Live Export

Live export orders a lifeline for drought-stricken north

James Nason, 13/02/2014

Wellard Rural Exports' MV Ocean Drover Townsville-based livestock agent Tim McHugh says the Northern Queensland cattle industry would be facing a crisis “beyond any thought or comparison” without the recovery that has occurred in live export orders over the past three months.

The failure of a second wet season in a row has already plunged the region’s producers into a crisis situation with feed options all but exhausted and cattle deaths now a grim reality.

Some relief has been received in the form of 25-50mm of storm rain across parched areas of the Gulf over the past week, but that rain event remains far short of what is needed to constitute an effective break.

One positive for producers in recent months has been the ongoing strength of live export orders for 350kg plus cattle to Vietnam and the resurgence in orders for feeder and slaughter weight cattle to Indonesia since November.

An estimated 12 ships have left Townsville since the end of October last year, which Mr McHugh believes is likely to be a record.

At least 50,000 cattle have now been shipped from the NQ port in the past three months, including 10,000 in November, 30,000 in December, and at least another 10,000 since the start of January (official figures for Jan are not yet available but this figure could well be higher).

Many producers further south towards areas such as Belyando and Clermont, who rarely if ever use the live export trade, are also benefitting from the resurgence of orders through Townsville to move cattle from properties where grass and water is now running out.

A lot of Queensland cattle are also being trucked across to Darwin for export from that port, with exporters such as Austrex understood to be moving large numbers of cattle from the Julia Creek, Richmond and Cloncurry regions that way. At the same time cattle are also being exported out of Karumba with 1600 shipped from the NQ Gulf port in November and 1360 in December (official figures for Jan figures are not yet available).

Prices for feeder steers (up to 350kg liveweight) ex-Townsville reached $2/kg at Christmas and are currently sitting at $1.80-$1.90/kg, with slaughter steers (350kg-500kg) fetching around $1.80/kg.

Orders to Vietnam in particular have been very strong out of Townsville in the past six months because of the access to suitable slaughter weight cattle from the catchment area, with one ship having left for the market last week and another currently being filled for export next week.

Mr McHugh said he personally believed that the northern cattle industry owed a debt of gratitude to the Abbott Government for its post-election work to rebuild the trade relationship with Indonesia and to help to restore high-volume live export orders at a crucial time when severe drought was biting.

“It (the live export trade) has saved our bacon once again,” Mr McHugh told Beef Central earlier this week.

“It has brought back memories for me of the drought back in the early 1990s that existed all the way down into Victoria, if we didn’t have live export (this time around) the stink of dead cattle would have been smelled in all the major capitals.”

Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association chief executive, Ben Hindle said that with the top half of the Northern Territory enjoying a ‘wet’ wet season, exporters were currently focusing on moving as many cattle out of dry north Queensland as possible.

“The exporters have put a considerable amount of focus on Townsville, and that has been to support a producer base to try and get a lot of those cattle out of Queensland that would have fallen away very rapidly, to get those numbers out of there quickly,” Mr Hindle said.

“They have been drawing a lot of cattle out of Queensland, from Cloncurry and Mount Isa, right across through to the Barkly and the other way into the basalt country too, they have been drawing a lot of cattle out of there.”

From January 1 to this week an estimated 20,000-21,000 cattle have been exported out of Darwin in eight vessels.

Mr Hindle said exporters operating from Darwin were currently focusing on filling orders for feeder cattle, which was moving lighter cattle out of the system, which signified the level of unseasonal conditions in Queensland. Subsequently from March their focus will increase on finding heavier cattle to fill slaughter orders as the Territory becomes drier.

Essentially Exporters are “staging” a lot of their operations and some are focusing on filling feeder orders first and foremost, allowing top drafts of cattle to put on more weight, which in turn will supplement the slaughters orders for cattle through March/April/May

“That solidifies some of their contracts mid-year, when finding good cattle are going to have its difficulties, so exporters are trying to have sufficient cattle over both spectrums to fill orders as they come up.”

In the NT most stations are yet to start their dry-season mustering programs, but when they do the stage is set for a flurry of activity, with demand for livestock transport services likely to be stretched to the limit this year.

Port of Darwin Corporation figures show that for the financial year to date, approximately 210,000 cattle have been exported on 53 vessels from the port.

Most of that activity came in the final two months of last year, when a sudden increase in orders from Indonesia sent northern exporters, agents, contract musters, livestock transporters, export depot operators and cattle stations into overdrive as they scrambled to satisfy Indonesia's sudden desire for cattle.

"Hats off to the industry and exporters alike who strained under some of the numbers late last year, but to their credit, managed very effectively,” Mr Hindle said.


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