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I am 7th Generation in the Australian Cattle Industry. I grew up on a cattle station in North Queensland. My husband and I run a Livestock Agency (hence the reference to mobile phones)as well as a small hobby farm with our two young children.

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Sunday, 16 February 2014

More Than a Drought

The other day in my local Community Discussion Facebook Group, a lady posted a status from a beef farmer in Southern Qld stating:

26c per kg for a couple of light angus cows & 1 for 43c a kg. I put in Dalby sale today. For those who don't know about selling cows , that equates to $148 for the better one & $66 each for the others. I had paid $500 each for those cows 18mths ago. 
Apparently the lowest selling animal at the yards today was 6c a kg for a steer. He wouldn't have even covered his cartage. And that is why people are shooting their cattle ... Can't feed them ... Can't sell them & if you do sell them .. You might even get a bill not a cheque 

We are not in a drought declared zone as yet, therefore do not qualify for any government assistance, however I am rallying for all those that are in drought declared areas & hope they receive help ... our above status is just a reflection of what is currently happening. Support your Aussie Farmers .. they put food on your plate & clothes on your back !

(If you want to share this status from Trina and Drew Neal to your Facebook wall, you can do so here:

(Please not this is not an endorsement for Buy A Bale, it was a part of the status)

The lady who posted this in our discussion group also commented on the fact that consumers weren't seeing a price drop on the shelves.  So I piped up and answered the following because like charity, education starts at home.   It is a basic run down of why we got into this predicament and is by no means an in depth view.  But for people who want to know more, hopefully this is a good starting point.

 Please note I have amended it slightly to provide links to statistics and further information where applicable.

“So, in a "normal" year for us up here an average price we receive from the meatworks (if we send them directly there) is between $2.80-$3.50/kg "carcass weight" which means the head, hide, organs, lower legs etc removed. Then you can get penalised for too much fat, too little fat, bruising, scarring left by wild dogs.
$2/kg live weight (what they weigh while still alive) is quite a good price.

In the early 80's to mid 90's North Queensland had six meatworks shut down. 
Like all manufacturing in Australia (steel, cars, clothes, tinned fruit) meatworks struggle with high wages and taxes and government charges in Australia. So the meatworks company wanted to consolidate their operations. A beef farmer has to pay the freight to the meatworks and then the meatworks needs to pay the freight to the port so it makes sense to them business wise to shut remote operations and make the farmer pay extra freight.
So by 97 NQ only had two meatworks, one in Townsville and one in Innisfail. (Innisfail shut in September 2006, six months after Larry and after three years of limited live export) They could not cope with the amount of cattle in NQ. Also across Northern Australia, a lot of places have deficient soil, so growing a bullock to Australian slaughter weight can take years. Cattle's ages are measured by "teeth" (how many teeth they have). That's another thing the meatworks can penalise us for, too many teeth. The older a bullock is the tougher his meat, the stronger the taste etc.
While Australia has been live exporting nearly the whole time we've been settled, it didn't really boom and become a prominent market until 96/97 when there was nothing else, well nothing that was viable.

So then all of a sudden the meatworks didn't have the monopoly over the market. They had competition and had to lift their game and they didn't like it.
They had a lot of disgruntled workers and the unions made life very difficult for the meatworks and for the farmers. But they needed a scape goat for this so they decided to blame live export.   In 2010 the Meatworkers union released their union magazine
  detailing how the unions, meatworks owners animal groups and some government officials were colluding to shut the live trade down. The catch cry was that over "40 000 jobs were lost because of live export. But those jobs were going from the mid seventies (ABS has these stats, but they are manufacturing as a whole, not just solely meatworks) when the beef industry went through a "slump" very similar to what we see today. Although many of the "old timers" say it's worse this time round.
Live export was a very easy target because there can be some very cruel aspects to it and NO ONE condones it. Farmers were horrified to see what was happening. Although things have come a long way over the last few decades and a majority of overseas workers do the right thing, there are still some that don't. Australia is the only country out of over 100 that live export stock to actually spend money in overseas facilities to improve welfare.
So we let the ball down there, our industry bodies told us it was okay and it wasn't. So things are improving a lot now because farmers are pushing our representative bodies more instead of assuming they were already doing the right thing. Incidentally a meatworks owner sits on the board of our major industry body (but not a live export rep)
So fast forward to 2011 when the horrific cruelty was shown. Because we cut off Indonesia overnight they got the poops and didn't want to import our cattle anymore.
Just out of Townsville alone there was a boat of 4000 head of cattle or more going every 6-8 weeks. No to mention the major ports of Darwin, Whyndam and Broome. Then that option was gone. So there was estimated to be over an extra 2 million head in Northern Australia at the end of 2012.
Then comes the drought. Our country is already under pressure because we literally cannot offload stock, even if we did take crappy prices.
To get cattle into the meatworks in Townsville last year, you had to wait 3-4 months for your turn. Then a couple of weeks ago the CEO of the company that owns the Townsville meatworks was on the radio spruiking how 2013 was their best year ever with record breaking profits. And that they didn't put on any extra shifts to help get cattle through quicker, they still worked only five days instead of running full time (despite saying that 240 people were made redundant in 2010, no extra shifts means no extra staff). They wanted to "ensure a supply of cattle throughout 2014". Which is all well and good... unless those cattle are starving and will be dead or underweight.
I'm not trying to bag the meatworks because they are also an important aspect to our industry but they can't have the monopoly on the market.
So now the industry is on our knees. We really don't want handouts or bandaid assistance packages from the government (although in some cases it will be the only thing that saves people and animals). We need to get our industry fixed so that don't let us down like this again. Our farm gate prices haven't risen in decades but the cost of everything else has (including what you pay for it in the end)

We need to be paid more to keep up with everything so we can look after ourselves in times like this and not rely on the generosity of the public and government. We've been let down by our industry bodies and governments (although there's a senate inquiry now coming up regarding thebodies), we let our animals down by letting it happen and as well the communities that depend on us."

So that's a really simple rundown of how we got to where we are today.
Sunrise also did a great segment on it today : http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/#page1

We need more than just rain, we need to take control of our industry.  People working in Agriculture only make up 3% of our total population, so our voice alone is not enough.  We need to make connections with the rest of the population so they can support us.  Most people do want to support farmers, they just want to know where to start.  And tooting our own little horn.. a great place to start is by talking to each other and you can do this at Ask An Aussie Farmer.

We won't fix things overnight.  But we're not giving up.