Beef 2024 Preview

The key issues that have defined each Rocky Beef Expo, since 1988

Jon Condon, 27/02/2024

Today marks the launch of Beef Central’s official preview coverage for the industry’s major Beef 2024 event being staged in Rockhampton in early May.

Over the next ten weeks, a comprehensive package of information will be published, designed to guide readers and those attending, or even just keeping track of the event through the information and entertainment-packed week-long program.

A dedicated section on the Beef Central website will house our pre-event coverage, as well as the reports generated once the event gets underway on May 5.

 

Michelle Landry opens the Beef Australia Industry Symposium held in 2015.

THE Rockhampton Beef Expo events held every three years since 1988 has provided a valuable industry snapshot of the big-picture issues that have guided, and in some cases buffeted the Australian meat and livestock industry.

Having participated in all 12 Beef Expos staged since 1988, and lining up for our thirteenth in May, gives Beef Central an opportunity to reflect on what’s captured the industry’s attention at each of the past events.

It goes almost without staying that seasonal conditions have had a big bearing on each event’s mood, over the years. The Beef 2015 event, Beef 2003 (still bearing the scars from the 2002 drought) and Beef 97 were good examples where poor seasons left an impact. But equally, 2021 and again this year are reflecting a buoyant industry mood, under more than favourable seasonal conditions.

Here’s a quick summary:

Beef 88, 1988 – BreedPlan emerges

When the Rockhampton Beef Expo was founded in 1988 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations, nobody foresaw that it would grow into the giant it would become. The first event was primarily a large stud cattle and prime cattle show, with a single conference session attached. Much of the discussion in the conference session and around trade exhibits was around productivity improvement – pastures, stock handling equipment and fencing, nutrition and animal health.

Given that ABRI’s BreedPlan genetic evaluation system had been launched only two years earlier, there was a strong herd recording emphasis during the first Expo event.

Breedplan built a platform for innovation and value that has revolutionised not just the Australian cattle industry, but livestock industries across the world. Before BreedPlan, the only way to assess the worth of a bull was by eye-balling and making ‘educated guesses’ about his traits, or to draw on a breeder’s hand-written records. In contrast, BreedPlan, which was still very new at the time of Beef 88, drew on objective measurements of how a bull’s offspring performed, then fed those measurements into a computer to build a comparison of how the calves thrown compared with the calves of all the other bulls in the database.

To indicate just how far genetic technology progress has come, at the last Rocky event in 2021, visitors were told that 20-minute crushside full DNA profile testing could be seen in the beef industry within a few years.

 

1991 – Japan market liberalisation

The world started to change for the Australian beef industry when the enormous Japanese market agreed to liberalise beef trade terms in 1990.

Prior to that, all trade with Japan was via Government channels, which in turn distributed product to food service operators, hotels, supermarkets etc. With no direct connection between the Australian exporter and their ultimate customer in Japan, there was little, if any feedback or guidance provided on performance.

After market liberalisation, it became patently obvious that Japan greatly valued quality over price in beef imports. It sparked growth in chilled beef exports, and meat quality – and the right ways to achieve it – suddenly became a much greater priority.

A Japanese trade representative was a keynote speaker during Beef 91, starting the process of building bridges with the Australian industry that would last until this day.

 

1994 – Chiller assessment, Ausmeat carcase feeback

The way Australian beef cattle were priced, and the feedback provided on their carcases was undergoing profound change by the time Beef 94 was staged.

Two year earlier AusMeat had introduced the new concept of Chiller Assessment, and producers started receiving AusMeat Feedback Sheets on each animal’s carcase performance. Instead of animal being bought simply on weight, dentition and bruising, suddenly traits like fat cover, fat and meat colour, marbling, pH and ossification started to come into industry language and payment systems. By the time Beef 94 was staged, more than 40 large Australian processors were using AusMeat chiller assessment to describe their product.

Three years earlier at Beef 1991, AusMeat CEO John Hall gave his now famous ‘Climb to Everest’ speech, and by the 1994 event, much attention was being placed on chiller assessment traits, and how producers could improve them. Some of the first producer education about ways to manage ‘dark cutting’ in carcases took place in Rockhampton during Beef 94.

 

1997 – The dawn of MSA

Australia’s world leading Meat Standards Australia grading system can lay claim to having at least part of its origins in the Rocky Beef Expos. A notorious episode where beef served at one of the earlier Expo events proved all but inedible provided one of the catalysts for change. By early 1997, the MSA eating quality standards system had completed commercial trials in the southeast Queensland market, and was poised for launch. MSA steering committee chair David Crombie and David Palmer provided a Beef 97 address on how the process would unfold. Another hot conference topic was the impact that the Asian currency crisis was having on beef and live cattle exports and demand across the region at the time.

 

Beef 2000 – Entire industry embraces event

Prior to Beef 2000, the triennial Rocky Expo was predominantly a livestock sector affair, with a smaller live export component. By 2000, for the first time, the event was being embraced by all stakeholders across the beef chain, including lotfeeders, processors, beef exporters and livestock exporters.

 

Beef 2003 – BSE scourge shakes global beef

The hot topic during Beef 2003 was the global impact being seen from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) discovered in cattle in Japan September 2001, followed by Canada and the US in 2002 and early 2003. Both markets saw dramatic reductions in demand for imported and domestic beef, which in some cases took years to recover.  Not surprisingly, protecting Australia’s unequalled disease-free animal status also came sharply into focus during seminar sessions, both regarding BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease.

 

Beef 2006 – DNA based animal selection?

