IT HAS been a challenging season for the cattle industry in Western Australia in 2019.
Animal welfare issues could be seen as bookends to 2019 after the year didn't get off to a good start with reports at Christmas 2018 and early January of cattle deaths on Noonkanbah and Yandeyarra stations due to malnutrition and mismanagement.
This was followed up recently with anti-live export activist footage released of alleged mishandling and other issues of livestock treatment on Kilto station, causing reputational issues for the industry at home and abroad.
It is estimated that between 2000-3000 head of cattle died and/or were euthanised on Noonkanbah and Yandeyarra stations, but official statistics have yet to be made available by the State government.
State Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said in March that costs incurred by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) in responding to the welfare issues cost more than $500,000 - including for aerial surveillance and humane livestock destruction, as well as basic infrastructure upgrades to improve access for livestock water points.
"The State will seek recovery for costs from both entities," Ms MacTiernan said.
Liberal agriculture spokesperson Jim Chown said the State government was looking for compensation of about $800,000 from the two pastoral leases.
Last month it was discussed in parliament that most of the cattle, about 8000 head, had been destocked from Yandeyarra station.
Farm Weekly understands that the cattle were sent direct to processors.
In May it was reported that a third station - Pinjin station in the Goldfields - had a smaller animal welfare issue that required intervention and assistance.
The details of DPIRD's livestock compliance unit's responses to these incidents have not been made available but a full report of the investigations are due in June/July 2020.
Mr Chown said those who were responsible for the cattle suffering in such a inhumane way should face prosecution to "send a message" that failing to do due diligence with animal welfare would "not be tolerated".
"It's the worst animal welfare breach WA has faced since the turn of the century," Mr Chown said.
"Someone is responsible, whether it's a corporate body or an individual, and court action should be taken."
Ms MacTiernan said action would be taken after the investigation was completed.
Weather conditions in the Rangelands - particularly the Pilbara, Murchison, Gascoyne and Goldfields-Nullarbor regions - have been tough on pastoralists with drought conditions impacting livestock production and forcing some stations to completely destock.
The conditions have caused feral animals such as camels, horses, donkeys, kangaroos, emus and dogs to break from the desert regions and Unallocated Crown Land and seek greener pastures and watering points on pastoral stations - causing the destruction of fences, water tanks and troughs, as well as a loss of available grasses for livestock.
Pastoralists continue to struggle with the weather conditions and those who have not been able to transport cattle for agistment on southern properties or send their stock for live export are concerned about the ongoing drought and condition of their stock - with some suggesting an animal welfare disaster is just around the corner if rain doesn't fall soon.
According to June 2018 figures there was slightly more than one million head of cattle in the Rangelands Natural Resource Management Region - about half the State's total of two million head.
While it is the largest geographical area in the top 20 Australian cattle producing regions, it ranked seventh in terms of numbers, behind the Fitzroy Basin which has 3.2 million head and the Northern Territory which holds 2.1m head, among others.
The South West and South Coast regions were the other two largest regions in WA, each holding between 312,000-316,000 head.
These numbers may have decreased since last year's report due to a higher turn off of breeding stock this year due to conditions experienced by many parts of the South West and Wheatbelt.
Water deficiency was also declared in four areas of WA including Hollands Rock in the Shire of Kent, Mt Short in the Shire of Ravensthorpe, and the Mallee Hill and Ardler Road areas within the Shire of Lake Grace, impacting on all livestock producers in the areas.
Farmers had been carting water for weeks or months as their dams had run dry.
Some cattle breeders in the South West have also destocked to allow what remaining feed they have available for their sheep flocks or to give their pastures and grasses a chance to grow.
The dry conditions also impacted WA bull sales this season which saw a total of 2086 bulls offered, representing 23 breeds, with 1609 selling under the hammer for a 77pc clearance, the lowest since 2012-2013.
The gross for the season was $9 million with the average price at $5596, which were both down on the previous season.
The top priced bull sold for $25,000 at the Coonamble Angus on property bull sale at Bremer Bay in February.
According to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) the seasonal conditions will have a negative impact on the national herd, especially in the Eastern States, with the overall number of cattle expected to drop by more than 7pc to about 26 million head.
The destocking has lead to a greater slaughter of breeding cows which made up 56pc of the national slaughter statistics this year.
