Farmers feel kill floor squeeze

Kate PollardCountryman

One of the State's biggest sheep processors, WAMMCO, is fully booked until February, as producers struggle to find processing space for sheep.

Growers aired their frustrations at the recent Live Export and Sheep Meat Industry Update in Katanning, with participants asking about future prices and where to send lambs.

After a 60-year low, WA's sheep flock is on the rise with an estimated 6 per cent increase to 14.9 million head in June.

Long term, the increase is positive for the industry but comes as overseas processors compete with cheaper product flooding the market from New Zealand and the eastern states.

Earlier this week, WAMMCO and Fletcher International confirmed processing was continuing in a single shift full capacity with Hillside Meat Processors, Beaufort River Meats and Kimberley Free Range Beef in Gingin increasing numbers.

WAMMCO is processing 21,000 to 22,000 units a day, five and a half days a week, by maximising the hours staff can work under their employment arrangements.

With processing capacity booked until February, WAMMCO chairman Dawson Bradford said it was due to a combination of factors - producers were planning ahead to organise kill times, the increase in numbers, lowering of demand by exporters plus only one of three major abattoirs are processing lambs.

"As a co-operative we have to support our shareholders, but if we were to focus on profit, we would be killing only mutton at the moment," he said.

When the Katanning processing plant re-opened after the winter recess in August, the directors withdrew its 5 per cent premium for high-yielding crossbred lambs.

Fletcher International's Narrikup facility could easily process another one million sheep a year, operating two shifts with help from another 170 workers.

But deterring processors is how long the livestock supply will last and the ability to find the extra staff.

Fletcher International Albany general manager Greg Cross said he believed the big challenge for the industry was trying to find balanced supply across 12 months of the year.

Two years ago, processors were laying off staff as farmers grappled with drought and more than one million sheep were shipped to eastern states producers.

Every spring and summer, demand for processing space increases with the flush of new season lambs.

But by winter, processors are cutting back production capacity before a full winter shutdown.

The highs and lows of supply and demand affect price but when it goes too high, as lamb did earlier this year reaching above $6/kg, it becomes unsaleable and the focus shifts to other sources of protein.

But for producers needing to sell lambs, there is some relief ahead.

Hillside Meat Processors is focused on lighter-weight new season lambs.

It started processing in October and has lifted numbers from 450 head to between 1000 and 1100 a day, including 300 head of mutton.

Hillside Meat Processors spokesman Scott Jewell said it was booked two to three weeks in advance but would not book out any further than that.

Mr Jewell said the focus was to instead lift numbers to full capacity of 1500 head a day.

Under the new ownership of Wellard Agri-Group, the Beaufort River Meats abattoir has also come on board and is in its second week of processing. It has been closed since January.

Former owner Joe Macri, who has stayed on to manage the plant with his family, indicated 1300 head of mutton were being processed a day.

With a full crew of 80 employees back at the plant, at full capacity, 2500 head can be processed a day.

Mr Macri said they were focusing on mutton for US and Middle East export markets until orders were received for lamb.

Space will also open up for producers in northern areas with Kimberley Free Range Beef in Gingin set to increase production.

Abattoir manager Luke Jones said the facility was waiting for the Federal Government to sign off on its tier one approval to export.

Once received, he expected the facility would be fully booked and processing lamb.

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