The world’s growing demand for protein has led to record investments in northern Australia’s cattle industry over recent years.
Australian and international companies have spent millions of dollars buying cattle stations, and millions more on improvements and innovations.
As hundreds of cattle producers gathered in Alice Springs this week for the annual Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) conference, ABC Rural asked several industry leaders to share their views on technology and the future of the beef industry.
We asked them four questions:
What technology are you most excited about in the beef industry?
Tom Stockwell, cattle producer and outgoing president of the NTCA: I am finding it increasingly difficult to be excited by new technology as much of it seems to be in the category of ‘Look what this app can do, you should do this on your place’ and a lot of it presumes that you are within mobile phone range.
‘Big data’ seems to be all the rage but I would like to know that effort in data collection is targeted to an answer rather than finding uses for a mountain of figures because they can be collected and stored.
Fred Troncone, executive director operations for live export company Wellard: The technologies that we are most excited about are related to livestock shipping and how to keep improving on-board standards so that the industry retains a social licence to operate.
The three main areas that we continue to focus on are:
- Effective ventilation systems that provide clean, fresh air to animals on board in all parts of the vessel
- Availability of high quality fresh water; and
- Automated feeding systems that ensure that every animal has access to feed on demand.
Sarah Cook, cattle producer from Aileron Station in the Northern Territory: I think walk-over weighing is a huge one. We need to keep coming up with ways to take non or comparatively poor performing animals out of our system as early as possible, and on a large scale operation where animals don’t traditionally get handled regularly, this is not always easy.
Walk-over weighing, monitoring paddocks on a daily basis where you can track the performance of an animal, is really exciting for our industry I think.
Hancock Prospecting, answered by executive chair Gina Rinehart: There are many forms of technological advancement that we could practically embrace to ensure we improve our animal welfare and better protect employees while increasing efficiency and reducing costs in our high cost nation.
No one technology does all, and in our view, more than one should be considered.
- Simple technology such as filtering water for cattle so they have cleaner water to drink enables less cattle illness and also sees increased weight gains of 15-27 per cent, a double win
- Drones to more regularly check all water supplies, be that solar pumps, dams, turkey nests or rivers, enabling faster rectification
- Drones to check places of work, when manager cannot be everywhere on station, helps the station manager with efficiency and safety
- Drones to check fires and flooding, again helps staff safety and animal welfare
- Drones significantly reduce time staff spend on unsealed and rough roads and tracks each day for such purposes, and we know the less time staff are in cars in isolated areas the less accidents and injuries
- Walk-over weighing, improved hydraulic weaner cradles, solar pumps. Each of these technologies shouldn’t be excluded given their benefits for safety, and or animal welfare.
Is lab-grown meat a threat to your business?
Tom Stockwell: If it’s lab-grown it’s a culture, not meat.
I can only assume that such a thing (lab-grown meat) would be at the basic manufacturing end of the market so it makes the targeting of higher-value markets and using our natural grazing practices more appealing.
Fred Toncone: We do not believe that lab-grown meat will be a threat to our business in the short to medium term.
The feedback that we receive from customers in most of the countries that we export Australian livestock to recognise the Australian product as originating from a country that is ‘natural, clean and green’.
In many cases the livestock export industry is driven by the demand for fresh meat due to religious or cultural preferences, rather than purely economic factors.
The third, and major, argument against lab-grown meat is purely economic.
In the markets where live export operates, price is an important driver of consumption and lab-grown meat is unlikely to achieve the economies of scale in the near term to meet those price points.
As with any new development it is always prudent to monitor its progress but we believe that the acceptance and large-scale adoption of lab-grown meat is many years away, if it ever happens.
Sarah Cook: Lab meat is certainly a threat we need to take seriously.
There is already a perception that red meat is not necessary to provide protein requirements for humans, so if humans are happy to eat lab meat, particularly to replace ground beef like that in burger patties, red meat markets will become more and more niche.
This will create problems for us. For example, what if the demand for our non-premium products such as ground beef fell away?
Hancock Prospecting, answered by CEO David Larkin: Genetically modified synthetic protein is not meat.
What’s your thoughts on foreign investment? Do you really care who owns the farm?
Tom Stockwell: I have seen waves of foreign investment in the NT industry over the last 40 years and with a few notable exceptions they have been ephemeral operations.
Most seem to start with a flurry of capital investment which remains after they sell. All are worth watching as new operators bring new ideas and they are paying for the experiment.
I sense with the huge amounts of superannuation and other funds looking for an investment home that land values will disconnect from productive capacity and distant investors will be demanding better returns than is sustainably possible.
Fred Troncone: Unlike the outright sale of commodities such as grains or iron ore to overseas buyers, when foreign entities invest in Australian farmland they cannot physically take the land out of the country.
Instead, most foreign investors typically contribute financial resources into the country to develop infrastructure, increase the production capacity of the land, and to create jobs for Australians.
Foreign investment has had considerable beneficial impact in a range of industries around Australia and agriculture should embrace it, not fear it.
Exhibit A is the investment that Terra Firm has made in CPC.
The productivity improvements that investment has created has provided additional employment opportunities plus demand from suppliers of inputs through to service industries.
This has a multiplier effect on the additional investment and much of that effect is in regional and rural Australia.
Sarah Cook: I definitely care who owns the farm, but as long as we have strong legislation, monitoring and enforcement around foreign investment, land and water use, and looking after the people and environment, I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference.
Hancock Prospecting, answered by Adam Giles, general manager of external relations: Australia has been built on foreign investment, whether that is foreign to our nation, foreign to our state or Territory, or foreign to our region.
It also underpins investments in research and developments and the creation of technological advancements.
You do not have to look far to see the outcomes of blocking investment and economic development.
Life without investment ensures economic stagnation, wage deflation and increasing unemployment, and loss of revenue for the nation’s needs such as for defence, police, elderly, maintaining public infrastructure, hospitals and healthcare, kindergartens, parks, sporting facilities and more.
Regarding owning the farm, we think with Kidman we have made a good basis for investment that others could consider, majority Australian ownership, indeed our joint investment in Kidman increased Australian ownership of this iconic company — or what remained of it after inadequate investment in more recent years — together with selecting a very good partner willing to invest more.
If the Federal Government could do one thing to help the cattle industry tomorrow, what would that be?
Tom Stockwell: Roads, roads, roads, roads.
If they get tired of that they could build some roads.
Fred Troncone: As Australia exports a significant proportion of its annual beef production one of the most important roles that government plays is market development through initiatives such as:
- Establishing free trade agreements with importing countries that create a competitive advantage of the Australian product
- Negotiating cost-effective health protocols with importing countries
- Promoting “brand Australia” so that potential new trading partners see value in what Australia has to offer.
Sarah Cook: At a micro level, I am still concerned about our industry’s workforce requirements.
I know it’s been on the table for a long time, but our pool of skilled employees is still very low for such a big industry.
Every year, we are either competing with our neighbour for the experienced people or we are employing unskilled labour.
It’s hard to keep your business moving forward when you are continually training replacement staff.
We really focus on staff retention, but let’s face it, most people only want one or two years before they move on.
Hancock Prospecting, answered by Gina Rinehart: It needs to do two things, not one. One is not enough. It needs to urgently and significantly cut taxes and red tape.