, with a long term plan of setting up Gunnedah as a centre of protein processing excellence.
The current facilities were not the first livestock saleyards in the Gunnedah region. There were private saleyards built in about 1890 on the outskirts of Gunnedah on either side of Bloomfield Street, and in the early 1900s, livestock agents Berry, King and Ewing established yards near the corner of Bowen Avenue and Osric Street.
Arthur and George Heath also began their agency and livestock auctions in Curlewis in 1909, initially in old bush trucking yards belonging to Pullaming Station and later in their yards.
The Kamilaroi Highway Shire Yards partnered with the Gunnedah Municipal Council and the Liverpool Plains Shire Council.
In 1935, the principal of livestock agents Fleming and Robey, Hector Ross, met George Heath. They decided to start fortnightly sales at Gunnedah on alternate weeks to the sales held in Curlewis. Ross and Heath became known as the Independent Agents. Other livestock agents formed the "Agents Association" and had stock sales at the Shire Yards on alternate weeks.
It wasn't until June 15, 1948, that the Councils approved all livestock agents to sell each week in what became combined sales, the beginning of an economic powerhouse in Gunnedah.
The first significant upgrade of the yards went ahead in the 1950s, with new cattle and sheep yards. At laying the foundation stone for the Gunnedah Abattoir in 1954, livestock agent Arthur Heath told media the saleyards had developed into the most extensive stock selling centre in the North West over the past 20 years.
"Mr Heath said 410,000 sheep, 22,960 cattle and 5416 pigs were sold through the yards in 1953," The Land reported. "Figures for the past nine years showed that 2 million sheep, 214,000 cattle and 53,000 pigs had been sold through the yards."
The saleyards, like any saleyards, were not without problems. In 1951, newspapers reported that 249 sheep died of asphyxiation when they piled on each other to avoid a dog attack. Dog attacks were a problem then, with three kangaroos and an emu killed in Wolseley Park not long before.
In 1959, Liverpool Plains Shire and Gunnedah Municipal Council councillors opened a new amenities building with a dining room, kitchen and change rooms, along with a plaque paying tribute to the late George Heath, "in appreciation of his efforts in establishing regular stock sales in Gunnedah".
In 1967, an office building was constructed.
Gunnedah Saleyards was the first selling country centre to install scales for liveweight selling. Within three years, 34 country saleyards had introduced the scales. The weighbridge complex cost the joint councils $25,000.
The two councils were amalgamated in 1980, and the Gunnedah Saleyards became the domain of the Gunnedah Shire Council. It continued to break records, with cattle yardings of 5102 on March 15, 2002, and then 5335 on December 8, 2009. The record sheep yarding was 27,360 on April 23, 1968. Prices for cattle hit a record high of $1044.08 per head in June 2015 - an average of 259.5c per kilogram. Prices continued to climb, breaking records following the recent drought, topping 490c/kilogram in 2021.
In September 2011, Gunnedah was the second top-selling centre in New South Wales behind Dubbo. In 2012, an $850,000 upgrade and expansion was completed, with a new loading ramp and 60 new selling and holding pens named after livestock agent and former president of the Gunnedah Stock and Station Agents Association Frank Gallen.
The saleyards also include a tribute to W. R. Hewitt and the P. W. Brady Sheep Yards named in honour of Peter Brady.
Gunnedah Saleyards is among the top five saleyards in New South Wales, with sales of up to $80 million worth of cattle in the past few years. In 2020, Gunnedah Shire Council welcomed the announcement by the NSW Government it would contribute $14 million towards a saleyards precinct upgrade.
Gunnedah Shire Mayor Jamie Chaffey said the upgrade, worth a total of $17.6 million, will include: a state-of-the-art office, café and education centre; a new drive-through truck wash; new industry technology; new internal roads and lighting and a raft of other improvements.
"From its beginnings in 1919, the Gunnedah Regional Saleyards has grown to become the fourth largest selling centre of cattle in NSW and the eighth largest in Australia," Cr Chaffey said.
"Up to 120,000 head of cattle are sold each year. With this upgrade, we are poised to become a national leader in the protein industry.
"The way forward for this precinct has been designed following extensive industry and community consultation and will make us a powerhouse among beef-selling facilities across regional NSW and beyond and cement our role in the protein supply chain."
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