Livestock flocking to Victoria’s greener pastures

Livestock flocking to Victoria’s greener pastures


Agribusiness
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THE ramp stretches about three metres from the back of the truck to the ground. Some sheep take their first few steps on to it tentatively, most scamper down as quickly as possible. All behave the same way at the halfway mark - leaping from the metal ramp on to Victorian soil for the first time.

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THE ramp stretches about three metres from the back of the truck to the ground. Some sheep take their first few steps on to it tentatively, most scamper down as quickly as possible. All behave the same way at the halfway mark - leaping from the metal ramp on to Victorian soil for the first time.

Most land smoothly and keep running, a few land unsteadily, skid through the dirt on their front legs and come tantalisingly close to a faceplant, but somehow get their feet working and regain balance.

All race for the stockyards about 20 metres away and don't need to be coaxed, which makes Campbell McIntosh's job on this warm, sunny afternoon in north-east Victoria quite easy.

The Landmark Benalla branch manager and stock agent is helping unload more than 1100 sheep from two B-double trucks. They have travelled more than 3000 kilometres, from Burracoppin, in the West Australian central wheat belt, to their new home at Goorambat, near Benalla.

They are among 1 million West Australian sheep trucked across the Nullarbor this year, as farmers on both sides of the continent respond to radical climate conditions.

West Australian farmers have battled a devastating drought, taking desperate measures such as selling livestock - sheep and cattle - in staggering numbers to farmers in the east, before the feed and the funds to buy more feed run out.

But, across the Nullarbor, conditions could hardly be better. The prime grazing land of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia has been rejuvenated by the year's regular rainfall and now carries an abundance of feed. So farmers are restocking as quickly as they can, as much as they can afford.

Assessing the sheep as they dart towards the yards, Mr McIntosh is pleased with what he sees. ''It's not bad for three days on the truck, is it? They're coming off with a spring in their step,'' he said.

''I'm very impressed with the condition of the ewes and the lambs. For a region that's been doing it so tough, they're actually probably a credit to the guy who has sold them to us because the ewes are in good condition and are strong and healthy. And the lambs are exceptionally good.''

This is the second load of livestock Andrew Lenffer has bought from Western Australia this month. He bought 450 cattle three weeks ago.

''On the fourth [of January] there's a sale in Western Australia where we're probably going to buy another 400 or 500 head [of cattle],'' he said.

After the wettest year in about a decade, Mr Lenffer said the conditions on his Goorambat farm were ''magnificent'' for the new arrivals. There was plenty of feed and all 13 dams were full.

''This year I could have filled them four times over. They filled months ago and every time we've had rain they've been going over the spillway. [There's been] a phenomenal amount of rain,'' he said.

Mr Lenffer is full of praise for the trucking company that transported the sheep and for their former owner for their good health. Only two of 1105 died en route - a mortality rate of 0.18 per cent. Mr McIntosh said both were probably sick before they were loaded.

Western Australian Farmers Federation president Mike Norton said the massive trade in livestock across the Nullarbor started a few months ago when it became apparent there would be a lasting shortage of feed in the west.

''The writing was on the wall back in August-September. And, because of what was happening on the other side of Australia, with an abundance of feed, things really got into top gear,'' he said.

The trade became ''a real godsend for Western Australia''.

''We just had nowhere to go with a lot of these sheep and they would have been lost to the industry completely,'' he said.

''The fact that we've been able to put them on modern-day transport in large numbers and move them east in anywhere between 48 and 60 hours is really a credit to the industry in animal welfare and transport. And it's going to be a real boon for the sheep-meat industry because those sheep are still in the system.''

If conditions had remained dry in the east, farmers in the west would have faced a bleak outlook. ''It would have been absolutely catastrophic - there was no feed, no water,'' Mr Norton said.

''We've only got two main export abattoirs for sheep in Western Australia and there's just no way that they would've been able to cope. A lot of them would have either had to have been shot, or [farmers] would have tried to get them on a ship overseas. I think a lot of those merino lambs would have had to have been put down.''

Mr Norton said that in most years West Australian sheep were trucked east but in low numbers: ''It would only amount to 20,000 or 30,000, tops.''

South Australian Agriculture Minister Michael O'Brien said the millionth sheep for 2010 passed from Western Australia into South Australia last Wednesday. ''The load took the number of sheep through Ceduna in 2010 to 1,000,047. The number of cattle through for 2010 now totals 127,639,'' he said.

Mr Norton said: ''It would have to be nearly a record. Between about 40 and 50 B-trains have just been doing continual round-the-clock trips across the Nullarbor, to shift these livestock in a very small window. Because it'll soon be starting to get too hot on the Nullarbor.''

Victorian Farmers Federation president Andrew Broad said much of the West Australian livestock was now in Victorian paddocks, where the conditions were ''unprecedented … it's probably the best we've had in 40 years, from a feed point of view. There is hay, irrigation water will be there, there's going to be plenty of stubble feed. As good as it gets.''

Mr Broad said the trade was crucial because it prevented further erosion of the national sheep flock, which, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is already at its smallest in 105 years, at 67.7 million.

''Given there was an abundance of feed on the east coast and sheep meat is in demand - we're struggling to produce enough of it for the global market - it made sense to be able to transport them away from a drought-affected area to an area where there's good feed,'' he said.

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