Climate, politics and animal activists: We asked the northern beef industry why ‘the steaks are so high’ in 2019

The Northern Territory’s cattle industry is facing a number of challenges at the moment.

Despite the best efforts of ex-Tropical Cyclone Trevor there are still plenty of stations that have missed out on a decent wet season, with some properties in the Barkly facing an especially tough year ahead.

Debates around animal welfare and live exports continue to flare up, and have led to the introduction of ‘independent observers’ onboard livestock ships, costing industry a small fortune to appease Government and those who want the trade stopped.

And while there has long been a concerning city-country divide in Australia, the industry now finds itself battling a growing trend of being portrayed as a threat to the climate and increasing incidents of animal rights activism.

The ‘steaks are high’ right now for industry, and that is the theme of this year’s Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) conference, held in Darwin this week.

As hundreds of cattle producers gathered, ABC Rural asked a group of industry leaders to share their views on some of the challenges and opportunities.

We asked them four questions:

What should the cattle industry do to change the growing-public perception that cows are bad for the climate?

Amber Driver, Elkedra Station: As an industry, we need to be much more proactive and user friendly in sharing our stories, backed with facts and figures with our urban neighbours.

It is really hard to be reactive to misconception and ‘fake news’.

We know, as landholders in the cattle grazing industry, it is crucial for our livestock that we supply, sustain and improve — when possible — clean water, healthy soils and pastures.

So why not be proactive and share this with everyone else?

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[One way we could do this is] work with the Department of Education to develop learning outcomes for beef production in the Australian curriculum, producing an interactive learning material that can be accessed by all and taught in our classrooms.

In educating everyone about the beef production chain and demonstrating how cattle producers are recognising and improving landcare management strategies, we can show that our industry is invested in the long-term outcomes of the land we manage, and delivering a sustainable, high quality product to the market.

John Armstrong, Gilnockie Station and former NTCA president: It is always hard to get good news stories to the public.

However, without cattle grazing, our rangelands would quickly become overgrown with weeds and profuse grasses, which would cause great damage by resultant very hot wildfires.

Neither socially nor economically can the taxpayer, the public, or the environment afford that, and greenhouse gas contributions would soar.

That is the story which needs circulating. Those who advocate against our industry must be forced to understand and answer this.

Kevin Mulvahil, from live exporting company South East Asian Livestock Services: We need to challenge the research as it only focuses on the emissions from an animal and not the overall environment that the cattle exists in, or what would happen within that environment if cattle are removed.

Agriculture isn’t a static point in time. It is evolving and is part of a very diverse and changing environment — especially in northern Australia.

It could be possible that having cattle grazing is better for the environment.

I would think that removing cattle will have minimal impact, but we need the science to support our argument.

The existing studies seem to be aimed at arguments that cows are bad for the environment and therefore we should remove them or [driven by] the militant vegans wanting us to stop consuming animal products.

Labor has vowed to phase-out live sheep exports if elected, but says it won’t interfere with the live cattle trade. Do you believe them? Why or why not?

Amber Driver: A throwaway statement ‘because it is different’ should be putting us all on high alert.

Our beef industry may well cover half the land mass in the NT and live export over 1 million head of cattle per year, but we are not so lucky when it comes to the numbers [in the] game of votes for winning an election.

I believe we would be naïve to think the live trade in the cattle industry is safe just because someone in the Federal Labor Party was quoted voicing it will be safe because it is different [to the sheep live trade].

But after sheep, what next?

We may see parameters put into place for the live cattle trade — for example, only live cattle trade in winter, or only live trade to certain countries, etcetera.

Anything is possible and we should be prepared.

As a country, we support freedom of speech and it only takes one voice for the tides of change to turn a ‘safe’ market into a memory.

John Armstrong: I don’t trust Labor with our live export industry.

Kevin Mulvahil: I trust that Joel Fitzgibbon is being truthful in saying he understands the benefit of our live export trade and will not interfere.

He has seen the controls and processes we have in place to maximise animal welfare.

I believe Labor understands the need for live export and the positive impact it has across communities in north Australia and South-East Asia.

The right wing of Labor has a social conscience. They understand that if live export is removed then we condemn millions of people in Asia to a life of poverty and would not support that happening.

