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Thursday 31 January 2013

Slow Hand Clap Please....

Open Letter to Federal Minister for Agriculture, Senator Joe Ludwig.

In May 2012 I wrote to you, Senator Joe Ludwig, regarding the implementation of the Exporters Supply Chain Assurance System and the effect it has had on our operation. In short, it had completely shut off the markets which exporters delivered our sheep to. We, along with many other growers, changed breeds to either Damara, Awassi, or Van Rooy, all an easy care, non shearing type sheep which does not require many of the husbandry practises the traditional Merino does, ie mulesing, tail docking, castration, shearing, crutching or chemicals to prevent flystrike.

These breeds, known as fat tail sheep, originate in the Middle East, and compete with the domestically bred animals, and also with other countries imported livestock. They were traditionally sold via third parties, ie small local agents or through saleyards, much the same as our own domestic saleyards. Of course, none of this complies with ESCAS, as the final point of slaughter cannot be determined.

Your Department replied with a nicely worded letter saying how good ESCAS was for the industry and if I have any concerns to take them up with the exporters. It may surprise you to know that having diversified our business into an AQIS registered pre-export sheep depot, we were already in constant contact with exporters.

Your Department was also kind enough to provide the Rural Financial Counselling Services phone number. Up until ESCAS, our Rural Finances have been quite manageable on our own, thank you.

Since ESCAS’s implementation, we have witnessed an almost complete halt to our cash flow. I cannot convey just how detrimental this had been to our family business. We have two farms listed for sale, both sheep grazing properties, whose value has dropped significantly since the uncertainty in the sheep industry. We employed two full time staff. Yesterday I gave our 21 year old employee of two years his four week Notice, as we simply do not have the funds to keep paying him. He has two small daughters. When he asked if he could have first dibs at the job if things get better I could have cried.

We used to employ up to six casual staff. Not anymore. The feedlot has effectively been made redundant as exporters try to save costs by trucking sheep from our area to their own depots, and also as we predominantly held the fat tail breeds that have become common on the surrounding pastoral properties, which are now unsaleable.

Our two farms at Geraldton are currently heavily overstocked. We cannot sell the ram lambs anywhere. Ship orders have dried up, and despite claims from activists, the domestic market simply does not want ram lambs. Our station, Gabyon, at Yalgoo, is also under huge pressure. Rangeland management is a delicate balance, with over grazing easily degrading the landscape. Since March, ESCAS’s start date, we have done very little mustering as there is nowhere to send the stock. We have trucked lambs to the two farms in the hope they would sell. That was six months ago. In that time, the holding paddocks on Gabyon are again full, and in danger of being badly eaten out. We are faced with the choice of trying to fence off another large holding area, at considerable cost which we have no funds to pay for, or turning the ram lambs back out. This, coupled with the un mustered ram lambs, creates a huge welfare issue, as the rams literally rape the ewes to death. Mobs are supposed to have 2-3% rams, not 50%. Two days ago I saw three rams of varying ages chasing down a single ewe.

The ironic thing about all this is shortly we are going to be forced to do something. We can’t leave the sheep to fend for themselves. So most likely we will muster and mark the young lambs, and for the first time in a decade, castrate and tail them. We are also contemplating castrating the older rams lambs, which is neither a pleasant or painless job. I cannot see how that is an improvement in animal welfare. It was unnecessary before, and one of many reasons we got out of Merinos.

I have spoken to numerous people inside the industry. Originally I thought, well, if ESCAS is what we need to keep live export alive, so be it. But it goes too far. One person told me nothing will improve unless the Middle East come grovelling to us, which is highly unlikely, or the regulations change. One exporter is talking of getting their own facility in Saudi, but that is months away, and still with no guarantee of taking fat tail sheep.

What really gets me is the fact I can send sheep to Muchea saleyards with absolutely no clue as to who will buy them. No idea as to what conditions they will be kept. For all I know they could starve to death on a hobby block. Yet I can’t sell them in an overseas saleyard, even though we have done so for the last fifty years.

And the really frustrating part is that nothing has changed overseas. Sheep still get their throats cut in little abs. People still take them home in the boot of their car. Only they aren’t Australian sheep, they are Somalian, or Nigerian, or Sudanese or local sheep. Romania’s export of sheep has lifted from almost zero to over a million in the last year. And to top it off, I can guarantee you no one is there now in the market places from Livecorp, MLA, Wellards or anyone else trying to improve anything anymore. The ute, don’t boot campaign would have ceased.

