Live Export

How live exports helped to avert a greater welfare crisis in the north

James Nason, 28/02/2014

Andrew Wilkie is nothing if not persistent.

Three times the Tasmanian independent MP has tried to convince his Parliamentary colleagues to ban the live export trade and three times he has failed. This week, undeterred, he’s back at again, introducing a fourth bill to Parliament that aims to abolish a trade that he believes has no place in a country that values animal welfare.

At the same time, as the impact of a severe drought in far northern Queensland plays out, legitimate questions are being asked about just how much worse the animal welfare situation in the region would have been if not for the sudden re-emergence of major live export orders to Indonesia three months ago.

Since early November the shipping trade has pulled at least 100,000 cattle out of the drought-ravaged region where producers have been struggling to keep cattle alive with no pasture, no access to fodder and no alternative markets.

No one really yet knows how many cattle this drought has claimed so far. North Queensland MP Bob Katter recently put the figure at 5000-10,000 head per day. A few days after he made those comments, Beef Central asked him whether he had received any feedback on the numbers, wondering if they weren’t too high. His big Akubra nodded vigorously in response: “Plenty of feedback,” he said. “People rang to tell me the numbers I’d stated were too low.”

Whatever the actual number, the situation in north Queensland has been dire.

Animal rights activists have been lining up on social media to condemn producers for not selling cattle sooner in the lead up to this drought, and even for running cattle at all in places where droughts are occasionally known to occur.

But the practical reality is that this drought arrived so quickly and so forcefully after three wet La Nina years in a row – and at a time when many producers were carrying more cattle than usual because of the impact of the Indonesian live export ban and subsequent downturn in live export orders – that even those who began selling off cattle very early were still caught with more mouths than their rapidy deteriorating paddocks could support.

The widespread nature of this event has severely exacerbated the problem. When dry times hit, there are usually other places with grass where cattle can be sent or where buyers exist to take drought-destocked cattle. But so extensive has this drought been, no where across eastern seaboard exists to park cattle or to find restockers willing to buy.

Producers did begin to offload cattle in volume as expected rains failed to materialise, but the result was a tsunami of cattle onto the market as everyone tried to destock at the same time. With saleyards oversupplied, meatworks booked months ahead and prices severely depressed anyway, many producers had little choice but to hold their cattle and simply hope it rained.

Against that backdrop, the sudden return of big orders from Indonesia last November could not have come at a more critical time.

It allowed producers to sell cattle, and at good prices compared to anything else available, helping in the process to free-up much-needed paddock space for remaining stock.

“Words couldn’t describe the situation we would be in without that live export operation,” well known northern Queensland livestock agent, Luke Westaway from TopX Richmond, told Beef Central this week.

“You couldn’t imagine what the alternative was to not having that market.”

The live export trade had provided an important release valve, MLA chief economist Tim McCrae said.

“(Without live exports) It would have put additional pressure on a market that was already going flat out to try and process cattle in what has been one of the worse years we have seen,” he said.

“It was a release valve that allowed 100,000 cattle to go north that didn’t have to worry the (domestic) supply chain.”

That 100,000 were able to be quickly removed from a severely drought-stressed region and shipped to feedlots in Indonesia stacks up as a clear win for animal welfare.

It is worth considering that had any of Andrew Wilkie’s previous attempts to end the trade been successful, those cattle would still be competing for non-existent feed in North Queensland or adding further pressure to an already oversupplied domestic cattle market.

There is also a view that animal rights groups could achieve more for animal welfare by investing some of the millions of dollars they receive in public donations each year on buying feed to help starving drought-afffected cattle, rather than on public pressure campaigns designed to shut down a trade which has repeatedly played a significant disaster relief role.

After all, isn’t t animal welfare the name of their game?

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