FROM THE CORRAL: Outback perspectives

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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Temple
Dr. Temple Grandin

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – You do not understand how vast the Australian Outback is until you experience it, which I did last year. Imagine a flat expanse of pasture the size of the middle one-third of the US. It has sufficient water from its wells to pasture cattle, but the wells would quickly run dry if irrigation was used to raise crops.

During my trip, I boarded a twin-engine small plane in Darwin, Australia, and we flew for almost three hours south over a huge landscape with no signs of civilization. Only a few roads were visible. Then all of a sudden, a cattle station appeared on the horizon like an oasis and we landed on a dirt strip. Australia was having a heat wave and the temperature was 104°F. Each cattle station is a small self-contained town because the nearest grocery store is almost 400 miles away. The station I visited has a total area of 1,000 sq. miles with about 17,000 head of mother cows. The cattle are divided up into herds of 300 to 500 situated around a well. The stocking rate is 20 cows per sq. mile. The outback gets about 24 inches of annual rain and there is a wet season and a dry season. I was there during the dry season. The cattle were purebred – grey Brahman with a few Senepols mixed in. They experimented with Black Angus and they could not tolerate the heat.

The immenseness of the Outback really hit me during the return flight. We had to stop and refuel the plane. The runway we landed on had no attendant. We taxied up to the self-serve credit card airplane gas pump. A little sign said, “Please roll the hose back up neatly.” In the Outback, an airplane is your car. It is a necessity and not a luxury.

Land of food

The Outback can support more cattle than the Australians could possibly eat, so most of them are exported. Due to scarce water supplies, fattening the animal on grain would be impossible in the middle of Australia. Only the Coasts have enough water to grow grain. Thousands of cattle are shipped on a three to four day boat ride to Indonesia. They are fattened on byproducts of the palm oil, coconut, and tapioca industry. Previously, these byproducts were thrown away. They receive no grain. I visited the Indonesian feedlots where the cattle were kept in sheds. Most of the animals were in good condition. They are also developing a non-fed industry and a large slaughter plant is under construction. A large portion of the Indonesian market demands meatballs. Cattle that would be slaughtered in the Northern Territory would most likely go into meatballs and other processed products.

Sustainability vs. animal welfare

The reason I visited Indonesia and the Australian Outback was to look at animal welfare issues. Activists’ videos have shown some really atrocious conditions at the Indonesian slaughter houses. Meat and Livestock Australia hired me to visit. When I first saw these videos in 2011, my response was to stop the exports of live animals. After visiting and analyzing the situation from a sustainability standpoint, I decided that the trade should continue. Progress has been made on improving the slaughter plants, but one remaining problem is monitoring over 200 very small facilities. The two plants I visited did an acceptable job and used stunning. That shows that it is possible to maintain decent animal welfare standards in simple facilities. Visiting the Outback made me fully aware of the sustainability issues. In my report, I recommended using objective scoring to monitor slaughter. Animal-based outcome measures should also be used in the feedlot. Some of the measures should be scoring for lameness, swollen joints and dirty cattle.

I presented my report at the Livex Australian Exporters Conference in Darwin. At the convention, I talked to many people. It became obvious that the activist video that had shut down the industry for several months had motivated many improvements. Conditions for the animals were definitely better. Livestock is the only way to produce food on the Outback. We need to be able to grow food on this land, but at the same time, reasonable animal welfare standards must be maintained.

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