OPINION: AS a vet in Darwin - who spent 22 years as a research vet for the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and did research on cow death rates on large stations in the late 1980s pre-large scale live export - I believe the live export of cattle to Indonesia is vital for animal welfare both here and in Indonesia.
The Australian public needs to understand that stopping live export will result in the biggest man-made animal welfare disaster in Australia's history.
If live export is ever phased out without a viable alternative market being available (when they existed, meatworks in north Australia used to pay half the price), producers will be unable to afford supplementation or a second round weaning muster.
This will increase the annual cow death rate by an extra 9 per cent in the approximately 2.5 million cows in the live export zone.
That means an additional 225,000 cows - and most of their calves - dying unnecessarily.
The reason cows will die, rather than steers, is that feeding a calf makes a mother cow lose body condition. If the weaner is not removed many cows die in the late dry season. We were all shocked by the Four Corners footage, but that is nothing compared to the cruelty of dying in the paddock. Without live export, pastoralists would not be able to pay for husbandry vital for animal welfare.
The worst case animal welfare scenario is where cattle are worth so little that pastoralists are forced off the land and cattle are left to fend for themselves.
In this situation there would be no-one to pump the bores, provide essential vaccinations and supplements or implement the many animal husbandry practices such as weaning.
In northern Australia it is impossible to implement clean musters due to the huge size of the free range paddocks (up 100,000 hectares). Consequently the option isn’t cattle or no cattle: it’s cared-for cattle or feral, unmanaged cattle.
The TB eradication program (BTEC) of the 1980s and 1990s showed the cost (about $1 billion 20 years ago) to remove wild cattle and buffalo from the northern rangelands. Removal meant mustering and processing what you could sell for a pittance, shooting the baby calves and untruckables at the yard and then shooting everything you couldn't muster from a helicopter.
Feral cattle have higher death rates at the same stocking density as husbanded cattle, as they get no vaccination, supplementation or weaning of large calves.
As animals are not turned off, they keep breeding till the combination of overstocking, land degradation and a low rainfall year leads to up to 50pc deaths in breeding age females and high deaths in young cattle.
This reduces numbers, which leads to increased feed supply for the survivors and the whole miserable cycle starts again.
We in northern Australia can't economically grow young cattle to 450-600kg as the Indonesians are doing in their feedlots.
We are quite efficient producers of 300kg unfinished (store) cattle. After that they need to go either north into Asia or south into the better areas of Australia (at a lower price). In northern Australia young cattle put on 100-150kg in the six month wet, but they are generally unable to gain weight through the dry.
Therefore, a weaner (average weight 150kg, average age six months) takes one to three wet seasons to get to boat weight of 280-350kg. It will then take another two to three wet seasons to get fat and heavy enough to kill at 450-600kg. Unfortunately, these four to six year old bullocks produce tougher beef than is found acceptable by Australian consumers and are only suitable for low priced manufacturing meat.
Feedlots in the north are not a viable option as we can’t economically grow the required feed. Indonesia has better soil and rainfall distribution and their agricultural by-products such as rice bran, palm kernel cake, pineapple pulp and cut grass make great cattle feed - which is actually better for cattle than the higher grain rations fed in Australia.
They also have cheap labour. One large feedlot can support 100,000 Indonesians through associated industries.
To have feedlots in northern Australia we would have to do wholesale land clearing, fertilising and irrigation. As well as destroying the environment, the result would be financially disastrous. Cropping was tried in the Douglas-Daly region in the mid-1980s and was not economically viable.
In Indonesia, over 97pc of the beef from Australian cattle is sold into unrefrigerated ‘wet markets’ or direct to meat manufacturers. The meat is manufactured into “bakso balls” which are a mix of minced meat and tapioca flour eaten in soup. They are an affordable, reliable and safe source of protein for some of the world’s poorest people.
Unfortunately, it is simply not possible to replace these unrefrigerated systems with frozen or box beef as very little electricity is used in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government plans to become self-sufficient in beef by 2014. For this to happen, the calves would need to be on the ground now as calves need two or three years to grow to turnoff weight. At present consumption, there are 2 million less calves than required (800,000 to replace live cattle imports and 1.2 million to replace boxed beef imports into Indonesia).
If the breeders to produce these calves are included, they are 5.83 million head short. Indonesia does not have unused grassland, so to feed these extra cattle, the Indonesians have to clear rainforest and plant enough grass to run 40pc more cattle than currently exist.
This will totally destroy the forest wild life, including the last wild orangutans.
To compound the problem, Indonesian average beef consumption (currently 5g/day versus 95g in Australia) is increasing far faster than their cattle numbers.
In contrast, in northern Australia, cattle are grazed on native grasslands amongst the wildlife.
If we do not keep exporting live cattle to Indonesia they will eat even more of their local herd and then begin importing from other countries, such as Brazil. To date, Indonesia has been reluctant to import from Brazil as it is infected with Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD).
If Indonesia ever becomes infected with FMD, as a consequence of importing from an infected country such as Brazil, the chance of it getting into Australia increases exponentially.
In addition, Brazil has far less stringent animal welfare protocols than Australia.
I’m concerned that if Australia pulls out of the live export market the only change will be that Brazilian cattle will be subjected to sub-standard processing practices as the Australian supply chain assurance program will be stopped.
Animal activists frequently refer to live export boats as “death ships”. I believe the short haul cattle boats are not a welfare problem. The latest data from the first half of 2011 showed the death rate for cattle on Indonesian voyages was 71 out of 233,797 shipped, which is 0.03pc for the 8 day average voyage.
This is 1.3pc when taken over a year, which is far lower than the 2-3pc expected average annual paddock deaths.
For comparison, I checked out the human death rate on cruise ships and found one where 8 out of 4,000 people died, which is 0.2pc. A couple of references that say they expect 1 or 2 deaths out of 3,000 per cruise (0.03pc-0.06pc) and one reference where P&O said 17 people died out of 200,000 on cruises in 2006 which is 0.01pc. Therefore I can conclude that the cattle death rate on boats to Indonesia is comparable with that of human cruise ships.
The method of slaughter was the main problem with the Indonesian trade and this is being addressed. All Australian cattle must now go through approved supply chains which meet OIE standards, with staff training provided by Australia. Currently 85pc of Australian cattle slaughtered in Indonesia are stunned pre-slaughter (versus 15pc a year ago) and most stunners are paid for and maintained by the importers of Australian cattle.
Australia is now, and should be in the future, a part of Indonesia’s (and the world’s) solution to food security. We are a provider of food to the world and we have systems in place to ensure it is safe and - where necessary - halal.
We are the only country in the world to have a supply chain assurance system to ensure the welfare of animals we export up to slaughter. Therefore rather than stopping the live animal trade from Australia, we should be promoting it. In this manner we will be a solution to world food security, promote better animal welfare practices worldwide, and influence other exporting nations to follow suit.
All better outcomes than being insular and stopping live export from the only nation that is actively investing in animal welfare at its destination markets.
However, my main points are that the live export trade to Indonesia is humane and vital for cattle welfare in the northern rangelands of Australia.