Producers seek China sheep niche

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

WA's biggest meat processor has thrown its support behind a WA producer-led tour of China aimed at finding "significant market opportunities" for red meat.

V&V Walsh will join seven hand-picked producers and representatives from Meat and Livestock Australia, industry and government for the nine-day visit to the world's biggest red meat market, which will look at retail and food service channels in Beijing, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia and Shanghai.

Producers were selected by WA processors for the trip based on supply numbers and their ability to expand the State's dwindling sheep flock in response to China's growing demand for Australian red meat.

The State sheep herd is sitting at 14.5 million compared to 30 million 15 years ago.

The tour comes after last year's landmark deal signed between V&V Walsh and Grand Farm, China's biggest red meat importer from Australia and New Zealand.

Since that time, the Bunbury-based processor has fallen well-short of its 21,000 head a week target.

The $1 billion deal meant the Bunbury-based processor had to process an extra 500,000 lambs and 30,000 cattle a year for Grand Farm.

Grand Farm is investing $1 billion overall in boosting supply and production with the backing of authorities in Inner Mongolia, where the Walsh brothers have a multimillion-dollar stake in the development of an abattoir with capacity to process 10,000 lambs a day, undercover feedlots and a research centre.

The tour, scheduled to leave Perth for China tomorrow, is being led by the Department of Agriculture and Food, with support from MLA.

_Countryman _ understands an aim of the tour is for local producers to form a relationship with Grand Farm, facilitated by the longstanding business relationship and friendship of V&V Walsh director Peter Walsh and Grand Farm president Chen Xibin.

Department acting executive director Bruce Mullan said the delegation formed part of broader work through the Sheep Industry Business Innovation project to enable the sheep industry to build markets and capacity to supply them.

"The aim of the project is to improve the competitiveness and grow the value of the WA sheep industry, generating benefits to producers, the regions, communities and the State's economy," he said.

"China is already Western Australia's largest sheep meat market and there is scope for further development.

"Delegates will build knowledge right through the supply chain, noting different regional market requirements through retail and food service channels as well as looking at local sheep production systems which WA also has an opportunity to target, for example through genetics and technical assistance."

Frankland sheep producer Richard Coole is looking forward to taking part in the tour.

He breeds about 4000 crossbreed lambs a year on his 7000ha farm.

"I crossbreed my Merino ewes with White Suffolk rams because it caters for feedlot, live export and domestic markets," he said.

"I am willing to make my lambs available for the Chinese market as long as the price is good. On the local market I am getting between $5 and $6 kg."

Other producers on the trip are Neville McDonald (Esperance), Scott Boyle (York), Craig Heggaton (Kojonup), Andrew Gillam (Dongara), Hugh Roberts (Dandaragan) and Dr Kelly Manton-Pearce (Yealering).

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