In Australia, beef producers work to improve global market
After Brazil, Australia is the largest beef exporter in the world. In 2009, Australian beef exports accounted for 19 percent of global cattle trade. In a recent paper for the review magazine Animal Frontiers, Australian beef expert Dr. Alan Bell explained how the Australian beef industry differs from beef production around the world. According to Bell, the Australian beef industry is different in how it deals with exports, disease, and feed, but it still faces challenges in coming years.
The evolution of the industry
Bell, the chief of the Division of Livestock Industries for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), said the Australian beef industry often differs from other countries because of its geographic isolation.
“The Australian continent is so diverse, geographically and in climate, that we have a very diverse beef industry,” Bell said in an interview.
The different climates and rangelands in Australia has led to the success of cattle breeds like Limousin, Charolais, Simmental, Bos indicus breeds, and other British breed stock. Crossing these breeds helped produce animals that were more heat-tolerant, tick-resistant, and adaptable to variations in feed quality. Bell said this diversity is especially important in Northern Australia where conditions are often harsh.
“A lot of the region is rangeland with quite an erratic climate,” Bell said.
In Animal Frontiers, Bell and his co-authors highlighted the fact that Australia has avoided many disease outbreaks. Bell said that there has not been a foot and mouth (FMD) outbreak since the 1880’s and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) never became a problem there.
One reason Australian producers avoided FMD and BSE outbreaks were strict regulations on cattle imports. Bell said that, for a long time, it was illegal to bring ruminants into the country. Today, some imports are allowed, but regulations are still in place. However, Bell said, “This is going to be more and more difficult.”
Australia is also different when it comes to feedstuffs. In the U.S., many cattle are fed corn. This dependence on corn has been a problem in recent years, as droughts damaged crops and more corn goes to the biofuel industry. But in Australia, more producers use sorghum, wheat, and barley. Bell said there is also less pressure in Australia from the biofuel industry. While Australia does produce some sugar cane biofuel, traditional feedstuffs like corn are not used for fuel.
Despite the differences between Australia and much of the global beef industry, beef producers in the country still deal with animal welfare issues, public perception, and environmental impact.
In June, 2011, Australia’s ABC broadcaster released footage of brutally inhumane slaughtering practices in Indonesia. Though the footage only involved a small group of abattoirs, public outrage over the footage caused the Australian government to suspend live cattle exports to Indonesia. This temporary ban disrupted an industry worth $350 million per year.
Bell agreed that the footage was awful; however, he said it is important to remember that most beef producers work to keep slaughter humane. For example, immediately after the footage was released, the agency Meat and Livestock Australia implemented evidence-based improvements in welfare standards for animals transported from Australia.
He said that many producers have trouble with public relations because of the changing demographics of their consumers. In Australia, like in the U.S., fewer people are growing up with an understanding of animal agriculture.
“Australia is now a heavily-urbanized country,” said Bell. “The average Australian would probably be two generations removed from farming, so there’s not as much awareness of how meat is produced.”
According to Bell, one way to improve public perception of the beef industry is to increase research. Animal scientists could help find alternatives to surgical practices like dehorning and castrating cattle. If producers could implement non-surgical, less painful alternative, perhaps they could improve the perception of the industry. Bell said it is the beef industry, not just animal welfare activists, who are pushing for improvements.
Another challenge for Australian beef producers is how to mitigate the environmental impact of production. In the Animal Frontiers paper, Bell and his co-authors wrote that the Australian beef cattle industry is estimated to account for about 7% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Australia.
One way to decrease carbon emissions is to sequester carbon in biomass. Bell and his co-authors suggest that producers could plant more trees on rangeland to sequester carbon. They could also sequester carbon in grasslands by reducing stocking rates in certain areas. Reducing stocking rates would have the added bonus of stopping the ongoing problem of overgrazing.
“There has been a history of perhaps some environmental degradation through overgrazing,” Bell said.
While producers try to reduce GHG outputs, Bell said it is important to find a reliable way to assess emissions. He said that many beef producers in Australia disagree with current estimates of the “carbon footprint” of beef production. For example, Bell said people need to realize that grain-finished cattle produce less methane than rangeland cattle; not all cattle operations are the same. Bell also encouraged animal scientists to research reproductive performance and growth rates, in order to develop cattle with less environmental impact.
Feeding the world
Like producers around the globe, Australian beef producers face challenges as they work to improve business. Bell said that, unlike many other producers, Australia is dependent on the export market. Even when Australians avoid crises, like disease outbreaks, their industry still feels the impact.
One example of this phenomenon is the current push for biofuel. In the U.S., the use of forages in biofuel has been one cause of rising feed prices. As mentioned above, Australia does not contribute traditional feedstuffs to biofuel, yet the industry is still affected.
“We are influenced by world markets,” Bell said. “The impact of ethanol markets in the U.S. has a global effect that ultimately will affect cattle feeders here in Australia.”
But, for now, the export market remains strong, and Australian beef producers continue to answer the growing demand for animal protein.
“Anytime you go to McDonald’s, there’s a chance you could be eating beef from down under,” Bell added.
The title of this Animal Frontiers paper is “The Australasian beef industries—challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. It can be read in full at http://animalfrontiers.org
Scientific Communications Associate
MadelineMS@asas.org / 217-689-2435