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China halts South African wool due to foot-and-mouth disease outbreak

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Australian woolgrowers are set to benefit from the suspension of wool exports from South Africa to China due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

The peak body of the South African wool industry, Cape Wools SA, released a statement saying that the industry decided on Friday to postpone a crucial wool auction due to China’s customs department suspending “all greasy wool imports from South Africa as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak earlier in the year”.

It said it was awaiting official notification from China regarding the exact position of the China Inspection and Quarantine Bureau with regards to its imports.

The Australian Wool Exchange Eastern Market Indicator is currently $19.68 a kilogram — $1.56 higher than the same time last year, and it is expected the market would now rise further.

Endeavour Wool Exports trading manager Josh Lamb said the shutdown of the South African wool market meant buyers for Chinese mills would have to compete for the reduced wool supply.

“Most Chinese mills spread their buying out between Australia, South Africa and New Zealand most weeks, so if you take out one of those countries supply-wise the obvious thing is that quantity will have to move to other countries, and Australia would be the beneficiary of that,” Mr Lamb said.

He said it was too early to say how much the market would surge.

“I imagine there will be an increase this week,” Mr Lamb said.

“We were heading that way anyway and the market has been building reasonably nicely over the last two to three weeks, so this might just put a little bit of fuel on the fire.”

Cape Wools SA has escalated the issue “to the highest level and is now being dealt with at the appropriate inter-governmental level”, adding:

All government departments have already been notified about the situation and the impact it will have on the Wool Industry and the farmers and workers alike.

The industry will continue to monitor the situation closely and communicate with all export/import authorities on an ongoing basis.

We are confident that the wool industry is receiving the utmost attention and that the situation will be resolved within the shortest possible time in order for the industry to resume normal trading activities.

Lack of wool lifts prices

National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia executive director, Chris Wilcox, said South Africa were a significant but small player.

“South Africa produces about 10 per cent of the wool that Australia produces with 70 per cent of their export wool going to China,” he said.

key points FMD

Statistics:

  • Australia produces 320 million kilograms of wool a year
  • South Africa produces 30 million kilograms of wool a year
  • The Australian wool industry generated $3.9 billion in 2018

“The Chinese do rely on them, so I do expect they will look to Australia and that demand will push prices up as a result.”

This is not the first time the export wool trade from South Africa to China had been suspended, there was an outbreak of FMD in 2000 and in 2011 Rift Valley Fever also impacted trade.

Mr Lamb said the difference with this time was there was not a stockpile of wool in Chinese mills and that would also boost the price for the Australian wool market.

“What we have seen over the few years with restrictions on credit in China and market conditions mills have tended to be behind with their purchasing.” he said.

Keeping the clip clean

Last week, it was announced that FMD was detected in meat products declared and seized at Australian airports several times since December.

Mr Lamb said the Australian wool industry would be decimated if there was an outbreak of the disease.

“It’s always a worry as China has fairly strict quarantine regulations and we can’t afford to have our major customer, who is taking nearly 80 per cent of the Australian wool clip most years, to be out of the market at any stage,” he said.

Mr Wilcox cited the FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 which led to a two year suspension of wool exports from the UK into China.

Contaminated, illegally imported meat with the FMD virus at airports is a threat to the whole industry.

“When there was Rift Valley Fever in South Africa it was two months before they could export to China again.”

Mr Wilcox said the Federation of Australian Wool Organisations had prepared a strategy for the wool industry in Australia if there was an outbreak of FMD.

“We have an emergency animal diseases working group that have developed a plan for, if and when, there is an outbreak,” he said.

“We are ready to respond quickly by quarantining the wool that been affected so trade can be resumed quickly.”

The Australian wool clip was valued at $3.9 billion in 2018.

“If wool exports were suspended for any period of time that would be a significant amount of money that the Australian economy would lose,” Mr Wilcox said.

China restricts Australian coal imports in a bid to boost its domestic market

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Dozens of vessels carrying Australian coal continue to be in limbo off the coast of China as restrictions on imports are introduced at key ports across the country.

Beijing imposed import restrictions in January, primarily in the north-east of the country, to boost domestic coal prices with no indication of when they might be lifted.

Tania Constable, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, said companies were “deeply concerned” about the restrictions and the uncertainty of when they would be lifted.

“We believe an unofficial quota system [has been] employed since the restructure of customs and quarantine administrative arrangements in October 2018,” she said.

How did it start?

In 2016, the Chinese government restricted coal miners’ working days from 330 to 276 days per year.

This was seen as an attempt to cut back on domestic production of low-grade brown coal and improve the environment and air quality.

Subsequently, imports of higher-grade coal increased, as did the price of coal worldwide.

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But by year’s end, the working day restrictions had eased and Beijing began to re-exert control over its domestic mining sector.

Vivek Dhar, a commodities analyst at Commonwealth Bank, said it was during this time Beijing began turning the tap on and off to imports of Australian coal.

“Mid-November is where we saw the most aggressive push towards a policy of capping coal import levels and that was probably the most prominent move, similar to this, we’ve seen.”

How long will it last?

Beijing indicated last year its goal to keep 2018 imports at 2017 levels.

