FOUR years ago Burdekin farmer David Cox bought country to expand his cane growing business, but these days he plans to produce Australian beef to feed the growing demand in China.
His property Dingo Park, 60 kilometres south of Townsville, is already used for irrigated hay production and is home to a feedlot - licensed to 30,000 head and partly constructed - and a live export quarantine facility.
Mr Cox now wants to build a meat processing facility on the site and is waiting on approval from the local council. "Soon after I bought the property, I formed the view that I should consider an abattoir as part of a vertically integrated business model, that an Asian business partner would be looking for," he said. "Subsequent trips to China confirmed the real potential for this project was definitely with Asia.
"As everybody knows, the demand for beef in China is just growing astronomically. There are meatworks in China that are grossly underutilised and they need cattle, so the first thing is going to be live exports.
"There are facilities in China capable of handling 500,000 slaughter cattle annually and are running at half capacity, so they need live imports of slaughter cattle now. At the same time they have feedlots that are only half full, and will be looking for feeder cattle.
"But most of the groups I have been talking to also want a meatworks at both ends - in China and Australia.
"There is demand to put beef on the shelves in Asia that has 'Product of Australia' on it and it attracts a premium which they believe will cover the additional costs of the operation of an Australian abattoir. Our goal is to get this development from council in six months. That is my timeframe of finding a suitable Asian group to commit to the vertically integrated project."
Once approval is given and an abattoir built, it could process up to 900 head daily and create 300 new jobs. So far Mr Cox's total expenditure has exceeded $22 million with a further $8m allocated to complete construction for the 30,000-head capacity feedlot.
Mr Cox said the proposed abattoir would result in additional competition for cattle in the northern zone. "I am opening saying to potential Chinese investors if they pay 20 to 30 percent more to the producers than they are currently getting, we will double the amount of beef out of Northern Australia," he said.
"I have advised them to be prepared to pay the premium, and will supply you with the best, and it will put profitability back to cattle producer who will reinvest and increase output.
"Ultimately the Asian investor will decide on the scale on the abattoir investment, however, it is expected range from $30m to $75m."
Brisbane-based abattoir engineers Wiley Group this week were inspecting the Dingo Park site and assessing its suitability as a processing plant.
Leading north Queensland livestock agent Kevin Currie, Ray White, Townsville, said another processing facility near Townsville that could process 150,000 slaughter cattle annually would be a great advantage for beef producers. Mr Curry said enough cattle would be available to sustain both abattoirs in the long term, but processors would have to complete for them.
An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 head are trucked to southern processors.