MLA said high processor throughput, in particular the elevated female slaughter, reflected "ongoing herd liquidation and impacts forecasted beef production".
"On a 12-month rolling basis, the female percentage of adult slaughter remains at 54pc, keeping the national herd firmly locked in a contraction phase.
"The excess turnoff of breeding stock and poor rainfall outlook has resulted in adult cattle slaughter for 2019 being revised higher to 8.4 million head, up 7pc on last year."
MLA said beef production had also been adjusted higher for the year to reflect the elevated turnoff and was forecast at 2.4 million tonnes carcase weight (cwt), up 4pc.
"A downward trend in adult carcase weights has offset some of the impacts of increased slaughter, despite the number of cattle on feed reaching a new record in the June 2019 quarter, at just below 1.15 million head," MLA said.
"China has become a key pillar in world meat trade with an increasing impact on the global market and subsequent price movements in the Australian domestic market.
"The strong finished cattle prices seen in 2019 have been supported by surging demand in China (underpinned by the ongoing African Swine Fever epidemic) and a favourable Australian dollar.
"The ongoing US-China trade war has created uncertainty for the global economy and future demand for red meat.
"However, broad demand factors in many key export markets are still holding, and with the forecast for Australian cattle supplies to tighten over the next few years, continued support for finished cattle prices is expected."
Saleyard prices have bucked the trend in some ways with young cattle prices in WA trending above their Eastern States' counterparts, with the west trading at an average premium of 41c/kg cwt since the start of 2019.
According to MLA the Western Young Cattle Indicator (WYCI) was 29c/kg cwt above the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator (EYCI) on December 10, at 527c/kg, slightly back from the December 11, 2018 figure of 550c/kg, compared to 515.5c/kg (EYCI).
For the week ending November 21, the WYCI averaged 551c/kg, 7pc above the EYCI which was trading at 512.75c/kg.
WAFarmers livestock committee chairman David Slade said the WA cattle market was being held back by the drought in the Eastern States.
"They have been killing too many and the oversupply is holding prices down," Mr Slade said.
"We are getting 550c/kg and we should be getting 650c/kg.
"Cattle producers are not having a good time of things because of that.
"At 550c/kg we are just making wages.
"Our prime stock should be getting $6-$7/kg otherwise we can't make any money."
Mr Slade said feedlotters were in a different situation to producers and could still make a good profit depending on the price they bought cattle for and were able to receive after they had met weight specifications.
He said the number of cattle in feedlots had only gone up to record levels across the country because of the seasonal conditions as it was the easiest way of looking after them and getting them to weight.
Mr Slade said the outlook for the cattle industry was a tough one because it could take about 10 years to build up the herd again in some areas after they destocked three quarters of the cattle - particularly in the east.
"There will be a shortfall of cattle," Mr Slade said.
He said it was "good management practice for producers to destock while the cattle were in good enough condition".
"The people who destocked have done the right thing early," Mr Slade said.
He said the live export trade had shown that it was an important aspect of the cattle trade because it would take cattle unsuitable for local processors - which was important when the seasons were as they are this year.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA livestock committee chairman Chris Patmore said in his view store prices for cattle were "holding up well considering the season" and things could turn around fairly quickly with a thunderstorm or two.
According to MLA figures WA saleyard cattle throughput remained similar year-on-year, totalling 261,225 head in 2018-19.
"This year, Boyanup had the highest number of consignments, followed by Muchea, yarding 95,590 and 93,617 head, respectively," MLA said.
"Mt Barker yarded 69,551 head and Manjimup yarded 2467 head."
Industry concerns still exist over the future of the Boyanup saleyards with the State government looking to lock in a deal between it and the Shire of Capel and current leasees WA Livestock Salesmen's Association (Elders and Landmark) to keep the existing yards open for a further 10 years by investing in major upgrades to meet modern animal welfare and safety standards.
South West cattle producers were hoping that a decision would be made to build a new state-of-the-art facility in the South West to service the industry for the next few decades, but that may not happen under the current government.
The Australian red meat industry employs about 404,800 people nationally with 172,400 directly employed.
The beef industry, with cattle and calf production, is valued at about $10.8 billion, and beef and veal exports valued at almost $9.5b.