In Indonesia we see pictures of local cattle being craned out of ships by their heads. Since the cattle shortage the Indonesian Defence Force has been shipping in cattle from outlaying islands and Provinces. You think Australia is bad? How well do you think the IDF carts cows?

The people you have tried to placate with this system will never be placated. Animals Australia believes eating meat is cruelty in itself. I can show you hundreds of examples where people against this trade have said as much. The very idea of farming animals to them is abhorrent. They see blood and immediately demand an end to it. They cry foul when a sheep is caught from a yard by it’s back leg. How do they think we do it here? Call them by name?

Our business had a good system. Breed at the station, finish on the farm. Diversify with a contract feedlotting business. Even dabble in the local farmers markets, and the boutique capretto (young goat) trade. But the system cannot cope with no markets. It is not even a case of sending everything to a saleyard, as they would simply be walked by, or sold at a price that would not cover the freight.

People may wonder why we would limit our production to an animal that is solely reliant on one market. Quite simply, because at the time, it was a better option for us than continuing to grow wool at a loss. And we realised the risk, and as other breeds came on, we experimented, trying to find a breed suitable for both markets. Eighteen months ago we found one we liked, and are in the middle of breeding them through our flock. But it takes a long time.

There are dozens of other producers in the same boat as us. After being encouraged by exporters and the WA Agricultural Department, with good reason, that these breeds are a good option, we have been left stranded effectively overnight by you. The demand for them has not changed, only the inability to track consignments through various sales points to meet your requirements. Other exporting countries must be rubbing their hands in glee while shaking their heads in amazement at us.

In 2006 and 2007 Geraldton had its driest years on record. That nearly broke us. But we got through it. In 2011, Gabyon station flooded. That took out most the fences along creeks, and severely limited our cash flow as it was too wet to muster. But we got through it, and the abundant feed the rains created was supposed to be money in the bank. In December 2011, the abundant feed caught alight, and over ten days burnt an unprecedented 80 000 ha, or one third of Gabyon. We lost more fences and some stock. But we got through it.

The ESCAS regulations have done more damage to us in the last eleven months than anything Nature has been able to throw at us in the last decade. And if something does not change very soon, we will be through.

At what point does animal welfare over-ride people welfare?
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ruralmiss said...

Whatever we can do, we will. This joke of a Government will be overturned. Please keep your head up, and know there are thousands upon thousands of Aussies behind you. It WILL get better.

Sharon said...

So very sorry this is the position your in. It breaks my heart to hear. To me it's like Australia, dying. You and what you and many others have the privilege of doing is what this great country is. Farmers, farming, breeding, selling. You live my dream life. I hate its now a nightmare. I sincerely hope things change.

Yvonne said...

It is like the government says.... lets put another regulation in to placate the animal activists... don't worry about the farmers they'll soon realise that there's no future and do "something" else to earn a living...... whatever happened to lets look after our future investments... young farmers with great skill and pride in their land? I feel for you and everyone involved in the rural industry (which is me too). No wonder there is so much depression in rural areas. I hope we can make the government see sense.... may the election day come quickly!!! Before it is too late.

Anne said...

Oh Michael
I cried reading this.
Very well written

Lisa said...

I cried too.And still am. The hurt is palpable.
So many people both in Aus and overseas so heavily affected by this.

Yes, at what point DOES animal welfare over-ride people welfare?
I guess for some, malnutrition is preferable to eating meat.

Anonymous said...

Too true Michael, what does my head in is all these people wear leather shoes and wear woolen coats and call themselves blameless. Why does the government bow to the loud minorities? They are gutless. No grazier likes seeing their stock treated cruelly but you don't fix the problem by killing a whole industry, you do it by educating the people who perpetuate the behavior it is an iterative process. Keep fighting mate I am with you

Anonymous said...

Wow, such a sad and avoidable tale and so well written. I only wish that more of the naive animal rigt activists would take the time to read things like this and educate themselves a little better. As a city girl who married a sixth generation farmer I think I understand a little better now, but our government and industry bodies need to do more to educate the public and protect our industry. The world needs to eat and with world food shortages Australia is in a prime position to be the food bowl of the world- that is if our farming industry still exists!
My heart goes out to you and your family. I seriously hope things change quickly.