The 2006 event laboured under the effects of some of the worst drought conditions seen in Eastern Australia in 100 years in some cattle regions. The event also saw the earliest references to the possible future use of DNA-based animal genetic selection tools.

 

Beef 2009 – Global recession, and other headwinds

While the medium and long-term prospects for the Australian beef industry still looked bright, the short-term landscape and outlook in 2009 had been altered by a turbulent first half. Global recessions, financial upheaval, unprecedented currency fluctuations and changing consumer preferences all impacted red meat demand, Beef 2009 event patrons were told. Meanwhile the supply outlook continued to be framed by the contrasting seasons between the favourable conditions across the north and long-term drought still gripping parts of southern Australia.

Reflecting the tougher economic conditions in 2009, beef consumers in almost all markets, both domestic and overseas, were ‘trading-down’ towards cheaper, more affordable beef items, or other proteins like chicken. This in effect boosted demand at the fast food and retail sectors, and pushed up prices for manufacturing beef, but lowered demand and prices for prime beef cuts, Beef 2009 seminar audiences were told.

 

2012 – live export market closure, weather impacts

By the time beef 2012 was staged in April that year, the northern industry was still reeling from the previous year’s Indonesian live export market suspension – and it continued to feature prominently in Beef 2012 conference and seminar sessions.

In the wake of the two wettest years on record in 2010 and 2011, along with a wet first half of 2012, the Australian cattle producers had undertaken herd rebuilding enthusiastically, enticed by the greatly improved seasonal conditions compared to the previous drought plagued decade and higher cattle prices. By June 2012, the Australian cattle herd was estimated to stand at 29.5 million head – its largest national herd since 1977. Both Queensland and the NT had their largest cattle herds on record, making up more than 52.5pc of the national herd.

However the brightest light for the Australian beef and cattle industry heading into the back half of 2012 was the state of the US beef industry, following extreme drought in north America. Underpinned by a 60 year low US cattle herd, conference seminars heard forecasts for record US cattle and beef prices and falling US beef production, all expected to deliver positives for the Australian export sector in 2013 and several years beyond.

 

2015 – Chinese takeaway

In early 2015, China was starting to open up as a significant new market for Australian beef exports. The previous year ended December, volume had exploded to 138,000t, having taken only 30,000t a year earlier, and virtually nothing the year before that.

There was an avalanche of new Chinese players thinking about doing beef business out of Australia, or investing directly in the local industry. Consequently the atmosphere at Beef 2015 was like a ‘goldrush’, as importers and exporters were still just beginning to establish relationships; and sort out who was a reliable potential trade contact, and who was a tire-kicker. Beyond meat trade, there was also a heavy presence from potential Chinese investors in Australian meat processing plants, feedlots and cattle production infrastructure. Many failed to materialise.

Of the 1200 overseas people registered for Beef 2015’s ‘Handshakes’ program, around 400 came from China or Hong Kong. By 2018, the frenzy had died down somewhat, with just 135 delegates from China attending.

 

2018 – The dawn of the modern cattle pricing era. Fake meat

The first Beef Expo conference references to plant-based red meat substitutes and so-called ‘fake meat’ appeared during Beef 2018. Cell-based meat production was raised, but was seen more as a ‘laboratory experiment’ than a potential threat at that time.

It was also the dawn of the so-called ‘modern’ cattle pricing era. As this graph shows, cattle prices broke out of an earlier narrow band around 2016, and continued to push higher over the next seven years.

 

2021 – Agtech dominates discussion

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect about the last Beef Expo held in 2021 was the fact that the event was held at all. COVID had seen countless popularly-attended events cancelled over the previous two years due to infection risk, but Beef 2021 organisers managed to navigate a path allowing the event to proceed – albeit with a dramatically reduced international presence.

Ag technology was the unmistakable new trend on show at the 2021 event. Present in all its forms, there was hardly a trade display or conference session where agtech was not discussed or showcased, in some form.

The changing global landscape for beef market access was also a major conference theme. For decades, Australian beef had been protected from direct competition from the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay becaseu of perceived risk of Foot and Mouth Disease. But by 2021,that started to change, with Brazil gaining access to significant market like the US and China, as biosecurity concerns over FMD began to subside. In doing so, it has bought Brazilian beef in much more direct competition with Australian.

 

2024 – Carbon, methane & the US herd

The broader topic of sustainability – and specifically relating to carbon and methane production in livestock – is shaping as a central theme running through many of the conferences and seminars being staged at this year’s Beef 2024 event.

Both the challenges and opportunities in the carbon space, and the major investments the industry and the scientific community have made in enteric methane mitigation, are shaping as key topics during May’s thirteenth Beef expo.

In terms of market prospects, the impact of the dramatic US beef herd decline following years of drought will be a hot topic during seminar sessions.

The US cattle herd are entering their fifth year of liquidation and US cattle prices saw historic peaks in 2023 as herd numbers and US domestic beef production declined.

With the US now forecasting an easing to its drought conditions across key cattle producing regions, a strong and extensive US herd rebuild is expected to start during 2024. The result is expected to be a contraction in the American domestic beef supply, which will create an opportunity for Australian beef in global markets (both within the US and North Asia).

The current forecast from the USDA for 2024 is a 3pc decline in domestic US beef production and an 8pc decline in exports. Alongside a slight rise in imports, this would equate to 725,000 fewer tonnes of beef traded internationally compared to 2022, or a 6pc reduction in global supply. This would have a much larger impact on Australia than other exporters, as Australia is one of the few countries that has similar market access to the US and thus competes directly with the US.

 

 

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