Story By Lara Jensen

With cattle exports to Indonesia at a record high, photojournalist Lara Jensen climbed aboard the Wellard Rural Exports’ $44 million purpose-built livestock vessel – the MV Ocean Swagman – to experience firsthand the journey and the destination of a lucrative bovine cargo that helped contribute a record $662 million to the Australian economy last year. Along with 638 head of Brahman cattle from Mount Keppler Station south of Darwin, 6362 head of mainly Brahman cattle from across Queensland and the Northern Territory, a crew of 42 from Italy, the Philippines, India and Australia, Lara set sail from Darwin for the port of Panjang in Sumatra, Indonesia.
A booming Indonesian appetite for Australian beef is driving strong live-export demand with cattle exports up by almost 10 percent in 2009. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) tips Australian exports of live cattle to Indonesia to increase by five percent to 735,000 in 2009-10 and a further two percent to 750,000 in 2010-11, on the back of robust import demand and an expansion of Indonesia’s feedlot infrastructure.
The voyage that underpins the supply chain from paddock to plate has seen much-needed and marked improvements to animal welfare in recent years, and supporters of the $730 million trade defend both its role and future. On the opposing side are those who argue the live trade takes jobs away from the domestic meat-processing industry and animal-welfare groups who believe the trade is cruel and should be scrapped altogether.
The MV Ocean Swagman has completed only three voyages and has the stately reputation of the newest and most technologically advanced livestock vessel in the world. It boasts a fresh-water capacity of two-million litres and fodder capacity of 1500 tonnes as well as an air-circulation capacity of 110 changes per hour. Cattle have room to rest and feed and have water troughs on hand that are meticulously cleaned by shipboard stockmen who are also charged with putting out sawdust to soak up the urine and faeces in the pens.
During the short-haul voyage cattle consume 8-10 kilograms of fodder and drink 36-38 litres of water per day. Rigorous inspections are carried out on the condition of the stock three times daily by experienced Australian stockmen and any animal that is unwell or a shy feeder is taken into hospital pens and given special treatment for the remainder of the voyage.

This story excerpt is from Issue #71

Outback Magazine: June/July 2010