Breeding cows sent to slaughter as drought forces cattle properties to run dry

Generations of Australia’s prime breeding cows are heading to slaughterhouses as a lack of water and feed sees more producers opt to “cash in and get out”.

Almost 100,000 female cattle have been sold collectively in New South Wales at saleyards in Scone, Singleton, Tamworth, Gunnedah and Dubbo this year alone.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) have projected more than 8 million head of adult cattle will be sent to abattoirs across the country this year, up by 7 per cent on 2018, and in the 12 months to date 1 in 2 have been females.

Cattle breeders and agents are concerned about the national herd diminishing and how breeding lines will be rebuilt once the drought breaks.

Beef and cropping farmers Pauline and Adam Sykes have just offloaded their last lot of cows from their fourth-generation property near Martindale in the Hunter Valley.

“We just can’t face it, so the decision had to be made to destock,” Ms Sykes said.

“We’re just one of many across the state and across the country, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

“But this is only October… we’ve lost our water, we’ve grown no feed… and we cannot face buying in feed and water all summer to keep 20 cows going.

“It’s not a big property, we’re one of those small family farms that grows cows to sell vealers, and to have come this far and then have to sell — it’s hard.”

Scone livestock agent, Peter MacCallum, said the Sykes are not alone in completely destocking.

“I can remember saying eight or nine months ago that I thought we were down to about 30 per cent [of cows] of what it was. We’re way less than that now,” he said.

“The Upper Hunter is as badly affected anywhere in the state and it certainly started here two or three years ago.

“The trend has gone on to the point now where a lot of places are totally destocked, particularly breeders.”

Mr MacCallum said as herds of breeding cattle have been destocked their carefully bred genetics have all but gone with them.

“The genetics that are there are disappearing — it’s quite alarming really,” he said.

“It takes years to put these herds together so it’s all virtually disappearing, and how they will get them going again I don’t know.

“It’s going to be hard to find breeding cattle going forward.”

Prices strong, numbers high

But there has been strong return at the saleyards with solid support from both northern and southern NSW processors feeding international demand from countries such as China.

“[There is] quite a large percentage of breeding cows again [at Scone] and that trend is going to continue, or maybe even accelerate,” Mr MacCallum said.

“People are actually running out of water.

“The need to get rid of [stock] is now becoming pretty drastic.”

Mr MacCallum said the returns for cows have been strong but the market has slipped 20 cents a kilogram in Scone this week as supply has increased.

“There are so many [cows] coming forward, but I don’t think people are actually getting what they should be getting for a lot of these breeding stock, and they could be looking at prices double this when it eventually does break,” he said.

In a lot of cases abattoirs are booked out for four to six weeks, and people that are running out of water can’t wait that long.”

NSW cow prices, October 24–30:

  • Light weight cows (<400kg) 156.3c/kg at Armidale to 231.3c/kg at Wagga Wagga
  • Medium cows (400-520kg) 191.6c/kg at Armidale to 233.7c/kg at Wagga Wagga
  • Heavy weight cows (520kg+) 224.9c/kg at Moss Vale to 261.8c/kg at Casino

MLA figures have showed the number of cattle on feed reached a new record in the June 2019 quarter, to almost 1.15 million head.

“But people are sick of it,” Mr MacCallum said.

“This is going into the third year now of feeding cattle and it’s impossible to keep it up.”

At the most recent sales across NSW medium-weight cows sold for between 191.6 cents a kilogram at Armidale, to 233.7 cents a kilogram at Wagga Wagga.

Is a billion-dollar boom achievable?

The Australian Government has wanted to grow the agriculture industry to be worth $100 billion by 2030, but the drought has farmers questioning if that was a realistic target.

“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do for agriculture until it rains, and then after it rains there will be a recovery time for the land, as well as rebuilding the herd,” Ms Sykes said.

“Where do we rebuild from? The animals aren’t here, they’re gone. It’s frightening really to think how do we, as an agricultural nation, come back from this?

The Sykes Hunter Valley property

“People will say that’s bad management on the hands of the farmers. I don’t know anybody who predicted for this drought, I don’t know how you prepare for something of this intensity.”

Mr MacCallum said despite the intense challenge that the drought has presented he believed the industry would bounce back.

“The last two or three years has been a major setback to that, particularly in the cattle industry, but Australia is pretty resilient — all we need is a decent season,” he said.

“If we get half-decent seasons and improve our water situation — which is pretty dire — [and] if the Government say that they’re going to build more dams and fix water infrastructure, then yes, I think we are on track to make it as big as they say.”


Article credit –

Photo credit – PHOTO: Agents say cow prices could double once the drought breaks as producers scramble to buy back breeding stock. (ABC News: Kim Honan)