Update explores trade's future

Kate PollardCountryman

More than 150 farmers concerned about the future of the sheep industry pulled up harvesting efforts for a crucial update on live export and the sheepmeat industry in Katanning on Monday.

It was one of the largest gatherings of sheep farmers since the mulesing debate, and those who could not make the meeting linked in via their home computer or from Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) regional offices.

Sheep Industry Leadership Council (SILC) chairman Rob Egerton-Warburton told those present that the day was about giving producers information to make informed decisions, especially about joining for next year.

DAFWA senior research officer Kimbal Curtis told the forum the WA sheep flock had grown slightly to an estimated 14.9 million head as of June this year, an annual increase of 6 per cent.

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"WA's sheep flock is slowly rebuilding from a 60-year low and while the expectations of small but steady growth are there, any supply or price shock or disruption to the supply chain could undermine this," he said.

Mr Curtis' modelling forecast fewer lambs to slaughter at 1.7 million head, mutton slaughter would increase to one million head and live exports could rise to 1.9 million head.

Dispelling myths about live export industry was Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) chief executive Alison Penfold.

With mainstream media quick to publicise sharks following live export vessels across the ocean, Ms Penfold said there were strict guidelines regarding discharge at sea and the industry was heavily regulated by State, Federal and international law.

She said 99.85 per cent of sheep and cattle arrived in market fit and healthy. "It's important people are aware of this, because it's one of the myths propagated," Ms Penfold said.

She said exporters self-reported breaches, not third parties, and the information could easily been seen by visiting the Federal agriculture department website.

In addition, she said the benefits of Australia being in the market delivering animal welfare were starting to affect the local livestock process.

Ms Penfold said the majority of Australian export markets now operated under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). The remaining one per cent will come online from January 1, 2013.

ESCAS has been in operation in Indonesia for 12 months and in major Middle Eastern markets since March and September.

Despite price declines of 40 to 50 per cent, Ms Penfold was optimistic for the trade.

She said in the short-term, exports beyond two million head were unlikely. However, as the Middle Eastern population grows and incomes rise, longer term the trade could reach three million to four million head.

She said this growth would be underpinned by Australia's reputation as a disease-free provider of livestock and the establishment new markets.

Ms Penfold said the job for the industry now was to minimise risk, maximise animal welfare and find new markets.

She added the industry also needed to rebuild confidence in the Australian community that it was capable of improving animal welfare conditions.

Also at the forum, Meat and Livestock Australia chief economist Tim McRae said Australia exported a record 18,500 tonnes of lamb in October. The record volume was due to a fall in price back to 2008 levels, which Mr McRae said was good news for consumers.

He said retail lamb prices had risen by 80 per cent over three years, while prices for beef and chicken had declined.

Mr McRae told the meeting that he believed the outlook for lamb was still good, but was not as bright as it was 12 months ago.

He said demand for sheepmeat would rely on how price competitive it was against other proteins, such as beef and chicken.

Ahead of the panel session, DAFWA executive director of livestock industries Kevin Chennell outlined the role of the department and reiterated Agriculture Minister Terry Redman's full support of the industry and live export trade.

Statistics and trends for WA sheep flock *

·Sheepmeat and wool industry is worth $1 billion

·In 2011-12, WA producers turned off 2.5 million head of sheep and lambs for domestic slaughter

·In 2011-12, 1.8 million sheep, worth $240 million, were exported live

·Meat production is split - one-third is for the domestic market, the remainder for the export market

·Live export - five countries take 90 per cent of Australia's live trade

·WA flock projected to increase by 6 to 7 per cent per year

·Sheep prices have retreated from 2010-11 levels

Industry comment *

_Alison Penfold, Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) _

"Australia is a world leader in the export of livestock. The industry's success has been underpinned by the most rigorous and detailed regulatory framework in the world, and is now regulated from paddock to the point of processing. That's been supported by industry in investment in research development and extension," Ms Penfold said.

_"No other country, and there are more than 100 countries that export, has ever tried to do what we are doing now. _

_"So we shouldn't underestimate what we are trying to achieve in terms of delivering improvements to animal welfare in markets and securing the trade for the long term." _

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