A new secure database of Australian farms has been constructed as part of a multi-year collaboration between the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
A discussion paper outlining policy options for sheep exports to, or through, the Middle East during the northern summer months is now available for stakeholder comment.
Minister for Agriculture, Bridget McKenzie, said that live sheep exports were an important part of Australia’s agricultural sector, and underpinned 3,450 jobs across rural and regional Australia.
“The export from Australia of live sheep shipped to, and through, the Middle East resumed on September 23 of this year after the Department of Agriculture prohibited these exports during the northern summer.
READ MORE: Improving oversight in live animal exports
“Feedback on the discussion paper will inform a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS), which will determine the future regulation of live sheep exports to, or through, the Middle East during the northern summer months from 2020 onwards.
“The discussion paper outlines four proposed policy option ideas.
“We are seeking input from stakeholders on the potential economic and regulatory impact of each idea but also welcome alternative options.
“I urge anyone who has a stake in Australia’s live sheep export industry to jump online and have their say on the discussion paper.”
In 2017–18 Australia exported around 2 million live sheep valued at over $259 million to trading partners wanting our high-quality live sheep.
The Department of Agriculture has extended the prohibition on live sheep exports to, or through, the Middle East to 22 September 2019.
The department considered the best available science and evidence, and feedback from public consultation before making this decision. The interests of the industry, animal welfare and government policy were also taken into account.
Evidence indicates the risk of heat stress for voyages departing Australia in the first three weeks of September is comparable to, or higher than in June. The department determined conditions in June (along with July and August) are too hot for sheep exports. The industry came to a similar conclusion.
Furthermore, sheep departing Australia in early- to mid-September are acclimatised to cooler Australian temperatures and therefore less heat tolerant than sheep departing in Australian summer or autumn months.
For October, the risk of an animal welfare incident related to heat stress is more aligned with conditions in May.
Once trade resumes, shipments to, or through, the Middle East must comply with the same conditions that applied in May 2019. These requirements include:
- verification of the ship’s pen air turnover
- a heat stress management plan
- stocking sheep in accordance with an allometric formula or the heat stress assessment model – depending on which provides more space per animal
- collecting automated environmental data (wet bulb temperatures) and reporting to the department
This decision only relates to 2019. Future regulation of live sheep exports to, or through, the Middle East will be decided following a Regulation Impact Statement process.
The Western Australian government is backing productivity improvements in the Western Australian sheep industry, with the development of a new and improved Sheep Condition Scoring app.
The app, developed by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, enables producers to monitor the condition of sheep and readily access information to manage sheep nutrition.
This helps producers determine if sheep are in the best condition for joining and lambing – making it a key tool for this time of the year.
The updated app allows users to add multiple records to a mob and add multiple mobs, as well as calculate averages, generate graphs and email raw data for more analysis. It also features instructional videos and explanations on how to condition score.
Condition scoring is an easy and accurate measure of estimating the nutritional wellbeing of sheep, and is the best method for monitoring pregnant and lactating ewes. Condition score should be used in combination with the available pasture to run feed budgets.
“Technical innovations such as the new Sheep Condition Scoring app help drive productivity and growth in WA’s sheep and wool industries, particularly in more challenging seasons such as 2018 for our south-eastern and south coast farmers” said agriculture and food minister Alannah MacTiernan
“Poor or delayed starts to the season make decision tools such as this app particularly useful for sheep producers to review their supplementary feed programs.
“The app is the perfect tool to get ahead of the game – to monitor sheep condition and adjust feed programs to maintain a minimum condition rather than allow animals to lose condition and then try to regain it.
“Visitors to DPIRD’s shed at Woolorama can test out the app and watch the videos on condition scoring and assessing feed on offer to give them an edge heading into lambing season.”
The Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud (pictured) has said he accepts accept all the recommendations made by the McCarthy Review into live sheep exports, following disturbing footage emerged last month of almost 2,500 sheep dying from heat stress during a trip to the Middle East last year.
“We accept all 23 recommendations made by Dr McCarthy, noting that further testing and consultation is needed to understand and implement Recommendation 4 on Heat Stress Risk Assessment,” Littleproud said in a statement.