Live Cattle Export
Cattle exports have boomed at the Broome Port this year according to MLA, with 110,987 head from January to October reportedly passing through to international markets.
Numbers leaving Broome have surpassed those of Fremantle over that time, which had dropped 10pc year on year to 93,789 head.
Many of the cattle loaded at Broome have come off the Rangelands where seasonal conditions have dictated early destocking while cattle were still fit to travel on road trains and via ship.
While WA exported just 204,776 of the 1,045,561 cattle exported to the end of October it is an important part of the cattle industry in the State.
Mr Patmore said with two million head of cattle in the State, 200,000 exported was 10pc of the herd - a "significant amount".
"That's a lot of cattle to go out of WA," Mr Patmore said.
The three largest markets of the live cattle trade from Australia were Indonesia, which received 571,036 head to the end of October - a 13pc increase on last year, mainly made up of feeder cattle.
It was followed by Vietnam which imported 214,021 head - a 33pc increase on 2018 figures with the majority being slaughter cattle.
China took third place with 113,733 head of mainly breeder cattle, which was also a 15pc increase on last year.
Predictions are that China will continue its strong demand for Australian red meat as the African swine fever ravages its pork industry and consumers look for healthy, good quality protein from a supplier they can trust.
Exports to Israel increased by 65pc to 60,615 head during the year, which was mainly due to Turkey's decision to stop issuing import permits of feeder and slaughter cattle.
Cattle exports were made up of roughly 67pc feeder cattle, 21pc slaughter and 12pc breeders.
According to LiveCorp's Annual Report 2018/19 exporters received an average price for a light steer ex-Darwin of $3/kg liveweight, down from $3.12/kg the year before.
The live cattle trade is worth about $1.3 billion to the national economy.
The long-term supply to the trade may have taken a hit in the last year after about 600,000 head of cattle in Queensland perished in the February floods, as well as a few hundred in the Pilbara affected by storm flooding.
It hasn't been an easy season for sheep producers in Western Australia but prices have softened the blow of tough seasonal conditions.
The sheep industry nationally saw record prices this year with the South Australian saleyard at Naracoorte seeing prices for a pen of 1.5yo ewes hit $402 per head in November.
In mid-July heavy lambs hit a new national high of $355/head at Forbes, central west New South Wales.
In WA heavyweight lamb prices reached a new record at $289 at Katanning on June 5, when a line of 54 Prime SAMM ram lambs from Bunkin Farming Business, Dumbleyung, beat the short-lived record of $260 per head which was made the week before.
Mutton topped out at $250 per head at the Muchea Livestock Centre on July 23.
On-property ram sales this year saw overall figures decline slightly across the board, however stud breeders still recorded their second best season on record when it came to prices.
The season average across all breeds this year finished at $1479 and the gross topped $21.78 million.
The top-priced ram for the season sold for $45,000 by Rhamily Poll Merino stud, Calingri, at the Rabobank WA Sheep Expo & Sale at Katanning in August.
The MLA 2019 Sheep Market Wrap said the prices received for lambs had been "quite remarkable", after opening the year with trade lambs at 670c/kg cwt, heavy lambs 656c/kg cwt and restocker lambs making 645c/kg cwt.
MLA said the year was set to finish stronger with the three main indicators between 696c/kg and 746c/kg cwt.
MLA said as the supply of lambs available began to dwindle in late autumn, particularly heavy lambs suitable for the export market, prices "unsurprisingly increased" and by late May, the trade lamb indicator had surpassed the record it reached the year before, rising to 878c/kg.
"Since then the trade lamb indicator hit its peak at 950c/kg, heavy lambs reached 998c/kg and restocker lambs topped out at 884c/kg, all in mid-July with the top price for all lambs $355/head at Forbes saleyards," MLA said.
Landmark Brindley & Chatley agent Neil Brindley, Esperance, said the sheep industry had "never seen higher prices" than what they experienced this year, although the national flock hadn't been as small as it is since 1904, which would "underpin prices for years to come".
The national sheep flock was at 71 million head in June 2018 but in its September Industry Projections Update MLA said that after the flock was "hit hard in 2019 on the back of difficult conditions in many key sheep producing areas" it had declined to 66 million head.
