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Beef producers face ‘long-term uncertainty’ as coronavirus hits export market, but domestic demand surges

Beef is among the growing list of industries dealing with ramifications of the coronavirus, with the sector experiencing export bans, increased freight costs and a significant drop in overseas demand.

Josie and Blair Angus run 35,000 head of cattle on their property near Moranbah, 200 kilometres south-west of Mackay in central Queensland.

They sell beef to 30 countries across the world.

“Uncertainty is probably the best way to describe it — and volatility,” Ms Angus said.

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“We had the hunger games at the start, where domestically the retail demand appeared insatiable, and I guess we’ve obviously had chain disruptions around air trade internationally.

The abattoir where the Anguses were sending some of their stock was one of the four impacted by China’s banned exports, but that was not the only market affecting their business.

A brown cow pokes its head through a fence and looks at the camera.
The Australian beef industry is experiencing a surge in domestic demand, but volatility in the overseas market.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

The couple supply beef to restaurants, butchers and wholesalers across Australia and overseas.

“We’ve seen massive impacts in the Middle East, for instance, where we had a focus on the UAE and Dubai and such a heavy tourist influenced economy,” Ms Angus said.

“We’ve seen a massive drop-off in demand there.

Domestic retail surges

In a silver lining to the pandemic, domestic demand for beef has surged.

Peter Boodle is a butcher in Rockhampton and he lost 50 per cent of trade to local restaurants and cafes when they were forced to shut their doors.

But consistent demand to put food on the table has turned that around.

“Since the coronavirus started we were a little bit worried … but we’re actually up in sales,” Mr Boodle said.

A man stands in a butcher deli and looks at the camera.
Peter Boodle is experiencing stronger business than before the pandemic.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

“Even though our wholesale and restaurant trade is down 50 per cent, our retail is up 50 [per cent] as well.

“We’re actually doing better than what we were before coronavirus started.”

Mr Boodle put the increase in retail demand down to people getting more creative in the kitchen as they looked to make nicer meals at home.

“Our customer count’s probably up around 400 customers a week.”

Urge for comfort food boosts retail trade

Terry Nolan is the director of a cattle processing facility near Gympie in south-east Queensland.

He said he has seen a strong increase in business because of the coronavirus restrictions.

“In our business about 60 to 70 per cent is for the Australian and domestic market and Australian retail trade,” Mr Nolan said.

“There’s an increase in retail trade, and it’s probably no surprise that people out here have sought comfort food.

He said a lot of producers have not felt the brunt of the pandemic yet because of the length of the supply chain in the cattle industry.

A man puts a label on steak in the deli window.
Butchers say they are experiencing a significant increase in business.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

“To some degree they’ve been insulated to the COVID effect,” Mr Nolan said.

“There may be a lag time down the track and who knows with the talk of China.

“Hopefully that’s only [a] temporary suspension of those plants and we can be back going there in six months.

“But it’s a long and complex supply chain and lots of people are impacted at different times.”

Shift in perception of agricultural industry

AgForce cattle board chair, Will Wilson, said the industry was in a rebuild phase following drought, meaning the current situation was good for producers.

“It’s a supply and demand market … so while we’re building supply, the demand is high and that’s been noticeable and good for producers as far as value proposition goes,” he said.

Mr Wilson says while the international export industry is uncertain, producers are taking it as it comes.

“At the end of the day it’s just a volatile situation for [the] market so we’ll see what happens in the future,” he said.

Mr Wilson said another positive of the pandemic for the agricultural sector has been a shift in perception of the industry from the broader community.

“As an industry it’s no secret that we’ve been struggling to deliver the message that we do care about our land and our animals — this has been a real assistance in getting that message across.

“You actually get an opportunity to prove you are doing your best to feed the world, and look after the animals and the land.”


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