TOOWOOMBA, AUSTRALIA — The auctioneer at Elders Livestock Market in Toowoomba, not far from Australia’s Gold Coast, doesn’t get to sit comfortably in an auction stand as animals are chased around a ring in front of him to sell the 919 head of beef, 200 pigs and a whack of bull calves on the Aug. 24 docket.
All of the animals are penned outside, herded by horseback among narrow, high boarded passageways. The auctioneer and his spotters and clerk, walk along an elevated catwalk, selling livestock as they go from pen to the pen. Buyers cram up to each pen. A crowd moves like a swarm of moths.
Prices today of $3 to $3.60 a kilo for beef and $2 to $2.50 a kilo for cull cows “are the best I’ve seen in my seven years in this business,” said Aaron Harvey, a former dairy producer who switched to beef.
Holstein bull calves average $100 to $150. The Canadian and Australian dollars were virtually at par the day of the sale.
About 17 months ago, due to drought and lack of feed, producers were unloading cattle and prices were on the floor. They crept up to about half of this a year ago, said Harvey. During the lows, “it was just terrible,” he said.
The prices keep going up every week and could be substantially higher, said Harvey, as Indonesia only has enough beef in its feedlots for three weeks consumption, making them crave Australian beef.
The dry weather is still with Australian livestock producers, noted Harvey. “We had 300 millimetres in May and that was the last real rain we had.”
A busload of Chinese visitors watching the sale and touring the facilities drew a reaction from Harvey, who said they have poured money onto Australian farms. The Chinese have bought 60,000 open Holstein heifers near breeding age in the last 12 months. With just over 6,000 producers in Australia, that averages 10 open heifers per Australian producer. At $3,000 per heifer, that means $30,000 per producer on average, Harvey said.
There are about 40 per cent fewer Australian dairy producers than Canadian, with Australia producing two billion litres more milk per year while producing less milk per cow than Canada.
“The Chinese just bought 500,000 acres out west of here and they’re here seeing what they need to pay for beef,” Harvey said.
Trevor Hess, a market reporter from the Meat and Livestock Australia, was the Chinese tour guide and noted in an interview with this Canadian reporter that the Australian-Chinese free trade agreement “will in the end be a good thing.”
As a result of that now guaranteed Chinese market, new slaughter facilities are being constructed across the nation, he said. That includes a huge one here in Toowoomba, slated to be completed by 2016, right beside the new airport, which will see fresh beef cuts and a number of dairy products flown to China every day, Hess said.
About 75 per cent of Australian beef doesn’t go through sale facilities like Elders, but goes directly from the farm to slaughter facilities, Hess said. He also named several large Australian companies that are integrated, owning both the feedlots and slaughter facilities.
High cull prices and a strong export market for heifers to China have kept milk production in check, and therefore the on-farm milk prices are high, Hess said.
Australian beef cattle sales hinge on rain or the lack thereof, he said. Noting that the forecast called for rain in the coming days, just as spring is about to start, he said even the hint of rain will mean beef cattle numbers will drop to fewer than 400 at auction in the next week, adding that rains equals grass.
Beef here are pastured and purely grass fed until bought by feedlot owners who then grain feed them, he said.
One change at Elders since visiting 17 months ago are the signs posted regarding the auction’s humane treatment of animals. Animal rights activists have been photographing, even at the unloading dock, said worker Graham Knox. “Now I can’t even shove a pig.”