Animal welfare concerns were at the forefront of the live animal export industry’s agenda as stakeholders met in Townsville this week to plot the future for the controversial sector.
LIVExchange 2019 was themed ‘welfare beyond borders’ in an acknowledgement of the public relations problems the trade faces.
Australian Live Export Council (ALEC) CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton said the theme aimed to address the positive steps exporters were taking.
“The industry’s far ahead of any other live exporting country and in many ways we’re leading in Australia as well.”
With recent scandals rocking the industry, leading the Labor Party to promise to ban the live sheep trade if elected at the last federal election, Mr Harvey-Sutton said changes were required to win back public confidence.
“The trade wasn’t stopped. What the industry needs to do now is set high standards and certainly that’s what they’ve been doing. There’s a pause in shipping around the summer months.”
The cattle trade from the Port of Townsville has boomed as drought across the border in the Northern Territory has hampered availability of livestock.
A new three-month record was set in the September quarter, with the port exporting 103,819 head of feeder and slaughter weight cattle.
Manager of business development and trade Maria James said the result — 25 per cent up on the same time last year — was unprecedented.
“It was interesting that, in a first for the port, we exported to Thailand. The demand is very strong out there,” she said.
Ms James said overtaking the Port of Darwin, traditionally Australia’s largest live export facility, was indicative of dry conditions across the border.
Slaughter weight steers to Vietnam from Townsville have traded at $3.15 in recent weeks, compared to just $3 for lighter cattle for lot feeding.
Director of Austrex, Jake Morse, said in the driest period of the year live export provided options for graziers needing to offload stock at strong prices.
“Obviously the demand in Vietnam is strong and that’s pushing prices up for those heavy bullocks over a steer that’s 300 kilos, but it’s supply and demand,” he said.
Mr Morse said with the ongoing African swine fever crisis in Asia, opportunities are opening up for Australia’s red meat sector to fill some of the void in pork production.
“Consumers will now look at eating other proteins. Beef is one of those options,” he said.
With drought gripping huge tracts of the country, the situation around livestock supply looms as the next critical test for the industry.
“We all know once it rains supply will tighten up producers will want to re-stock,” Mr Morse said.
Conference-goers also heard about the innovation the industry’s research and development body Livecorp is involved in testing.
Facing ongoing controversy about the conditions faced by livestock during the northern summer, dehumidification trials have been underway to reduce the stress on sheep and cattle.
Over a four-day period, various scenarios involving weather and animal health were tested to build a model without the use of livestock.
Livecorp CEO Sam Brown said the trials were an example of industry striving to improve its practices.
“We designed an experiment, we brought in ventilation engineers and modellers with commercial equipment from the Middle East to replicate the environment,” he said.
New Livecorp chair Troy Setter, the CEO of Consolidated Pastoral Company, said community expectations of live export conditions meant improving welfare outcomes through research.
“I wouldn’t want to put a number on what’s acceptable [with mortality rates] but I want to have a culture of continuous improvement.”
Live trade critical, says grazier
Queensland and Northern Territory pastoralist Dan Lynch said the live trade’s importance to northern Australia could not be over-emphasised.
With cattle stations at Cloncurry and Katherine, drought and floods have made 2019 a year of extremes — making options provided by live export critical.
While worries about poor animal welfare outcomes dominate the discussion nationally, Mr Lynch said he had faith in exporters’ systems.
“My biggest concern is government changing policy and so-forth. They’ve got more ability to cause havoc and wreck our industry,” he said.
“It’s in the hands of good people, it’s very sustainable, provided governments let us get on and do the job.”