NORTHERN export feeder steer rates continue to fall, raising questions as to what price level will be low enough to stimulate strong renewed demand from Indonesia.
But prices may be the least pressing factor dominating exporter attentions this week, after Federal Labor today hardened its stance by supporting a wholesale ban of sheep exports, while rumours swirl of more potentially damaging footage ahead.
If exporters thought the fallout from the recent 60 Minutes expose of thousands of sheep dying in appalling conditions enroute to the Middle East would be short-lived, or would be dissipated by committing to another round of reforms last week, they have been mistaken.
Federal Labor had initially called for the sheep trade to the Middle East to be suspended, pending the outcome of a review of the trade led by veterinarian Michael McCarthy and commissioned by Ag Minister David Littleproud.
However, with the review outcome still two weeks away, Labor today hardened its stance and now says it will end live sheep exports if it wins government.
“If we can focus more on premium markets, chilled lamb for example, to those burgeoning middle class markets in Asia, we can lift the profitability of our farmers,” Labor Agriculture spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon said.
“This can be a win-win.”
Mr Littleproud criticised Labor for not waiting for the findings of the McCarthy review.
“With the science just two weeks away, Labor rushes to a knee-jerk ban, punishing farmers who have done no wrong,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Labor does not have the temperament to lead this country as it refuses to wait for the evidence.”
Animals Australia and the RSPCA are both continuing to step up political pressure to ban the trade, today offering a combined $1 million between them for sheep farmers if the government agrees to phase out the trade.
The Australian Livestock Exporter’s Council said it was important the findings of the McCarthy review, expected next week, were not pre-empted.
“Knee-jerk reactions are not the answer. The welfare of the animals and the livelihoods of Australian farmers rely substantially on a rational, evidence-based response that delivers long-term change,” an ALEC statement said.
“If live sheep exports were to cease, Australia would be neglecting its responsibility as a world leader in animal welfare and the driver of ongoing improvement of global livestock practices.
“The sweeping reforms endorsed by ALEC members on April 18 proves our industry is following through on our promise to drive cultural change. We are embracing reduced summer stocking densities, independent observers on voyages and using the latest science to measure livestock welfare.”
Another review commissioned by Minister Littleproud last week – the Moss Review into the capability, culture and investigative powers of the independent regulator (the Department of Agriculture) – is ongoing.
While the industry has been dealing with the fallout of the latest sheep trade scandal, rumours have been building for some weeks now that an animal rights group is planning to release footage of Australian cattle being mistreated in Vietnam during week’s Beef 2018 expo in Rockhampton.
Rumours range from the footage being recently acquired to recycled older footage, but all versions suggest that regardless of what it shows or contains, it has been held and timed for relase during next week’s industry showcase event in order to cause maximum damage to the trade.
However, no one Beef Central has spoken to has been able to point to any further evidence of the rumoured footage existing.
For its part Animals Australia told Beef Central it has no plans to release footage next week – “Definitely nothing to do with us – not sure where the rumours have come from but we don’t have anything” a spokesperson said – while the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources also denied it has received footage that would match descriptions doing the rounds.
It’s either a case of where there is smoke there is fire, or of the industry jumping at shadows as it faces more immense pressure to justify its existence to a public that must be just about out of patience with continued claims that new fixes will work.
The one line repeated by several people Beef Central spoke to in the industry this week is that ultimately animal activists can only fire bullets at the trade that the trade itself gives them to fire.
Meanwhile prices for steers being shipped from Darwin this week, contracted three weeks ago, stand at around 285c/kg. Some reports of prices being paid for stock being contracted this week indicate a price level of around 270-275c. This represents a drop in price of about 50c/kg in the past two months.
Large numbers of heavy feeder cattle have been sold to Indonesia and Vietnam at prices only 5 cents below rates being paid for lighter feeder cattle.
One experienced trade source suggested that in the case of Vietnam, this trend was due to a recent improvement in the local market for beef, and importers looking to increase supply quickly in response.
With Indonesia the demand for heavier cattle is seen as a possible effort to reduce risk during extremely difficult trading conditions for importers by reducing time on feed.
“But we are also seeing more demand for lighter cattle from the good feeders,” the trade source said. “A couple of feedlots did not buy much in February and March due to wet season price and they now need cattle on feed quickly for Ramadan, so they are chasing heavy cattle.”
The lower prices have increased the level of inquiry from Indonesian importers, but, are yet to trigger a distinct increase in shipping volumes.