“There will be immediate changes that impact now on the live sheep trade during the current Middle Eastern Summer and there will be changes that will be take more time to introduce.
“The live sheep trade will move now to the allometric stocking density system, which takes into account animal weight and size. This means sheep will get up to 39 per cent more space and reducing stocking densities by up to 28 per cent. This change will affect shipments during the Middle Eastern Summer this year.”
The minister said he plans to introduce a Bill increasing penalties and creating a new offence of profiting from poor animal welfare outcomes.
Under this offence, a director of a company could face 10 years prison or $2.1 million fine.
An individual convicted under the same offence would face 10 years and $420,000 fine.
For a company, the fine will be $4.2 million, three times the benefit gained, or 10 per cent of the company’s annual turnover, whichever is greater.
Under the current Australian Meat and Livestock Act, penalties will increase from the current five years prison and/or a $63,000 fine for an individual to 8 years prison and/or $100,800 fine.
For a company the fine will be increased from $315,000 to $504,000.
The New Year should see the Australian lamb and sheep market benefit from reduced supplies and positive demand from domestic consumers according to the Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) 2017 Sheep Industry projections.
MLA’s Manager of Market Information Ben Thomas said lamb slaughter is projected to be 22 million head for 2017, down 2% from the estimated 2016 level.
“While this is a decline year-on-year, 22 million head is still in line with the long-term growth trend observed over the past decade,” Mr Thomas said.
“Breaking the annual processing down to a quarterly basis, it is anticipated that the June and September quarters will be when supplies are the tightest. Lamb availability in the March quarter on the other hand, is likely to benefit from carry-over stocks from the final months of 2016, when extremely wet weather delayed many lambs coming to market.”
Assuming average seasonal conditions and a return to normal lamb marking rates, the numbers of lambs processed are anticipated to increase to 23 million head by 2020.
Thomas said Australian lamb production for 2017 is projected to ease 2% to 492,000 tonnes carcase weight (cwt), and while this is a year-on-year decline, the volume is in the realms of record territory.
“The Australian domestic market is anticipated to remain the largest consumer and account for 48% of production, or 237,000 tonnes cwt, with many encouraging signs coming from the market,” he said.
“For instance, domestic per capita consumption has stabilised in recent years, while at the same time the weighted average retail price has been increasing.
“To put this in perspective, domestic lamb retail prices in 2016 averaged just 10 cents shy of the record high set in 2011, at $14.51/kg, and per capita consumption is 8% higher now than what it was then.”
On the export front, Australian lamb shipments are anticipated to ease 4% year-on-year in 2017, to 220,000 tonnes shipped weight (swt).
“While this will be the third consecutive year of slightly lower exports, volumes are still in excess of 200,000 tonnes swt – a level breached for only the first time in 2013. The major markets are likely to again be the US, China and the Middle East,” Thomas said.
A recovery in lamb exports is forecast from 2018, with volumes expected to reach a record 235,000 tonnes swt by 2020.
“The longer-term export outlook should be underpinned by further growth in demand in Asia, especially China, the US and the Middle East, a lower Australian dollar, diminishing New Zealand exports, and Australia’s projected growth in production,” Mr Thomas said.
“Uncertainty surrounds the impact of Brexit on access to both the UK and EU. If negotiations result in expansion of Australia’s meagre sheepmeat access to these markets, it could provide a significant lift to exports and prices.”
It is often claimed that a vegetarian diet is better for the environment, because grazing animals such as cattle and sheep produce a lot of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
The areas needed for livestock grazing can also be much larger than those used for crops to produce an equivalent amount of food, so more land is cleared for meat than crops, which causes more carbon to be lost from the landscape.
But wait. As is often the case with complex environmental cycles, particularly those altered by human activities, this is only part of the story. While it is true that ruminants emit a lot of methane, and this is currently the greatest slice of the agricultural emissions pie, it is also true that these are not the only emissions associated with human agriculture.
Cropland generally uses more inorganic fertiliser than pasture, which means that the more plants you eat, the more of your greenhouse footprint comes from nitrous oxide – another potent greenhouse gas linked to use of industrially produced fertiliser.
