WHEN most people think of livestock exports, I am sure the images that come to mind are cattle and sheep on ships.
But the voyage is just a small part of the story.
It is an immensely complex logistical environment, which starts with producers raising fit and healthy livestock.
The right vaccinations, veterinary checks and paperwork are needed on properties and in quarantine feedlots to ensure the livestock meet Australian regulations, as well as the importing country's health protocols and other requirements.
Meanwhile, exporters have to co-ordinate agents, feed suppliers, shearers, stock handlers, veterinarians, trucks, ports, ships and more to make sure they are in the right place at the right time - before the livestock can even leave the country.
Those opposed to the trade certainly don't seem to think much about the role it plays in rural and regional Australia.
In an economic sense, the industry doesn't just belong to the exporters - it belongs to the producers, who retain about half of the revenue in the Australian supply chain.
In return, exporters provide competition at saleyards, diversity of income and a pressure-relief valve when seasons turn bad.
In a year where COVID-19 has shut down many industries, live exports continued to operate.
The live export sector is recognised as one of Australia's essential industries and is playing its part in keeping people employed, along with providing the nation's trading partners with confidence that their nutritional requirements are secure.
Christmas didn't stop the industry.
There is an enormous amount of investment across the entire supply chain and the logistics have to run 24-hours-a-day, seven days-a-week to avoid bottlenecks.
With an average of six ships leaving Australian ports every week in recent years, there are sure to be several on the water at the moment.
It has been a particularly tough year for crews, veterinarians and stock hands, who have spent extended periods away from their friends and families.
Through the exporters, they have had to navigate border closures, staying on ships for the return voyage, doing back-to-back voyages and/or spending 14 days in hotel quarantine.
We are certainly grateful for their dedication and passion for the industry.
Low herd and flock numbers, combined with high prices, will be the biggest challenge in the coming year.
While demand for both boxed meat and live animals has slowed somewhat due to COVID-19, the underlying fundamentals are strong and global protein consumption continues to grow.
As we are now in 2021, there are many new challenges and uncertainties that will need to be navigated.
Will COVID-19 vaccines be rolled out?
To what extent will borders open up?
How rapidly will economies start to recover?
Regardless of the answers, Australia's livestock export industry is in a good position to continue supporting its customers - who rely on live animals to help meet their nutritional aspirations - and providing income to producers and other participants in the Australian supply chain.