Letter to the editor: Live export

Photo: Supplied.
Photo: Supplied.

Contrary to the unsubstantiated claims made by Mr Darren West MLC on his recent lightning visit to Esperance, the closure of live export trade of sheep is not inevitable.

Not if people responsible for making important and difficult decisions use reason and logic and consider the greater good rather than succumb to the emotional outpourings of highly motivated minority.

Mr West further claimed that a majority of Esperance people would support the ending of live export without producing any evidence to back up this claim.

He then claimed that the industry could easily transition to a boxed meat trade, again without any evidence to support this or in fact an actual market for this new product.

If Mr West was interested in making good decisions it would have benefited him to meet interested parties within the livestock industry within this town and canvassed their thoughts and opinions.

This was something that Mr West failed to do. 

For a lot of non-farming people it can be difficult to understand why the live export trade exists at all and what sheep are sent to this market.

The vast majority of sheep sent to live export are merino wethers (castrated male sheep) generally around 12 months of age.

They have to be sold at this age to make room on the farm for the next drop of lambs coming along.

Most farms keep only female lambs for future breeding and the male lamb portion is surplus to requirements. Merinos are grown for wool, very high quality wool, however as a meat producing animal they are not much good.

The meat is quite edible of course, most farmers and their families have grown up eating merinos, however they are slower to grow than other breeds with lower yield and are less desired by processors who subsequently pay less for such animals.

If you buy a lamb roast from an Australian butcher or supermarket it almost certainly won't be a Merino wether. So given that Australians don't want (to pay for) merino wethers in the supermarket, the problem for wool growers is what to do with these animals.

Up until now wool growers have been lucky that there are people around the world who value these animals and are generally prepared to pay well for them. The criteria being that the sheep are live exported to these countries.    

The banning of live export will not only affect the economics of farm businesses generally, it will specifically affect the economics of wool production putting further pressure on this valuable industry.

If we remove the $200 million of export income generated by the live export trade the processing of all sheep within WA will fall effectively to 3 processors operating for two huge supermarket chains.

The live export industry puts a floor under sheep prices and keeps the processors and supermarkets honest. The loss of this competition will see a significant reduction in the value of sheep, all sheep, across WA. 

You may think this will be good as the price of lamb at the checkout will be lower, and it will be. For a while.

Farmers are business people and if there is no money in it, they won't do it. Instead of farming sheep, farmers will swap to a more profitable enterprise, perhaps cattle or perhaps cropping.

However, if you thought lamb was expensive now, consider how much it will cost when it has to be imported from interstate or overseas?  

Live export is absolutely pivotal to the wool industry in WA and the sheep industry more generally.

It brings $200 million of export income a year which is spent in the rural towns of this state.

We as an industry and as citizens need our political leaders to lead, to recognise this important industry is legitimate, is for the greater good and communicate this to the wider electorate.

Where there are failings we will willing support our law makers to make improvements so that this important trade can continue on into the future. 

Give this some thought the next time you chuck a chop on the barbie.