A RARE chance to hear a different side of the live export industry was given at Beef 2018 in Rockhampton when two stockmen who work on ships spoke of their experiences.
The frank and honest admissions of Ben Giblet from Wellards and Richard Leitch from Fares Rural Exports provided an insight into the day-to-day workings of a live cattle export ship and the progress that has been made.
Richard Leitch said he saw from his first voyage 18 years ago that there were issues that needed to be sorted out.
“I’ve ended up making my life on-ship and have worked hard to make improvements,” Mr Leitch said.
“It was a real mess 20 years ago, but it has gone from no communication on board to a lot of communication on board, and things have come a long way.”
Mr Leitch said he remains involved in the live shipping trade because he would like to see the improvements continue.
“There is nothing better than taking that shipment of cattle, watch them come on board, look after them to the best of your ability and see them at other end with a weight gain, very low mortalities and no injuries,” he said.
“In other words, cattle you wouldn’t be embarrassed to take home to your own property.”
Doing the best he can by his stock underpins every decision he makes.
But he said it was not always as well-run as it is today.
“In the bad old days, there were no weight restrictions (on cattle being shipped), no bedding, ships were older and clumsy and it was really, really, hard, hard going,” Mr Leitch said.
“We would get a load out of Portland or Adelaide, they would be 550kg big, fat Angus or Hereford steers, and they would already start to pant before we got to the equator.
“In those cases we were flat out doing what we could, flat out keeping the ship clean, keeping waters clean, decreasing their intake of pellets, increasing their chaff so they don’t get that hot fermentation going on in their stomachs.
“It is all about preventing the problems that are coming.”
But sometimes things did go wrong. “Who do you talk to, to get the message across about necessary change?”
Mr Leitch said he had been lucky working with the company he did, Fares Rural Exports, as the owner had listened.
“We said we want nice, lean shipping cattle and Queensland cattle are the best cattle in the world for the live export trade,” he said.
“What made a big difference in those days was that they listened. We had vets on board doing research and finding out cattle over 500kg cannot survive in those conditions.”
While the world has been shocked by the recent footage viewed on 60 Minutes, Mr Leitch said he was, too.
“The footage we have seen now is bloody disgraceful, and the worst thing about it is that some people think that is routine in the trade,” he said.
“I can tell you right now – we do not operate like that, so I’m pretty gutted about the whole thing to be honest with you.”
Having worked in the industry for nearly two decades, Mr Leitch said the biggest benefit for safe shipping was to look at cattle at quarantine before they get loaded.
He likes to see for himself how the cattle look and see if perhaps some have dietary scours and note those cattle that in his words, “don’t look very happy”.
“I will make a mental note of a pen and keep a closer eye on then,” he said.
Mr Leitch said good crew was also essential to a safe shipment and he spoke highly of his Pakistani crew members, many of whom come from small farms.
“Because those guys are monitoring different areas of the ship, if they have confidence you will do something, they will tell you. The worst thing you can do is take no notice as they will stop telling you.”
Respect for the crew was also vital.
“If you can get the crew working the way you work, then you can get so much more done,” Mr Leitch said.
And while there are definitely challenging times, Mr Leitch said a good sense of humour helped.
“We did a load of dairy cows from Uruguay to China, and the boys were milking any cows that were squirting milk to keep them clean and tidy,” he said.
“We then did a load out of Darwin, and we had a pen of old Brahman cows which were squirting milk and the boys said chief can we milk this one. I said hang on I’ll get my camera and you can have a go. To have that kind of camaraderie with your crew makes it really good fun.”
Part of the change
Fellow stockman Ben Giblet started working in the live export trade 13 years ago and after three years, was able to travel on some of the biggest live sheep export ships as well as in cattle exports.
He has spent six years on board vessels and says he has been part of the change that has happened.
“From what it was to now, being able to see changes, I can sleep better at night, it’s a good feeling to be a part of,” he said, during Beef 2018.
The greater understanding of the industry has been born from a mix of good and bad experiences.
“About 10 years ago, we were loading a boat out of Darwin and the last pen on had about 80 head in it,” Mr Giblet said. “Before the vessel had even untied from port, we had lost three, and in the time we went from Darwin to Indonesia in four days, we lost about 80.
“We tried the best we could to isolate and treat them. The ventilation was fine, they just had very bad respiratory disease issues, so we had to ride it out, treat and medicate as best we could.”
It was something that clearly imprinted on Mr Giblet and has made him welcome changes he’s seen both on ship and on-farm.
“Producers are starting to get better genetics out there, and phase-out those cattle that don’t travel well, and not marketable,” he said. “We just don’t have those issues anymore.”