At June 2018, WA's sheep flock was 14.5m head, the third largest sheep producing State in the country behind New South Wales at 25.2m head and Victoria at 14.7m head.
Three WA regions made it into the top 10 sheep producing regions in the country including the Wheatbelt at number four with 4,094,418 head, followed by the South West region at number five with 3,986,489.
The South Coast region came in at number seven with 3,572,573 head.
The Northern Agricultural region entered the list at number 18 at 1,640,577, while the Perth/Peel-Harvey region reportedly had 1,056,249 head.
MLA said the flock estimation "represented a decline of 6.5pc year-on-year, driven by the high sheep slaughter and poor joining and lambing rates" mainly in the Eastern States.
"The supply of lambs for processing has been a major talking point throughout 2019, with the market balancing generally lower marking rates, high prices encouraging sales, the rebuild of depleted flocks in some areas and sustained destocking in many others," MLA said.
Lamb slaughter from January-to-July was down 6.9pc year-on-year, with the majority of the decline occurring in June and July, during which 740,000 less lambs were processed nationally.
MLA said mutton prices were "the big surprise for 2019".
"After opening the year at 350c/kg cwt, the mutton indicator didn't look back, moving above 500c/kg in April and staying there, with a peak of 612c/kg in July," MLA said.
Mutton slaughter followed a similar trend to lamb, only experiencing the highest weekly slaughter for the year in the week ending December 6, which was also the week of the biggest yarding for the year at 239,000 head.
The average weekly slaughter of 152,000 head of mutton was back 3pc on 2018.
While yarding figures were quite stable from 2018, they also eased by 3pc to average 94,000 head per week.
MLA said sheep saleyard throughput was 1.4m head in WA in 2018-19, with 1.39m head yarded, a decrease of 6.5pc year-on-year.
"The largest number of sheep went to Katanning, where throughput reached 849,030 head, up 2.3pc on last financial year," MLA said.
"Muchea yarded 539,849 sheep, a decrease of 17.6pc head year-on-year."
DPIRD confirmed that about 400,000 sheep had travelled east through the Ceduna checkpoint, on the border with South Australia, from January to the end of November, a 218pc increase on 2018.
Lambs made up 64pc of the transfers, while adult sheep made up 36pc.
The WA industry said on-farm sales to Eastern States feedlotters were favourable due to the seasonal conditions impacting on weight gain of new lambs making them unsuitable for local processing.
Live Sheep Exports
From the outset of 2019 sheep suitable for live export received prices in line with 2018 highs or greater - topping at about $180 per head depending on quality and wool length.
The average price was about $120-$140 per head paid by exporters.
From March through to November there was solid demand from exporters or processors, as well as some eastern states feedlotters that kept the price up.
This was a direct consequence of the seasonal conditions experienced around much of NSW, South Australia and WA, and the impact on feed and water availability.
The total number of sheep exported in 2019 will be close to a million head taking into account recent voyages not yet processed by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
The total number of sheep exported from January to the end of October was 813,343, down 3 per cent on the previous year according to MLA and LiveCorp.
The three-month moratorium that sheep exporters voluntarily adhered to before the Independent Regulator made it a condition of trade from June 1 - August 31 had an impact on consignment numbers.
At the end of August the regulator surprised the industry with adding a three week extension to it until September 22, after it said there was a high risk of an animal welfare issue during that time, much to the dismay and opposition of the industry.
Since trade resumed Rural Export and Trading WA made three shipments from Fremantle which totalled 180,878 - bringing the running overall total to 994,221 with a voyage scheduled around Christmas, without considering other exporters' consignments.
Fremantle Port continued to be the dominant port for exports with 958,810 head loaded, while Perth saw 11,870 according to MLA data.
Adelaide realised 15,325 - which was a 42pc increase on last year.
Other ports in the eastern states saw exports down by between 26-31pc.
Not including recent stats, from January to the end of October, Kuwait was the largest importer of sheep at 263,452 head - up on 2018 figures, while Qatar imported 239,699 head - down on last year.
Jordan figures were up to 146,037, while the United Arab Emirates was steady at 70,955.
The big difference in the market was the absence of Turkey as an importer, which knocked about 200,000 head off the total figure if it had been active with the same numbers as 2018.