Pastoralist eyes bright future for exports

14 Mar, 2014 01:00 AM
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Geoff Mills, Wallal Downs station, sees blue skies ahead for the live export industry.
It's a very resilient industry
Geoff Mills, Wallal Downs station, sees blue skies ahead for the live export industry.

MANAGING 650,000 hectares of pastoral country throughout the Kimberley and Pilbara may seem like a daunting task, but for the Mills family it's a labour of love.

There is no denying northern pastoralists have been through the ringer throughout the past few years, but the industry is recovering in leaps and bounds.

The survival and growth of producers has highlighted the passion and resilience of hard working pastoralists in the top end, and the Mills family are no exception.

For the Mills' the future of the live export industry looks positive and their restored confidence in the trade saw them purchase the picturesque Wallal Downs, located half way between Broome and Port Hedland, last year in an effort to grow production.

The family have owned Warrawagine station since 1992, and it was Geoff and Lynda Mills who made the move 200km north to manage the new property last year leaving the family to run the original holding.

Mr Mills runs the business side of the operation while his brother Scott, based at Warrawagine station, manages cattle operations and father Robin oversees the whole business.

"It had got to the stage where we were looking to expand and the opportunity arose to purchase Wallal Downs," Geoff Mills said.

"At the time, the property market for cattle stations was probably at its lowest point.

"So it was an opportune time to buy and we could see that next period of time would be a recovery time for the live export industry and we just felt that everything had hit the bottom and was due to bounce back.

"As my dad used to always say, beef tends to go in a 10 year cycle and the last few years have been the bottom of the cycle so hopefully it can only go upwards for the next few years.

"Our thoughts are that within that time we will work hard and get this place paid for and be in a position to ride out the next downturn.

"We've never lived near the coast before, so to come here at 52 years of age and start a new station, living within a kilometre of the beach is fantastic."

It has been a long road for the former Wheatbelt farmers, who made the move from Watheroo to Warrawagine Station more than 20 years ago.

From humble beginnings, Mr Mills said the family started with only 400 heifers on Warrawagine in its operation but had since grown the herd to 31,280 head across both stations last year.

Mr Mills oversees the production of Droughtmaster, Brahman and Brahman cross Bonsmara on the 250,000ha property.

"We bought the place with just over 5000 head of cattle, we'd been here for a week and all the crew from Warrawagine arrived and we mustered the whole place in five weeks," he said.

Mr Mills said Warrawagine Station had achieved good results from Droughtmaster cattle and therefore hoped to convert Wallal Downs to a straight Droughtmaster line within five to 10 years.

"The beauty with the Droughtmaster is it gives us a second option, we can't give them live export they will take them down south, whereas the Brahman they don't seem to like down south," he said.

"Brahmans are often seen as a north-west animal, whereas the Droughtmaster do very well in this country and they're just a bit of a softer animals so consequently they are more readily accepted in sale yards."

Perhaps one of the biggest bonuses in purchasing Wallal Downs station was its water supply.

"When we bought the property, the previous owner had already sunk a bore down 280m, that bore produces 212L per second at 50PSI," Mr

"He had also purchased five disassembled centre pivots, and we just saw the opportunity to be able to drought-proof both Wallal and Warrawagine by setting those pivots up and producing our own hay."

Mr Mills said the pivots would grow hay from April through to September, which would deliver significant cost savings throughout the dry season.

"If you are paying $250t for hay from Kalannie or Dalwallinu and you get three trailers brought up by road train there is $18,000 in freight on top of the $250t of hay," he said.

"Pivot irrigation will save us that freight component.

"We've already got some flat top trailers and our own truck so it's not hard for us to send the truck over the 220km to the pivot site, pick up some hay and take it back to Warrawagine."

Mr Mills said good live export prices paired with increasing domestic and international demand had delivered significant opportunities for the industry. "They are already talking $2/kg for live export so basically we have hit a home run first up," Mr Mills said.

"We've already forward contract sold some heifers, they're talking $2/kg or more for most live export stuff already.

"They are already selling stuff out of Darwin for $2.40-$2.50/kg. Darwin is usually pricier than here but that flow on effect will certainly help us.

"The fact that Queensland has got some rain, a lot of the graziers over there are going to be chasing cattle to put back onto their properties for fattening.

"Because they had been destocking for so long, that will put added demand on the market which means the price may go even higher again.

"It is certainly going to make a difference in the region with more income coming back in.

"People will be able to reinvest in their infrastructure, their fencing, waterworks and so on, which then creates a flow on effect because they can then carry more cattle and utilize their stations better."

On the coming season, Mr Mills said Wallal Downs was already only 10mm short of its 350mm seasonal average rainfall and cattle were looking above average due to an abundance of feed.

"We've still got all of March to go and sometimes you get cyclones in April so that chance of us exceeding our average is looking pretty good," he said.

And despite the challenges facing the industry, Mr Mills believed the future was bright for live export.

"It's a very resilient industry, we tighten our belts another notch, struggle through and come out the other side 99pc of the time," he said.

"The Indonesians have woken up to the fact that they won't be self sufficient by 2014 and they are going to have to import cattle which was never going to happen.

"And I think the Chinese market is going to have a big impact in the next 5-10 years."

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NO ships with live animals should be leaving Australia. This industry is animal abuse and animal
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we are happy to have Aldi in katanning doing business with WAMCO we also wanted and in great
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This is a disgrace but what can you expect from a Liberal Government that insists on making