Rain brings joy, then havoc to Aussie beef heartland

Cattle in a flooded area near Julia Creek township in Queensland earlier this month. Heavy rain in recent weeks has led to herds being washed away and paddocks losing almost their entire stock. The full impact of the flooding is yet to be determined,
Cattle in a flooded area near Julia Creek township in Queensland earlier this month. Heavy rain in recent weeks has led to herds being washed away and paddocks losing almost their entire stock. The full impact of the flooding is yet to be determined, but it is believed that 500,000 to 650,000 cattle died across northern Queensland.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Cattle wiped out, livelihoods ruined as severe floods hit Queensland after 6 years of drought

Following more than six years of crippling drought, farmers in north-east Australia finally received rain in recent weeks.

But the elation quickly turned to devastation as the deluge caused severe floods that have wiped out hundreds of thousands of cattle and turned dusty farm paddocks into sludge.

The extent of the flooding is still emerging, but it is believed that 500,000 to 650,000 cattle died across northern Queensland in a disaster that has ruined livelihoods and is likely to affect Australia's beef supply. The floods covered territory spanning about 13 million ha, an area about the size of Greece.

Around the inland town of Cloncurry, some farms received as much as 700mm of rain within seven days. This led to herds being washed away and paddocks losing almost their entire stock.

Describing the ordeal, the local mayor, Mr Greg Campbell, himself a grazier in the area, said farmers in the region were still trying to adjust to the long run of extremely dry weather when it finally started to rain in late January and early February.

"When the rain first came, there was just extraordinary optimism in the air," he told Queensland's Courier Mail newspaper.

"But it suddenly hit us - it wasn't rain, it was a disaster."

 
 
 
 

The state of Queensland is Australia's largest producer of beef, much of which is exported to Asia. According to the state government, about three-quarters of the state's A$4.8 billion (S$4.6 billion) beef exports last year went to Asian countries.

Across the region, farmers are still trying to assess the damage.

Professional pilots, assisted by local volunteers using their own small planes, have been flying across large properties to try to move any trapped or stranded cattle to safer ground.

Many farmers will need financial support to overcome the losses and help them to fix fences and water tanks and prepare their land for fresh herds. The lost cattle herds were believed to be worth at least A$500 million.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured the region last week, saying the cattle industry would need a five-to 10-year plan to rebuild. He visited a local farm, where the owners showed him dozens of cattle that died near their house after being exposed to the cold and rain.

"I was with families who have been on this land for generations, building up a herd of the finest cattle in the world," Mr Morrison said.

"To see that all washed away and lying just in the mud which is turning to dry dirt - there's a lot of healing that has to go on here."

But he added: "In five to 10 years this will again be one of the most prosperous regions in the country - this is the top of the supply chain for our cattle industry."

Australia has about 26 million head of beef cattle and is the world's third largest exporter of beef, accounting for about 13 per cent of global exports. Australia's largest foreign buyers last year were Japan, the United States, China, South Korea and Indonesia. Singapore was the 14th largest, accounting for 6,314 tonnes of imports, up 10 per cent from the previous year.

Meat & Livestock Australia, a firm which does research for the livestock industry, said it was too early to assess the precise impact of the floods on cattle numbers and prices. It said prices could be affected but would also be determined by domestic and global demand, overseas production, currency movements and feed costs.

"As the situation is still unfolding, the full scale of the floods is unknown," a spokesman told The Straits Times.

"Large stock losses can have an impact on cattle market prices, however it is difficult to anticipate the full impact at this stage. The floods may lead to tighter supply in the affected areas and may subsequently impact cattle prices in the short term."

The spokesman added: "Later in the year, we may see a tightening of supply as producers hold remaining stock rather than destock at their normal rate."

Some analysts said the combined impact of the drought and the recent floods could lead to price hikes.

A beef industry expert, Mr Simon Quilty, said Australia's cattle population was falling to "critical levels" but the extent of the impact of the flooding would not be known for two to three months.

"The losses in northern Australia have been across all breeds, male or female, and all genetics, both good and bad," he wrote on the Beef Central website. "As a result, the ability for northern producers to rebuild is going to be very difficult."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2019, with the headline 'Rain brings joy, then havoc to Aussie beef heartland'. Print Edition | Subscribe