The problem is in this century we see governments on both sides doing backroom deals with minorities to win votes and-or remain in power.

So while they are saying that there is support for live export and they will not interfere, it is not possible to fully trust either side if they are chasing numbers.

Governments can’t make it rain, but what could they do better to help the cattle industry during dry times?

Amber Driver: The hardest thing about being in the middle of a prolonged natural disaster is asking for help.

Right now, we are in a drought event that has not been experienced in over four generations.

Both the NT and Federal Government can help by offering:

  • fodder subsidies for hay and lick supplements that are fed during the drought;
  • freight subsidies on destocking or sending cattle to agistment, or forced sales;
  • low interest, long-term loans governed by the Federal Government. In the early 1980s the Government offered low interest loans during drought through the Commonwealth Development Bank;
  • put serious funds into getting the beef road network up to scratch, with bitumen. The state of the beef road network is appalling, wear and tear over the drought without moisture to hold the road together is becoming apparent, bulldust holes, corrugations, sand drift, are just some of the dangers pastoralists are facing on these roads everyday;
  • mental health support, as the men and women who are in the paddock each day dealing with the prolonged drought conditions without a break or rain in sight need to know they are supported by the industry, community and governments; and
  • allowances and subsidies on wages for staff. Keeping families and staff on the land during the drought when there is no cash flow.

John Armstrong: Governments don’t and cannot control industry management to prepare for dry times.

However they can facilitate better planning with:

  • better weather predictions;
  • tax incentive for long-term drought investment fund hedging, contributed to in the good years; and
  • availability of cash to shift livestock and buy fodder, or better care for animal health, in dry times is essential — especially when sales are down because of the dry time.

Kevin Mulvahil: Firstly, ensuring market access remains open is key.

Dry periods often mean an inability to move cattle anywhere, except for overseas destinations, as they have access to fed and water.

Producers are practical people. They can drive machinery, build yards and much more.

So while it is dry, rather than giving handouts, let’s build assets that can be used for when the dry spell ends.

Roads have been identified as being priorities and the best time to build a road is when it is dry.

Likewise dig dams, build spelling facilities, dredge ports, use the resources that are available and wanting to work.

At the end of the dry period, producers would have been upskilled, infrastructure developed, and communities — especially small businesses — continue to operate.

We cannot make it rain but we can ensure that when it starts to rain again critical investment has been made into people and infrastructure that will benefit industry in the long term.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in the beef industry right now?

Amber Driver: Our access to information and the speed at which technology is advancing — virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

We can use these platforms for so many applications such as promotion of the industry, as a learning tool in schools, field days without leaving your property, animal health diagnosis, ‘how-to’ mechanical repairs, consumer advice when buying meat in the supermarket, etcetera.

The biggest limiting factor for producers to embrace this technology is education.

We have been born in a generation that operated on a round dial phone and a fancy fax machine and all your daylight hours were spent out, physically working.

John Armstrong: There are two things which stand out as very exciting for industry:

  • availability of very good fertility testing for the bulls. My analogy is this — would anyone buy a truck without first checking to see whether it has an engine in it? So then why buy bulls without first checking whether they are fertile? Clearly this is blisteringly obvious; and
  • a major advancement under development is the crush-side ten-minute test of DNA for both females and males of tropical composites. This will yield good estimated breeding values measurements for fertility traits, for immediate selection or culling. A quantum leap. Breed societies are fragrantly negligent to not be leading the charge on these fertility issues. The imperative is that one cannot conduct any ensuing discussion of any trait of any animal if it cannot be first produced.

Kevin Mulvahil: This decade has seen a massive rise in the number of women participating at all levels and across a number of aspects of agriculture in general.

One of the positive outcomes of the live export ban of 2011 is that the lead was taken by a number of women, the likes of Emily Brett, Jo Brosnan and Tracey Hayes.

To a large extent they became the public face of the industry.

I’m not saying that this has been the cause for change. However, prior to this period we had minimal female representation in the industry.

Women are winning positions based on merit and not to tick a box to appease the agendas of a group of people.

I’m not saying that it has been an easy process for any woman, but looking around industry today there is a large group of young women poised to take on leadership positions as we move into the next decade.

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