By CAITLIN CROWLEY
OUTBACK Queensland graziers are on the cusp of unlocking lucrative new markets for sheep and goat meat, after a surge in productivity and confidence thanks to ambitious cluster fencing programs which keep predators out and biodiversity in.
Camden Park Station’s James Walker described the impact cluster fencing has had in the Longreach area as a “revolution”, with unintended but fortuitous consequences now revealing unseen opportunities for producers.
“It would be a once in a century change to production activity out here,” Walker said.
“It would be comparable to going from blade shears to mechanical shearing, what’s happened with these cluster fences.”
Agforce sheep and wool president Mike Pratt tells a similar story from his property 95kms south west of Longreach.
“It’s literally been a game changer,” he said.
“It’s reinvigorated Western Queensland – I don’t want to overcook it, but it really has given people hope.”
Pratt said it was around 2012 when the region’s sheep industry was faced with the decision of whether to abandon small stock completely because of wild dogs and other predators, or fence and fight on.
“1080 baiting had run its course,” he said. “We were losing control, the dogs just kept on coming and we couldn’t keep them at bay any longer.”
“When I first became Premier, I sat down with graziers outside Charleville and Longreach and they told me their heartbreaking stories of wild dogs and feral pests killing their livestock,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said.
Since then the state government has committed more than $26 million to help communities build cluster fences and control invasive plants and animals.
“We’ve protected sheep, the livelihoods of farmers, brought jobs to the regions and bolstered economic activity in these communities,” Palaszczuk said.
Close to 24,000kms of fencing has been rolled out thanks to state, local government and private investment, but the full potential of that change is only just starting to be realised.
“Initially it was put in for wild dogs – we haven’t had one wild dog in our cluster at all since we put it up,” James Walker said.
“We’ve connected with three other producers in a cluster, which makes up a large exclusion-fence precinct north east of Longreach.
“Not only does it increase the lambing percentages here – it gives us the confidence to run mixed enterprises in terms of goats and sheep.
“We’ve got one of the largest agricultural bio-security precincts now – the biodiversity is extraordinary because we can rotate the animals on our property.”
Mike Pratt said he’d seen bio-diversity improve on his property too, with the ability to better manage grazing pressures, allowing more ground cover to return.
“You get so many more flora and fauna – we get little ground dwelling animals that would have been predated on by foxes and dogs,” he said.
“You can have your own quarantine zone. We don’t treat our sheep for lice anymore.”
Another unexpected result was the ability to radically improve the management of goats, taking them from feral to farmable.
“There’s an old saying that if you can throw water through a fence, a goat can get through it,” Mike Pratt said. Not anymore.
Now the males and females can be separated, and instead of harvesting wild goats intermittently, animals can be sent for processing at the optimum time.
“That ability now is seeing massive gains in terms of productivity of goats,” James Walker said. “It’s just exploded.”
Walker said animals which were going for $180 could fetch $360 and that increased profitability is opening up exciting opportunities.
“We can really penetrate the value chains – we can really start to put production systems together to start branding what we produce out here.”
The economic benefits flowing through to these outback communities are undeniable, particularly given the high labour costs involved in the merino sheep industry.
“When we shear it costs around $9 a sheep – all that money goes back into the community in wages,” Mike Pratt said.
James Walker said he’d seen land prices around Longreach increase, alongside agistment fees, and it’s being driven by confidence.
“People are paying for grass and they know their livestock will stay there and there won’t be predation – they pay a premium for that.”
He said the small stock game is also attracting interest from large corporates and investment funds, which never looked twice at sheep or goats before.
Walker also sees new opportunities to market sheep and goat meat to the thousands of Aussie tourists who fall in love with the bush while visiting the region annually, surveying guests who stopped in at Camden Park Station last year.
“We surveyed every tourist that came through and had a meal here, to ask them if they enjoyed the meat and if they would be interested to source the meat when they arrived back home,” Walker said.
“95 percent of respondents said they would – they fell in love with the providence.”
State agriculture minister Mark Furner said there was a tremendous opportunity in the decade ahead for Queensland’s sheep and goat meat industries, as the sector rapidly scaled up.
“Under our Sheep and Goat Meat Processing Strategy, we are striving to double the value of sheep and goat production to $150 million per year and create over 100 new jobs,” Furner said.
This week the state government launched $4 million dollars in grants to be spent over the next two years, to leverage the benefits of its cluster fencing programs.
“The Rural Agricultural Development grants of up to $200,000 per business will help sheep and goat enterprises, businesses along the supply chain, and businesses that use sheep and goat-derived materials in their products or activities,” the Premier said.
“We want businesses to grow and diversify as the industry grows. These grants can help businesses with that by developing new products, implementing new technologies, upgrading equipment or training.”
With new business opportunities around the corner and green grass stretching towards the horizon thanks to a wet summer, the future is looking bright for this corner of country Queensland.
“It’s just amazing – it’s miraculous,” Mike Pratt said. “You forget how good it can be – it’s phenomenal the grass that’s grown.
“Honestly, I can’t think of anything to complain about.”