Beef industry trailblazer Helen Sykes, 89, oversees family’s 50th annual bull sale

ABC Rural / By Sarah Price/ March 2023

Helen Sykes started life 89 years ago in the Victorian High Country, where they breed their people the way they breed their cattle: tough.  The Sykes family’s annual bull sale is always important, but this year there was an extra celebration as the 50th anniversary sale took place. Watching over it all was the woman who was there when it all began.

Sipping on coffee and sitting in the gentle autumn sun as the sale kicked off, Mrs Sykes, 89, said getting involved in the industry was in her blood.
“I lived right up on the High Country at a place called Wulgulmerang. It’s in the Snowy Mountain country. My father, Dick Rogers, had been brought up on Black Mountain, which was a huge cattle station,” Mrs Sykes said.

Cattle in the snow at Helen and Robert Sykes’ property in Gippsland’s High Country.

“My father ran his stock in the bush because the land was not fenced off in those days. “When we actually settled down onto a property we had Hereford cattle, as well as sheep. This was our bread and butter.”

As a teenager, Mrs Sykes visited many studs with her father, looking for suitable females for the herd.

Mrs Sykes, her parents and her sisters moved from Wulgulmerang to Swan Reach when she was a teenager and it was there that Norwood Hereford stud began, laying the foundations of what became Mawarra Genetics many years later.

Helen Sykes with some young calves from her father’s Norwood Hereford stud in the late 1940s.

Cattle trailblazer

Now a great-grandmother, Mrs Sykes was integral to the makings of what Mawarra Genetics is today.

During the 1950s she worked in the United Kingdom as an occupational therapist, but the cattle and mountains of East Gippsland came calling, and she left a career and a city life she loved to return home. She later created the first-ever Hereford webpage in Australia after enrolling herself in a three-day course to learn how to use computers during the early 1990s.

“Learning to do computers, I was absolutely scared stiff,” she said. “Some people have been scared of embracing that side of things. I just saw it as an opportunity. “Overseas, I could see webpages talking about their cattle, their aims and breeding programs. So I just thought it’s a great opportunity to do the same in Australia.”

The biggest change she’s seen over the years is the technological advances within the cattle industry.

“In our day, all the breeding administration was done with pen and pencil. Nowadays, the technology has changed to mostly digital,” Mrs Sykes said.

“I was very lucky to have a son-in-law who was really up in computers. He would just sit and teach me how to work with them as well. “In the end, I found that we couldn’t move forward in the industry without computers. I just did it.

“It’s all about just doing it.”

A family inspiration

Mawarra Genetics is still a successful family-run cattle stud business based in Longford, near Sale in eastern Victoria. Mrs Sykes and her late husband Robert married in 1964 and moved back to the mountains at Gelantipy. Their son, Peter, continued to run the Gelantipy stud station after his parents retired.

In 2002, all the companies were moved to Longford under Mawarra Genetics.

Anita, Helen and Robert Sykes with Dick Green when the Mawarra stud won its first champion ribbon at Adelaide Royal Show in 1979.

“We’re really proud of the legacy that my mother-in-law Helen and my father-in-law Robert started way back in the ’60s,” Deanne Sykes said. “To think that we’ve come full circle to a 50th anniversary of cattle sales is really incredible. We’ve got all our children involved and our grandchild, so it’s very special.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume. Deanne Sykes, who runs the business management side of Mawarra, said her mother-in-law was her “greatest inspiration and best friend”. “Helen is incredible. She’s an absolute trailblazer, as well as Robert. Their cattle and business skills were amazing because they developed this wonderful project which my husband Peter has continued to develop,” she said.

Deanne’s father-in-law and Helen’s husband Peter passed away 11 years ago. The Mawarra legacy continues to this day with Helen Sykes still a major part of the family business and gatherings.

“Helen’s marketing was trailblazing because she had the first Hereford website and newsletter in this country,” Deanne Sykes said.”I’ve learned an enormous amount from her, and I’m just really fortunate to have her as a mother-in-law and best friend. She continues to be an inspiration at almost 90 years of age.”