No agricultural industry polarises public opinion quite like the live export of cattle and sheep.

Story + Photo Mandy McKeesick

A blue and yellow triple road train from Road Trains Australia winds through the low, green hills of Adelaide River, NT, and rattles into the yards at Bridge Creek export depot, a cloud of Territory dust rising in its wake. With a wheeze of air brakes it settles at an unloading ramp and doors roll open. Long ears and whiskered noses appear from the darkness inside.

A grey Brahman steer trots down the ramp, followed by his mates in calm and orderly succession. These steers, sourced from across the Top End, are beginning their live export journey. 

The depot, an hour and a half south of Darwin, was constructed by graziers Don and Kelly White in 2014 as part of business reconstruction in the wake of the suspension of live exports in 2011. “Our cashflow was totally stuffed, and we had to move quickly and turn our business upside down,” Don says, standing among a forest of hydraulic hoses at the crush as he weighs a line of steers. “We sold all our cows – every single one – and went into a trading model. We decided we needed to be more fluid, because next time it may not be a government lockdown, it might be a disease outbreak. But that’s just farming isn’t it? There’s always something.”

Although live export has a broad definition, it is the trade of sheep and cattle, mostly by ship, that dominates the Australian market and comes to mind when people think of live export. 

In 2020–2021 LiveCorp reported 910,446 cattle were exported, worth around $1.5 billion, supporting approximately 10,000 Australian jobs. Bos indicus cattle are sourced from northern Australia, particularly across the Territory, Pilbara and Kimberley regions, and dairy heifers are sourced from Victoria. Darwin is the pre-eminent port, with 400,000 head boarding ships there annually. 

Sheep represent a smaller trade. In 2020–2021 603,048 were exported, valued at around $92 million, supporting 3,500 jobs. Sheep are predominantly sourced from WA, with the port at Fremantle accounting for 82% of the sheep exported live nationally.

Mark Harvey-Sutton is CEO of the Australian Live Exporters Council, the peak industry body. “Indonesia [cattle] remains our largest market followed by Vietnam [cattle] and China, with the export of dairy heifers as breeding cattle,” he says. “Israel and various Middle Eastern countries [sheep] comprise our fourth largest market.”

Mark says live export has benefits for producers and consumers. “Live export provides competition in the domestic market and underpins price,” he says. “If you look at the dairy industry, for instance, it’s an opportunity to turn off cattle that may have otherwise gone to the processor."

This story excerpt is from Issue #144

Outback Magazine: August/September 2022