Govt, MLA need to lift game, cattle producer survey finds

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Cattle producers are optimistic about the future of the beef industry but despondent about the way government and Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) are addressing major issues of rising input costs, weak commodity prices, deteriorating seasonal conditions and market access.

Despite this, there is widespread support for MLA to be the single national voice of the industry or - to a lesser extent - for Cattle Council of Australia to continue this role.

These were major findings of Cattle Council research that canvassed about 700 commercial cattle producers across Australia during April and May this year through workshops and phone surveys as part of its contribution to the a Meat Industry Strategic Plan for post-2015.

The Cattle Council has been charged with preparing the grass-fed beef section of this national plan, dubbed 'Beef 2015 and Beyond', and its preliminary independent research results were presented to a cross section of industry leaders late last month in Canberra.

The council is now using this information to prepare a draft plan, which is likely to be released in mid-August coinciding with its next board meeting in Alice Springs.

Cattle Council chairman Andrew Ogilvie said it was vital producers were included in the planning process and the council now had good insight into a wide range of issues of importance to grassroots growers.

Its research revealed that 38 per cent of producers across all states and herd sizes were confident about an improved outlook for the cattle industry in the next five years, predominantly driven by increasing commodity prices.

Just over 40 per cent said the outlook would be unchanged to the year 2017 and 12 per cent expected conditions would worsen, mainly due to overseas markets and economies.

Major opportunities and priority areas identified for the beef sector were development of new and improved export markets and market access, better products and genetics, good biosecurity, production strategies and retaining motivated and skilled people.

The main issues currently facing the industry - identified by producers - were rising input costs (especially from WA growers), weak commodity prices, market access, seasonal conditions and, in the longer term, profitability of production.

About 42 per cent of producers felt government was responsible for resolving these issues and half of growers canvassed said they were very unsatisfied with the government efforts to date.

They said Australia needed more efficient and sympathetic Federal agricultural policies.

More than 90 per cent of producers canvassed said there was an average or poor cattle industry relationship with government and this trend was particularly noticeable in WA.

Reasons for this included perceptions government was unsympathetic and out of touch with agriculture, banning of live exports and poor policies.

Just over 30 per cent said responsibility for dealing with current cattle industry issues rested with MLA, and the majority (53 per cent) were satisfied with its efforts.

This was less so in WA, with a higher proportion of producers saying they were not satisfied with MLA in addressing these issues and the organisation should concentrate on improving and maintaining market access - presumably with a focus on the live export trade.

Only 7 and 8 per cent of producers respectively said the Cattle Council and the National Farmers' Federation should be responsible for addressing the major current industry issues identified.

Generally the efforts of these organisations were rated as satisfactory, except in WA where many producers commented that they were unsatisfied with the Cattle Council and wanted it to be more proactive.

The Cattle Council was perceived as being more responsible for issues surrounding people (15 per cent), marketing (13 per cent) and market access (10 per cent).

Producers involved in the research called for an overhaul of national cattle industry representation and 58 per cent said MLA should be the single coordinated voice, followed by the Cattle Council at 18 per cent.

Only 5 per cent said State Farm Organisations (SFOs) were best placed to act as the beef industry's national representative.

Mr Ogilvie said that through the Beef 2015 and Beyond planning process was vital to clarify the future of national producer representation and the Cattle Council's future roles, structure and funding.

He said an independent committee had been set up to examine a range of models for Cattle Council restructure and funding, including a plan put forward by Australian Agricultural Company to have directly-elected producers with voting rights based on herd sizes and another four to five concepts proposed by other groups.

Mr Ogilvie said through the strategic planning research, it had been made clear that grass-fed beef producers wanted a strong national representative voice through a body that was well funded and representative of all members.

"There are a lot of beef producers who are not members of SFOs who feel they don't get a say through the Cattle Council and we want the council to represent everyone," he said.

"The Cattle Council board feels there are innovations it can introduce to make that work."

Mr Ogilvie said funding was a major issue for the council - and all SFOs that were suffering declining memberships - and it was considering a range of future funding models, including direct membership.

"All options need to be examined in terms of cost of administration and how the system will work," he said.

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