Where's the beef? In Australia, mate.

After a record year for cattle ranchers Down Under, Australia's meat industry is forecasting more boom times ahead.

Cameron Rasheed is steering his SUV across White Hole Paddock toward a spot of green on a horizon otherwise dominated by the golden glow of acre after acre of sun-dried grass.

Finches dart out by the dozen and the occasional sleepy kangaroo eyes him curiously, as little brown dots slowly emerge from the green and come into focus.

Finally, Mr. Rasheed arrives at the edge of what turns out to be a fertile lakebed carpeted with high-protein "blue grass." "If I were a cow, this is where I'd be," declares the softspoken assistant manager of Brunette Downs, a 3-million-acre cattle station in Australia's Northern Territory.

From Europe to South America, the world's cattle industry has been hit hard in the past year, as outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease followed concerns over so-called mad cow disease.

But Australia has been free of such problems, and - after tough times in the 1990s - cattle farmers here now are enjoying what analysts say is the best season in more than three decades.

Australian cattle prices are up 40 percent this year alone. It's a profitable time to own part of the 28-million-strong herd that underlies Australia's long-standing place as the world's top beef exporter, providing some 22 percent of the global export market.

"These are very buoyant times," says Peter Weeks, chief analyst for Meat and Livestock Australia, an industry body.

Even with talk of recession in its two key markets - Japan and the US together buy about 75 percent of Australia's annual beef exports - Mr. Weeks says that Australian cattle farmers are exporting record numbers of cattle at record prices.

Foreign buyers have come in droves to buy cheap meat, attracted by a weak Australian dollar. This is happening at a time when consumer demand has risen in the US and other developed countries.

Combine that with reduced competition from European and South American producers as a result of foot-and-mouth outbreaks, along with back-to-back plentiful rainy seasons in Australia's often-arid northern regions, and it all sounds like a cattleman's dream.

But Weeks cautions that the Australian dollar could rise and disease might hit Australia. Still, some in the industry think the good times are here to stay. Peter Holmes à Court, chief executive of the Australian Agricultural Company, Australia's second-largest cattle company and the owner of Brunette Downs, argues that the country's reputation for "clean," or "disease-free," beef will help extend the good run.

"Thirty percent of the world's 'clean' beef has been removed from world markets," he says. "If we're standing in Australia, 30 percent of our competitors in a lot of markets are gone."

Mr. Holmes à Court is so convinced of the good times ahead that he is working to increase the Australian Agricultural Company's herd from 400,000 head of cattle to a million by 2006, which would make it the world's largest cattle company.

But then, the Australian cattle industry has always been unique because of its scale. Visit any of its large cattle ranches, called "stations," and you encounter daunting numbers.

Brunette Downs, by no means the largest of Australia's stations, is home to almost 70,000 head of cattle. When Rasheed goes out to check on them, it's often by plane, from one of 18 airstrips on the property. Roundups are often done by helicopter.

The latest rainy season has left the station with a 770-square mile lake, full for the first time since the mid-1970s.

Ben Wratten, one of the station's head stockmen (cowboys) has just returned from the lake area, checking on a group of cattle stranded by floodwaters since March. After finding them feeding on that prized "blue grass," Mr. Wratten says, with pride, "There's nothing better than the sight of fat, healthy cattle."

Indeed, for Australia's cattle producers too - after lean years last decade - there's nothing better than the fat and healthy times now.

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