A deep dive into Australia’s livestock exporting companies since 2005

Analysis of official data offers revealing insights into the size and makeup of Australian livestock export companies and their operations since 2005, including the fact that only 27pc of the 57 companies that have held export licences for sea freight since that time are still active today, as Dr Michael Patching reports.

As originally printed in Beef Central

Singapore harbour from the upper deck of a cattle ship. The harbour is a parking bay for literally hundreds of ships of all types picking up fuel and stores or waiting for a new destination. Picture: Ross Ainsworth.

THERE are a number of potential issues the live cattle industry will need to navigate in the next few years, including any impact of the phase out of live sheep in 2028, effects that revised ESCAS Standards will have on costs or operating requirements, and ongoing fallout from cattle being rejected at registered premises due to skin lesions.

Looking back at the official data collected and published by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it gives some interesting insights into the size and makeup of live export companies and their operations.

The data shows all exports of livestock by sea and air and covers 2005 to 2023.

The table below shows the number of consignments exported by sea, noting that this is not the same as the number of shipments, as many ships carry consignments from multiple exports.

Also number of consignments does not necessarily reflect the size of a company’s operations, with sheep exporters doing relatively small numbers of consignments compared to their cattle counterparts, but very large volumes on a per head and value basis.

Only a quarter of companies who have attempted live exports by sea have survived the last two decades.

Of the 57 companies that have held live export licences for sea freight since 2005, 15 are still active.

In 2005 there were 27 exporters actively exporting by sea, almost double the number we see today. Some companies have re-structured, adding some confusion to the numbers, but the consolidation is obvious.

Of the 15 still active, 8 account for more than 90pc of activity.

The data shows that many have tried, but only few have been able to survive long term in what is a competitive and sometimes volatile trade.

Most of those eight primarily service the large volume South East Asia cattle feeder/slaughter trade, with the exception of AUSTREX who have historically supplied large numbers into the China dairy trade as well.

Drawing on the data we can see the significant loss that Wellard and SEALS represent to the industry, having been major contributors to export volumes in their time. In 2019 SEALS recorded a massive 75 consignments in a calendar year, more than one a week, while Wellard exported close to 300,000 head of cattle in both 2014 and 2015. Those years, 2014, 2015 and 2019 happen to correlate with the biggest total cattle exports from Australia over the last decade.

The other notable point to observe from the data is the even spread of consignments across the top 5 exporters, all with very similar numbers in 2023. Most of these top 5 shared ships with one another at some point in 2023, suggesting amicable relationships.

The average size of a consignment has dropped from around 4,000 head in 2015 to 2,600 last year, suggesting that importers are being more picky and no doubt as a result of the change in shipping available in Australia, with some of the large vessels rarely seen in Australian waters.

2005 – 2023 Consignments by sea for live exports

Source: DAFF website

Exporters active as of 2023

Note: SEALS noted as closed after announcing it would surrender its licence in 2023.

Source: DAFF website

It is interesting to consider that DAFF’s recently released Cost Recovery Implementation Statement for live animal exports include the following forecasts in their budget for 2024-25:

  • 10 approved arrangements for air freight of live animals
  • 26 approved arrangements for sea freight of live animals
  • 40 live export licences

This suggests that some companies must be retaining a live export licence and/or approved arrangement, despite not trading.

An expensive undertaking at an annual charge of roughly $10,000 for a licence and $50,000 for an approved arrangement.

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