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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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