Exporter's future up and away

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Each week about 100 sheep make the hour or so journey from Muchea to the Perth international airport, ready to board their Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur.

They won't get in-flight entertainment or a reclining seat, but they will make their international flight to Malaysia on a Boeing 777-200 in air-conditioned comfort.

Muchea-based exporter Mick Doak has been sending stock overseas via commercial aircraft for almost eight years.

These days, he mostly exports sheep in specially designed steel crates, but he's exported everything from breeding rams to dairy cows, goats and alpacas - all of which travelled in the cargo hold of commercial flights.

Rangeland goats used to be the mainstay of the business, but wild dogs have taken their toll and finding a consistent supply became on ongoing problem.

The last flight of goats departed four months ago and Mick said he doubted he would handle any more.

Instead, he will focus on specialty stock exports and sheep destined for slaughter.

It's a niche market, but Mick said demand for Australian sheep was strong.

"It started with one or two loads and then we got this main client," Mick said.

"He found it was better to get smaller loads once a week, rather than a load of a 1000 every month.

"He likes 35kg-plus sheep, mainly males - wethers and rams.

"We buy out of the market, at Muchea, mainly because it's easy and convenient - I'm always in the market for those 35kg average males.

"We bought 150 last week and averaged about $75 to 80/head for those."

While Mick aims to buy sheep in this target weight range, he will also buy in lighter sheep and puts them on self-feeders until they are ready.

Keeping costs to a minimum has been the key to making the business work, particularly when prices for sheep hit all-time highs.

"It's not really more expensive to fly them because the way we're doing it, we've cut our costs so much and it's so streamlined that it's nearly as competitive as ships," Mick said.

"We used to use timber crates, which you have to build, and they cost nearly $600 each. Then you can't bring them back into Australia because of quarantine.

"We've streamlined that - we've got our feeding and everything else organised and being a one-man show cuts costs."

There used to be another four or five exporters flying sheep and goats overseas regularly, but now Mick is the only one left.

He said it was a difficult business, with each country having different quarantine regulations, and it has been made more complicated by the looming deadline of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) for Tranche 2 markets.

It's set to come into effect in September, but Mick said it was already causing some of his smaller clients to baulk at buying Australian sheep.

"Normally 60 per cent of the sheep would go through the abattoirs and 40 per cent would be on-sold for things like religious celebrations," Mick said.

"I've lost five clients that take two or three loads a year - they don't own abattoirs but resell sheep. I've lost half of my business, but it was a developing business.

"There is more growth potential, the demand is there, but this ESCAS thing has put a trimmer on the whole lot. The traditional way of selling animals where people buy the animal and slaughter it themselves - that's the business that we've lost."

The good news for Mick is that his main client is prepared to work to meet ESCAS regulations.

"(ESCAS) probably hasn't shrunk our business as much as it could have, because the one client we've retained is a young guy who is progressive," Mick said.

"We're well into that process (of certification). Our client has agreed to put them through the abattoir system.

"We've done a contract with our client and we've half appointed an auditor, which is an extra cost on our business."

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