Unfortunately, this means that sticking to a climate-friendly diet isn’t always just a matter of giving up steak and lamb chops. You also have to consider the soil types and farming practices in the places where your food is produced. And the bad news for Europeans is that eating meat is much harder to justify than it is in Australia, for instance, where livestock tends to be less intensively farmed.
Emissions and soils
Nitrous oxide emissions come from the turnover of nitrogen compounds in the soil, which in turn come from both organic matter (manure, soil organic matter) and synthetic fertilisers (primarily inorganic nitrogen).
This means that the biggest greenhouse impact would come from eating livestock animals that are disconnected from the soil, kept in barns and fed on crops (for instance, beef cattle fed on corn meal) rather than extensively grazing on pastures. This represents a climate double whammy because the crops lead to nitrous oxide emissions and the animals then produce methane.
The other greenhouse gas to consider is, unsurprisingly, carbon dioxide. Healthy soils contain lots of organic matter, which helps to reduce erosion, boosts water storage capacity (and therefore drought resilience), and acts as a storehouse for nutrients (thereby reducing the need for fertiliser).
When land is cleared for agriculture, the amount of soil organic matter can decline dramatically. And because carbon makes up around 50-55% of soil organic matter, this land clearing not only depletes soil health but releases greenhouse gas, as the soil organic carbon is converted to carbon dioxide and released.
Soil organic matter can be restored by plants, which take up atmospheric carbon dioxide as they grow. When they die, their biomass is then (partially) incorporated into the soil and converted into soil organic matter.
So does farming help soils?
The soil organic carbon pool is the largest land-based carbon store and the most dynamic globally of the non-living carbon pools. There is at least twice as much carbon stored in the world’s soils as there is in the atmosphere.
So planting crops to store more carbon sounds like an attractive idea. Unfortunately, however, cultivated soils contain up to 70% less soil organic matter than natural soils, so croplands are actually a net greenhouse emitter.
Conversely, soils used for grazing animals have much higher soil organic matter content than in cropped systems, and roughly the same amount as natural soils. This is probably because many grazed systems are permanent pastures, where plants constantly grow and add to the soil carbon pool (even after the animals have eaten their fill).
But this distinction is not captured by official figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which only reports non-CO₂ emissions from agriculture, and assumes the CO₂ emissions from agriculture to be net zero (CO₂ emissions due to soil carbon loss appear in the “Forestry and other land use” category).
This means that the greenhouse emissions due to crops, and carbon storage in pasture lands, may both be underestimated. This issue is highlighted by our research, which shows that carbon losses from cropped soil extend far deeper than previously believed.
Previous estimates assumed that only the topsoil (generally the top 30 cm) was affected, but we have shown that, in Australia at least, this is not the case – the lower carbon content of cropped soil is detectable all the way down the soil profile. We also found that, at these deeper depths, natural and grazing soils contained very similar amounts of carbon.
As if that were not all complicated enough, there is yet another factor: when livestock manure is returned to the soil, this also boosts soil carbon, making for healthier soils and partially offsetting the animals’ greenhouse emissions. Declining use of animal manure on European crops has beenassociated with a reduction in soil carbon storage.
Food for thought
So what does this all mean? Well, 90% of our energy intake comes directly from the soil, so agricultural practices obviously have a big effect on soil health. If you care about conserving soils as well as minimising your greenhouse emissions, it’s not as simple as just going vegetarian.
Grazing animals can be good for soils, even though their methane emissions are bad for the atmosphere. Working out where the balance sits is a fiendishly tricky question. This is because agricultural emissions are related to individual site factors (such as climate or soil type) as well as agricultural practices (such as fertiliser regime or grazing intensity).
Perhaps the best approach is try to source your food from local suppliers (to reduce your food miles) who do not use intensive agricultural practices (such as frequent tillage or indoor mass-rearing of animals).
If you eat meat, choose free-range, grass-fed animals instead of those fed in barns using food from crops. Get to know how your food is produced, and choose the most sustainable options, whether meaty or not. Small choices can help to save our soils.