Processing

Weekly kill: Northern plant closures loom, as cattle run out

Jon Condon, November 3, 2020

WHILE the general shortage of slaughter cattle is being blamed for an unusually early seasonal closure of one of northern Australia’s main export processing facilities this Friday, it is difficult to ignore the accumulated impact of live export operations in the region.

Australia’s northern-most beef processing facility of any scale, JBS Townsville shuts its doors for the 2020 season on Friday. This time last year, the company’s Stuart plant killed up to the Friday before Christmas.

In decades gone, it was not unusual for northern processing plants to operate ‘seasonally’, with business closing in November or early December and perhaps not re-opening until February or March, subject to rain. But in the past decade, all beef plants across the eastern states have worked hard to maximise yearly throughput and productivity.

The 900 head per day plant (single shift) Townsville facility has faced the double impacts this year of drought liquidation of beef herds across its catchment region (Townsville routinely kills cattle each year from across the Northern Territory, as well as north and northwest Queensland) in addition to a growing live export market competing for the same cattle. Some remaining northern Queensland cattle bought by JBS may be shifted 750km south to JBS’s Rockhampton facility for slaughter.

Further south, but still within the heavy live export catchment area surrounding port of Townsville, NH Foods’ Borthwicks export beef plant at Bakers Creek near Mackay has also struggled for numbers since August, typically operating only three or four days each week, despite providing a large Certified Organic kill understood to number about 600 head each week for an outside client.

At this stage, Borthwicks plans to operate (at partial capacity) up to 18 December this year, but that will be subject to rain and cattle supply.

One of the defining features of the northern live export industry this year has been the growing trade in heavy steers and cows into Vietnam – much of it through the Port of Townsville, and further south, Port Alma near Rockhampton. Vietnam has taken 217,771 head of Australian cattle for the year to September, up 16pc on last year.

Unlike Indonesia, which takes lighter feeder weight animals, Vietnam’s specification for heavier slaughter-ready live export cattle is in much closer conflict with Australian meat processor’s requirements. As reported in this earlier article, Townsville recently handled 13,500 live export cattle in a single consignment for Vietnam (see earlier report). Year to date export volumes out of Townsville to all markets stood at 211,339 to the end of September.

To quantify the impact of this on processing, Australia’s total export volume this year to Vietnam, and especially the numbers leaving from Port of Townsville, roughly equate to the annual production from one large export beef processing facility – the equivalent of 4340 head per week.

Grid prices steady

There’s been little or no evidence of changes to processor direct consignment grid rates this week, after advances last month into record territory.

A fortnight ago, southern and central Queensland grids shot to record highs, with heavy cow offers now consistently 600c/kg before grid penalties, and four-tooth grass steers anywhere from 650-670c (some offers 10c below that higher figure for implanted steers).

Some of the premium lines such as grassfed brand programs are also entering record territory, with one company’s offer on certified grassfed steers (no HGP, MSA-eligible), this week at 730c/kg.

In southern states, competitive grid offers in southern NSW and eastern SA have four-tooth grassfed ox at 635c this morning, and cows 580c. One plant in central NSW has offers for four-tooth steer at 625c and best cows 590c.

18 December shaping as likely last season kills

Some eastern states export processors are now starting to set dates for seasonal holiday closures at the end of the year. Thursday, 18 December is shaping as a popular choice for last day’s kill, following by the last boning room shift on 19 December. Kills early the following week are impractical, because it provides little or no time for load-out before Christmas, Beef Central was told.

Some Queensland plants plan to return to work on Monday, January 4 2021, subject to rain. More Christmas closure dates are likely to be provided in coming weeks.

There was no NLRS weekly kill data available by the time this item was posted. Stats will be added later, when they become available.

 

 

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  1. Peter Dunn, November 3, 2020

    It is a concern that in the current conditions, for a variety of reasons, processing plants are struggling, and one being the JBS Stuart plant outside Townsville. With no intent to detract from current concerns, let me say that overcoming difficulties is not new to the industry, because it is a tough industry which employs tough people. One historical example is that in the 1950’s the old Stuart’s Creek meatworkers used to get picked up in the suburbs at daybreak by a tray back truck, across which were bench seats with no seatbelts (a WHS nightmare). There were no sides or roof. In winter it was freezing and most wore heavy army overcoats from the WW2 disposal store. They were taken to a railway siding for a breezy rail-motor trip to Lakes Creek. Tough men doing a tough job. Sorry to digress from an important story but I fear the loss of the industry’s history. It just might assist to put contemporary difficulties into perspective.

    • Bernice Cox, November 7, 2020

      It is just struggling to get supply, we need the farmers to boost their head numbers, some of them need to relocate their properties to wetter areas closer to the coast, the Stuart Plant is in a good position once supply returns to normal.

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