Decade in review: Merinos survive, goats thrive

Small animals rebound after tumultuous Queensland decade

Livestock
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In a decade, the wool industry in Queensland has gone from the depths of despair to being able to lay claim to being the most profitable industry in the state's rangelands.

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In a decade, the wool industry in Queensland has gone from the depths of despair to being able to lay claim to being the most profitable industry in the state's rangelands.

In addition, rising world demand for protein is seeing other small animal enterprises such as goats and meat sheep thrive and look to a profitable decade ahead.

It's happened on the back of growing affluence in customer countries, finding a solution to wild dog attacks that is building productivity at the same time, and is thanks to targeted research and marketing efforts, despite a drought that has challenged growers for the majority of the past 10 years.

World Federation of Merino Breeders president Will Roberts, based at Morven, remembers the years around 2009 when, in his words, people were "just poking along, not making decent enough money" and young people had chased big money in mining.

"We've gone from $600 a bale and hardly making a living back then to now having a decent lifestyle and getting a proper return."

He credits much of that to the research and development, plus the marketing, done by Australian Wool Innovation, along with the work in international fields by meat processor Roger Fletcher.

It was the AWI's work in convincing people to buy wool, a product they don't have to have, that is now giving growers a stable income, he said.

"Even if we had more wool, the market would still be at good levels. We're selling wool into countries that once upon a time didn't know what that fabric even was.

Queensland's wool production in the last decade, measured in millions of kg greasy wool.

Queensland's wool production in the last decade, measured in millions of kg greasy wool.

"It's the same with the red meat side - people in developing countries can now afford to eat the flesh of an animal, not just their insides. The world is crying out for protein - it's made a huge difference to our businesses."

Drought remains the barrier to taking advantage of the growing demand.

In 2009/10, Queensland produced 17,194 million kilograms of greasy wool. At the end of the 2018/19 year, that had dropped to 8388mkg.

That's up slightly from the low of 7848mkg output in the 2015/16 year.

Sheep numbers in the state have declined from 3.6 million in 2009/10 to 2.2m in the last financial year.

Total demise avoided by fences

In woolbroker Bruce McLeish's eyes, the decline, due to a combination of drought and wild dog attacks, almost meant the demise of the sheep industry in Queensland.

"People don't realise how close we came," he said.

"People were desperately baiting and trapping - they were talking about walking off places they couldn't make a return from.

"It was a groundswell of people demanding action that saved the industry."

Queensland sheep numbers have fluctuated dramatically in the last decade, thanks to drought and wild dogs.

Queensland sheep numbers have fluctuated dramatically in the last decade, thanks to drought and wild dogs.

Mr Roberts described cluster fencing as on par with buffel grass in its importance to the industry, saying it had been one of the most proactive things done in a long time.

"No-one would be able to run small animals without it," he said.

As far as describing the dire sheep population situation of a couple of years ago as close to demise, he said it was hard to know what the critical threshold would be.

"It's hard to be definitive about that, but what I can say is that the Merino sheep of today has never been bred better to take advantage of rain when it comes."

AWI trade consultant Scott Carmody said times had been desperate.

"People couldn't lose $3000-$4000 in one night and keep going," he said.

"Total collapse may be a bit over the top but if you go back to the late '80s, Queensland production was almost one million bales.

"These days that's down to 100,000 bales."

Thanks to ongoing drought, Mr Carmody said the industry nationally was now facing what Queensland had confronted, a sell-off of core breeding stock, adding that mutton prices of $6/kg were the saviour of most sheep enterprises at the moment.

Meat sheep and goat diversity

Holding more than one card in the deck is one of the tricks the excruciating drought has taught plenty of Queensland producers and is what has contributed to the rise in the number of meat sheep and goat enterprises.

Growers such as Angus MacDonald at Blackall, and fellow Blackall producers Joe Taylor and Anita Dennis, have either introduced goats to an existing Merino enterprise or trade in a variety of options, depending on seasons and prices.

Genetic experimentation, such as Kalahari Reds at the Taylors, is becoming more commonplace, and for hopeful young people such as Clay Armstrong and his Barcoo Boer stud, goats are a low-cost starting option.

Joe Taylor and Anita Dennis at Blackall are one of many putting feral goats behind wire and introducing better genetics.

Joe Taylor and Anita Dennis at Blackall are one of many putting feral goats behind wire and introducing better genetics.

Much of the activity in Queensland's western regions is backed by the Western Meat Exporters processing plant at Charleville, which has expanded into sheep meat.

It is processing 2000 goats and up to 2000 sheep and lambs five days a week and around 70 per cent of its goat meat is exported to America.

Manager Campbell McPhee sees the exclusion fencing revolution as the backbone to the future growth of his business.

According to the MLA, the highest recorded goat slaughter in Queensland in the past decade was in 2014 with nearly 765,000 reported.

In 2019, Queensland saw the lowest recorded slaughter numbers in the last 10 years and the highest recorded over the hooks price for eastern states.

Queensland produced 9218 tonnes carcase weight of meat in 2009 - in 2019 it was 5239 tcwt. On the other hand, eastern states over the hooks prices have gone from 186c/kg in 2009 to 790c/kg, for animals over 20kg this year.

The US has consistently been our largest goat meat customer in the past 10 years, taking 12,804tcwt in 2009; so far this year we have exported 13,823tcwt, but that's down from a high of 19,090tcwt in 2014.

Live goat exports peaked in 2009 with Malaysia being the largest importer of Australian goats for the last 10 years. However, it has slumped from taking 89,138 in 2009 to a measly 5148 head this year.

It may surprise some but since 2011, Victoria has surpassed Queensland in goat production.

Crystal ball gazing

As to the future of the various small animal industries in Queensland, whether they be goats, Merinos or meat sheep, Mr McLeish said meat sheep such as Dorpers had a place in Queensland's future but wouldn't replace Merinos.

"Most country isn't that bad that you have to run meat sheep on it," he said.

"There will probably be more people running goats in harsher country.

"The outlook for sheep of all breeds is very strong though, thanks to meat prices, low numbers and the strong demand for wool.

"Couple that with good innovation in areas like nutrition management and lamb survival, plus swine flu in Asia, I don't think we've seen the top of it yet.

"It will be a perfect storm when the season breaks, and there are restockers in the market as well."

Will Roberts said droughts would never be far away on the land, therefore the future should be approached positively to prepare for the inevitable.

Drought aside, he said money and profitability was the way to attract young people to the industry in numbers, which was what was now on offer.

"I've never found a Merino easier to run - people talk about the workload but we've got a great animal now.

"They're mostly waterproof, everything is tagged and traceable, and we've learnt how to put mobs through the shed relating to staple length so that all flows."

The biggest obstacle to growth, Mr Roberts believed, was the fault-finding with the AWI, which he described as stone-throwing.

"You can't kick a dog in the guts and expect it to work for you," he said. "It's very unfortunate that our so-called peak body can only find fault with our R&D body."

China remains our dominant market by a long stretch, purchasing not less than 70pc of the national clip in the last five years at least, according to the AWI's Scott Carmody, and he couldn't see that decreasing.

As far as mulesing trends, an AWI spokesman said Queensland, along with Tasmania, had the lowest rate of mulesing of all states, and growers in both states had adopted pain relief in a rapid fashion over the last decade.

"There is no doubt that there are signs wool buyers prefer - and are prepared to pay a premium - for non-mulesed wool," he said.

A priority for AWI is to increase the pool of shearers in Queensland and around Australia, which it says is being met by training camp support and shearing shed design workshops.

And that leaves drought and wild dogs, two challenges the industry has had since it began in Queensland.

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