RAIN might have come just in the nick of time for many producers in the WA agricultural region, but uncertainty remains due to lingering debate about the future of the live shipping trade.
In recent months Farm Weekly has featured articles that ask what will happen to families and businesses involved if live export stops.
Darkan-based mixed farmers Steven and Katie Hulse, partners in M Hulse and Co, mate more than 10,000 Merino ewes to Merinos and White Suffolks each year and say uncertainty is the major concern.
“This debate has been going on for so long now but it’s getting to the point where the uncertainty is the biggest problem at the moment,” Steven said.
“How can we make plans for next year when we’ve got no idea what’s coming next or what’s going to happen?”
Speaking as this year’s drop of lambs were in the cradle losing their tails and getting their injections, marks and orange tags, Steven said it was time to start thinking about how to handle whatever the future markets for lambs would be.
“We start our joining program in December and we’ll have to decide on numbers to mate before then,” Steven said.
But making a good decision without certainty on whether or not there will be a shipping trade to supply will be tough.
“Flock structures everywhere will probably have to change if changes to the live export market happen, but we can’t know what changes to make in our businesses right now if we don’t have all the information.
“It makes it hard to plan ahead and make the best of a situation if you don’t know what markets you need to be targeting.”
The Hulse family operation has a 50:50 crop to livestock ratio, with the most arable land available tied up in the cropping program.
“Having the amount of sheep we do is a good fit because they utilise the land we can’t crop and cropping as much as we do works well because we can carry sheep over stubbles in the summer,” Steven said.
“Our flock structure is set up to keep a lot of ewes and to turn off the lambs in October so we can get the ewes up for the next mating, so we’ve been doing that successfully for a long time and the lambs have usually gone to the store and live trades.
“But if the live trade goes, which we don’t want, that structure is going to have to change and we may have to hold these types of sheep (crossbred lambs) for longer and try to finish them ourselves which we’ve never done because the focus is on setting up the ewe for her next mating.”
Altering the sheep section of their enterprise would be a drastic step to make and most likely a less profitable one.
“It would mean in the end that we’ll have to mate less ewes because we need somewhere to run stock for longer than we normally would,” Steven said.
“This includes our Merino wethers – we’ve never kept them past one-year-old but that might have to change too.
“So the way I see it, the WA sheep flock would have to diminish if live export ceases, but at the end of the day, we just need a bit of certainty so we can plan ahead.”
Just turning off stock into the domestic market sounds easier than it is.
“We could put weight onto our crossbreds and they’d be alright, but our problem is our Merino wethers – they are much harder to put weight on to meet domestic markets,” Steven said.
“Either we’re going to have to find new markets for them or try to keep what we can over the northern summer months and send them on the boats in the cooler months, which means holding them for longer.”
There is the option of taking a wool focus and holding onto Merino wethers for four to five years for their wool clip, but that option would still require the breeding ewe flock to take a hit.
“If the wool market continues to rally we will definitely need to look into holding wethers for longer, but it all depends on how much the meat market drops,
I guess,” Steven said.
“Our system really works around turning off lambs in time to get the ewes back to the right condition for mating so our business would be completely different if we started holding onto wethers or fattening lambs.”
So, to start setting up for change or not?
A group of sheep producers including Steven have been struggling to explain the need for certainty and clarity going forward to Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan in a series of private meetings.
“We tried to convey to Alannah how important the live trade is to WA and also how important it is to start making decisions now for next year,” Steven said.
“Communication is improving from meeting to meeting, so hopefully we’ll be able to work with her on finding a solution to keep the trade.”
While Steven has been among the group of farmers speaking directly with Ms MacTiernan, Katie has also been active in the discussion, joining forces with others in the community to help spearhead a campaign of letter writing to State and Federal politicians on the issue.
“It’s been great to see the people of rural communities rally together on this issue,” Katie said.
“Myself and a couple of others wrote a letter template to send out and people just got on board.
“The uptake was fantastic and we got a lot of personal replies as well, so I think one of the positives to take from this is that the dialogue is starting and hopefully now, we as an industry can find a way forward.”
Another positive from Katie’s perspective was a realisation that came out of a recent Women in Farming Enterprises discussion.
“We were talking the other day about when the cattle exports were shut down, how we all agreed it was bad and that it shouldn’t have been shut down but none of us wrote a letter to politicians in support of the cattle producers about it,” she said.
“I suppose we hoped that it would blow over and politicians would come to their senses when presented with the facts.
“Now with the attack on the sheep live export trade and the great amount of misinformation published by activists, we all agreed that now is not too late to do more for the entire agricultural industry as a whole.
“So I’m putting a note in the back of my mind to share posts on social media, write letters, do whatever I can if another ag sector has troubles because we’re all in it together – dairy, cattle, pigs, sheep – we’re all connected in the ag community and we need to work harder to bridge the disconnection with people in the city.
“So I think good things can come of this because people are pulling together and we’ll see what comes in the future.”
In an average year, the Hulses’ operation sends between 4000-5000 head to the ships so they’ll continue to keep a close eye on the unfolding live shipping drama and hope for some certainty in the near future.