SHEEP producers can expect the live export market to be slow going until after this year's three-month moratorium concludes in September.
The live sheep trade has reduced from 23 per cent of the WA market to about 10pc since the moratorium was enforced in 2019 and twin-tiered vessels were also prohibited from being used in the trade from Australia.
The regulatory disruption in the past few years has shortened the window for exports to occur and impacted the availability of vessels, which has contributed to the slow down.
Rural Export and Trading WA (RETWA), Australia's biggest live sheep exporter, only has one vessel in operation servicing the WA market at the moment - the Al Messilah.
It has about a five-week turnaround period from loading in Fremantle to delivering to Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates before returning for another consignment.
Due to Qatar's government no longer subsidising the trade into that country, RETWA has lost about a third of its consignments, which totalled 180,000 head in 2020.
RETWA managing director Murray Frangs said it has been a bit of a hit for the business and would see the number of live sheep shipped in 2021 below 700,000 in total.
It is expected to be the lowest in many years.
Last year a total of 811,511 sheep were exported live but as of this week only about 130,000 head have been exported in 2021.
Mr Frangs said 63,146 sheep and 292 cattle were on the Al Messilah when it left Fremantle in early April before docking at Kuwait last Thursday.
He said despite the decline in numbers "the demand is still high".
"While the pricing has been high (getting up to as high as $220 per head at Muchea for shipping wethers last month) it didn't take away the demand," Mr Frangs said.
"We'll try and do what we can before the moratorium begins."
He expected at least one more consignment from WA before the end of May, as the moratorium starts on June 1 through to September 1.
When it kicks in the Al Messilah will return to South Africa to continue to supply the Gulf market with its much needed protein.
Mr Frangs said the South African market was continuing to build and fill the gap that Australia was currently leaving in the market.
RETWA's other vessel, the Al Kuwait, is about to visit China with a load of cattle from Timaru, New Zealand.
It has been on charter for a number of months servicing the cattle trade.
RETWA may change that later in the year when the Saudi Arabian market is ready to receive Australian sheep, although Mr Frangs said there were many aspects of the trade to be worked out.
While the Saudi market has opened as an option for exporters and provides more certainty for producers supplying the live trade after a couple of years of turmoil in the industry - questions still need to be answered.
Mr Frangs said exporters would need clarity on how many sheep the Saudi's would require and whether they could be delivered to one port.
"We need to know if we could do a partial shipment to Saudi Arabia or if it would be a single port delivery at Jeddah (in the Red Sea)," he said.
He said if they could receive 60,000 head at one time then a single port delivery could be done but if the available capacity was 15,000-20,000 head then that could cause a problem under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme.
These issues were expected to be resolved in the coming months so that after September 1 the option was available there for the Al Kuwait to be utilised in that market.