Sheep, cattle numbers game

Kate MatthewsCountryman

WA sheep and cattle producers need to ensure numbers remain at sustainable levels to protect the future of their industry, according to Sheep Industry Leadership Council chairman Rob Warburton.

He said that in the sheep industry, numbers were frighteningly low and at the beginning of the financial year there were only 14.5 million with a 78 per cent lambing percentage.

Mr Warburton said with exporters and processors needing 5.6 million sheep between them, there was a shortfall of 800,000 head. The easiest way to build numbers was to lift lambing to 90 per cent across the State.

Mr Warburton believes this can be achieved easily through better management and education on fertility and lamb survival.

This has been made possible through the industry-developed Lifetime Ewe Management Program where producers who have participated have lifted their lambing rates by 15 per cent.

If production doesn't increase, it won't only mean more lamb from the east being sold at WA supermarkets.

"There is a misconception out there that decreasing volume increases price - it's wrong and it's easy to prove wrong," Mr Warburton said.

"When you lose capacity, you effectively start to force the price down because the ability of the processor or live exporter to run profitable businesses decreases.

"If numbers aren't enough to warrant the industry being here, it will move and we will be left with nothing."

Mr Warburton said the cattle industry, which had got down to just one processor, was a key example of what could happen to the sheep industry if numbers did not lift.

To remain sustainable, WAFarmers sheep meat president Jeff Murray believes prices need to remain at today's levels.

Mr Murray said farmers were realising that there was less risk involved when operating a mixed farming enterprise, especially during drought and frost events.

But the main concern was when local processors, like Hillside Meats, had not been able to reopen.

"As a meat works, it reduces competition for our livestock and we need all our local processors and live exporters," Mr Murray said.

While sheep meat from the east is sold at various times during the year on supermarket shelves, Mr Murray believes compulsory labelling will help consumers identify the product.

Donnybrook beef producer and WA Beef Council member John Fry is also a strong advocate of labelling.

He believes a compulsory grading system, such as MLA's Meat Standards Australia where every cut is labelled appropriately including origin, is needed.

Mr Fry said the selling of beef from the east in WA supermarkets was only a problem when it undercut the premium quality of local product and was not labelled properly.

In the past two years, Mr Fry said producers were able to take advantage of the high prices offered by eastern states buyers for WA cattle.

"The last thing we want is some sort of levy or penalty for cattle moving back and forth from west to east," he said. "I am very much a free marketer and I think the industry is too.

"We have a sustainable industry and bringing meat from the east happens regularly. It means absolutely nothing compared with losing the live export industry.

"If we lost live exports in WA, when we export half of our saleable cattle that way, it would create a far greater disaster than a little bit of beef that trickles in from the east."

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