TJ said...

Thankyou for posting this, I understand a little more now. Keep writing, keep fighting the good fight. More people should read (really read) and feel what you are going through, as farmers. We appreciate you and need you, I hope the powers that be might see it too.

Jennifer said...

Sustainable agriculture can give continuous success of economy. Sustainable economy doesn't compromise ecology and human.

Anonymous said...

Michael, you articulated the pain of primary production so well. The droughts saw us exit out of farming, to regroup and recover. Five years later we are in a position to return and find there is no viable entry points. Our hearts are breaking.

More importantly, our children will not be farmers. We are both fifth generation farmers in WA, so this is a huge decision, as farming has been our identity and our heritage. Stunningly, a recent personal survey of 10 of the best farmers across WA had no intention of letting their children return to farming for their careers and livelihood.

The consequences of this short term Govt manoeuvring to grab Green votes at the ballot box will be felt for many generations. Where will the farmers of the future come from?

Thanks Michael, and my very best wishes to you. Stay strong, you are not alone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story and giving people the big picture. So often the problem is the general public focus on a small part of the whole, which may be blown out of proportion by the media. It would be interesting to see how urban Australia would cope without a fridge. No refrigeration is the norm in many countries we send (or used to send) live animals to. They have a ‘hot meat market’ where animals are consumed within 24 hours of slaughter. I wonder how many women and children have gone hungry because their husband can't buy a sheep at the local market, butcher it at home and share with family and neighbours as they have done for thousands of years? Maybe Aussies need to walk a mile in the shoes of the malnourished, then the boots of the Aussie farmer who used to put meat on their table. Anyone keen to mount a campaign 'Ban refrigerated food in Australia for a month'? Oh dear, that might upset the weight loss companies. Better send shiploads of uranium overseas instead of live animals so they can build power stations to run fridges to keep their meat chilled.

sharon said...

we feel your pain, but then again you are preaching to the converted here, we are all in the same boat. Our only hope is that your well reasoned and written story can reach the mainstream public and media and our voices can be heard over the likes of Animal Rights Australia...we may not be many but we need to speak loudly and clearly. Keep up the good work.

The best help other people can give is to spread these words.

Anonymous said...

Never do I read that the export industry created this mess themselves. Always they and the farming lobby blame others, but you all know that your industry knew about the appalling treatment of cattle in Indonesia years before 4 Corners exposed the reality to Australia. Why didnt your industry clean it up?

There is a point you must reach where you will understand that your industry is to blame because it failed you. Dont you think its time to stop blaming the messenger?

Australia has laws which are supposed to protect animals from cruelty. The Middle East has nothing and therein lay the difference.

Anonymous said...

Animal advocates are always reminded that emotion should play no part in this issue but it is noted the majority of comments along with most of the blog is based on emotion.

The issue of live export is one of cruelty Vs profit. Those opposing it generally speaking have no vested interest in seeing it continue and despite your perspective, given thousands have signed petitions, they cannot all be all opposed to the consumption of meat. What they oppose is the suffering and cruelty.

The improvements overseas have not been generated by the industry but by the exposure by animal advocates of the abusive treatment of animals. The reaction was to put a band aid over the weeping sore, rather than to treat the disease. Band aiding has been going on for years and years.

It appears easier and more accepting to blame people you see as responsible for killing your trade rather than acknowledge the real reasons. The fact that no matter what, our animals will be abused overseas is why we have ESCAS and, why the majority of Australians are disgusted and sick and tired of seeing cruelty after cruelty. You have said it yourself yet failed to accept that is why the trade is dying.

My guess is that apart from what you have seen on tv, most farmers would not really be aware of what happens to their animals, preferring to believe the stories from exporters rather than that which has been substantiated. Perhaps if you had questioned your industry more closely instead of believing those with the dollars in their hands, things may have been different.

Anonymous said...

Lisa asked:- At what point does animal welfare overide people welfare? Simple, when people involved with the cruel live export industry (ie farmers & exporters)IGNORED the barbaric practices for 30years & did NOTHING!for the welfare of animals.You all knew of the extreme cruelty to animals you supposedly love but chose the almighty Dollar. Sometimes we have to have a moral compass...

Vernon said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

If you feel hard done by, just imagine how the animals you send off to known torture feel. Self-indulgent claptrap.