Australia Beef producers consider giving away or shooting cattle amid perfect storm of no rain and no markets

Drought-stricken West Australian beef producers say they are considering giving away or shooting cattle as a persistent drought and depressed national market ratchet up pressure on operators. 

Ashley and Debbie Dowden have had just 76 millimetres of rain at their Mount Magnet property so far this year.

The couple can not find buyers for their stock and are considering giving them away or even shooting them.

This is the driest season in 30 years at Challa Station in the state’s mid-west region and one of the worst on record for the property, where the rainfall records date back to 1888.

“In my lifetime here, I don’t recall anything worse than this … it’s an absolute shocker,” Mr Dowden said. 

The Dowden’s plan to manage the station through low rainfall years involves removing stock at key times.  But the poor season and depressed national cattle market has meant that was no longer an option.

“We’re at the stage now if you send a truckload of very light-condition cattle [to the saleyards] there will be no bids … there’s just no market. The agents are saying don’t send them,” Mr Dowden said. 

“The market is so limited … I know of stations that have mustered, had cattle in the yards and had to let them go because there was just no potential of sale.” 

Tough decisions ahead

Mr Dowden described the property’s supply of bush feed as “hanging in there” but it was imperative cattle were removed from the property to best conserve the environment through the coming summer.

“Our next option is to start to shoot cattle. That’s something that no-one wants to do. You’d drive yourself mad,” he said.

“Never in my recollection have we had a season as bad of this with no opportunity to sell cattle at all.”

Mr Dowden said they would separate calves from their mothers and hold the younger cattle in yards with feed to give the mother and calf the best chance at survival.  

“We’ll give them away because with the cost of feeding calves at the moment it will actually cost us money,” he said.

“We won’t shoot the calves at this stage.

“It’s a matter of having to feed them to keep them alive. That’s the only option until it rains or we can get a market to feed them.”

Meat prices don’t make sense

Mrs Dowden said it was frustrating to see beef remain unaffordable for consumers.

“It just doesn’t make sense. There is some bottleneck, a failure in the system that is not allowing us to get our beef out to the people who need it at a reasonable price,” she said. 

But Meat and Livestock Australia figures do show an easing of supermarket beef and lamb prices, with consumers responding by purchasing more red meat. 

In the past 12 weeks, retail beef prices have fallen 7.7 per cent compared to October 2022, while total purchase volume has risen by 7.5 per cent.

Hay prices in WA have increased significantly, adding pressure to the cost of retaining livestock. 

Further north at Anna Plains Station, between Broome and Port Hedland, David Stoate has spent the past few days battling a bushfire on his cattle property. 

The fire, which he suspects was deliberately lit, has burnt valuable feed on the station.

“It will make it difficult for us, especially with the cattle market doing what it’s doing at the minute. It’s hard to move cattle, so that impacts on everything,” he said. 

“We would have liked to have got rid of more cattle than we have. We will try to sell some over the next month or so.”

Mid-west based livestock agent Craig Walker said the lack of grass throughout the state, particularly in areas with cattle, has caused a downturn in the market. 

“Basically, people are just struggling a little to try to find a suitable avenue to place their lighter-weight cattle if they haven’t already got those commitments in place,” Mr Walker said. 

He said cattle in the 200 to 250 kilogram range were fetching between $2.40 and $1 a kilo depending on breed, sex and condition.

“There is an outlet for those animals. However, the competition now compared to what it was two years ago is somewhat less given the fact that the eastern states were also strong buyers in the market and kept that market reasonably buoyant.”