This was not achieved, but led to a steep drop in coal imports in December before surging in January to the highest level in five years, according to figures released by China’s General Administration of Customs.

The latest round of restrictions was imposed about a week before the Lunar New Year celebrations, a national holiday for China, which added to the uncertainty.

“There’s still a lot of confusion,” Mr Dhar said.

In the meantime, the thermal coal price at Newcastle port, which accounts for 25 per cent of Australia’s thermal coal, is down to its lowest point since May 2018.

What is the impact?

China is heavily reliant upon Australian coking coal, which accounts for approximately 75 per cent of the coal used in Chinese steel production.

But concerns over slowing growth saw steel production in the country slow towards the end of 2018 as profitability collapsed.

Ms Constable said talks were ongoing with the Chinese embassy in Canberra and stressed the negative impact restrictions would have on the industry if allowed to continue.

“The longer these sorts of delays go on, of course it does have an effect overall on production and that has a flow-on effect to other parts of business,” she said.

“A lot of discussion is occurring with customers in China and with the traders themselves, and plans are being made to try and get to the bottom of it.”

Some reports said restrictions would ease in a few weeks, others said a few months.

Ultimately, only time will tell.

Woolworths to stop selling $1 milk

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Woolworths has announced it will stop selling $1 per litre milk for good, in a move described as a “game changer” by the dairy industry.

Key points

Key points:

  • The price will increase by 10 cents which will go directly to dairy farmers
  • Woolworths would not rule out future price rises to help farmers
  • NSW Farmers Association is calling for other retailers to follow suit

The supermarket chain will start charging consumers $1.10 per litre from tomorrow, with the extra money going directly to farmers.

Woolworths Group chief executive Brad Banducci said the corporation believed in the long-term sustainability of the dairy industry.

“In our consultation with industry bodies … we’ve heard the outlook will continue to be extremely tough for dairy farmers,” he said.

“This is affecting milk production and farm viability, which is devastating for farmers and the regional communities in which they live.”

The decision follows an east coast trial of drought relief milk sales, which saw 50 per cent of consumers willing to pay more to help farmers.

Mr Banducci acknowledged the 10 cent increase was less than inflation, but would not rule out a further price rise in the future.

“There’s a fine line between lifting the price and supporting our dairy farmers and also focusing on affordability for our customers, so this felt like the right first, safe step.”

Dairy farmers have long fought the $1 milk for sale in Australia’s major supermarkets.

Australian Dairy Farmers Association CEO David Inall called the supermarket’s move was a “game changer”.

“It is reassuring that Woolworths has committed to deliver the full 10 cent increase back to those famers who supplied the milk.”

Dubbo dairy farmer Erika Chesworth said Woolworth’s decision puts dairy farmers over a psychological hurdle.

“Of course we’d love it to be $2 a litre, but today we’re just really happy that we’re on the path to returning where we belong in society.”

The NSW Farmers Association said it was a big win for dairy farmers, who had been fighting against discount milk since 2011.

It said other retailers should follow Woolworths’ example.

Millions of fish killed in perfect storm of conditions, investigation reveals

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Mass killing of fish in Darling River, near Broken Hill.

“Excess” upstream irrigation, drought and water releases from the Menindee Lakes created the perfect storm that led to the ecologically disastrous fish kills over summer, according to scientists who prepared a report for Labor on the state of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Key points:

  • There is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid “catastrophic outcomes”, scientists say
  • The report also identified “serious deficiencies in governance and management”
  • A separate report commissioned by the Government will deliver its report this week

Labor asked an independent panel of scientists to assess the river system in the wake of the scenes near Menindee in the NSW far west, where fish suffocated as blue-green algae died in the river and sucked up the oxygen.

Decades-old Murray cod were among the casualties.

Using data from New South Wales Fisheries, the report has found that millions of fish died in three separate events over summer.

“The conditions leading to this event are an interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation,” the report said.

“Prior releases of water from the Menindee Lakes contributed to lack of local reserves.”

Panel chairman Professor Craig Moritz, who is the director of the Centre for Biodiversity Analysis at the Australian National University, said the fish kills over summer awakened people to the extent of the damage to the river system.

“To me, it was like the coral bleaching event for the mainland,” Professor Moritz said.

“Our review of the fish kills found there isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.”

The panel has found “insufficient flows” pose a risk to the viability of the Darling River and the communities that depend on it.

The report also identifies “serious deficiencies in governance and management” which have “eroded” the intention of the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the Water Act of 2007.

A six-month plan for urgent action, in order to reverse the decline, is laid out as part of the report.

Government and opposition studies ‘shared’ data

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had initially written to the Prime Minister to ask for both political parties to back a combined study.

But after Labor engaged the Australian Academy of Science to do the work, the government announced its own separate scientific study into the fish kill.

That report, conducted by a group of scientists headed by Professor Rob Vertessy, is expected to deliver its initial report to the Government on Wednesday.

However, the Academy of Science review confirms the two scientific panels have been sharing information.

Both panels were briefed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder.

They also shared data and will review each other’s findings.

A state royal commission into the Murray-Darling was recently conducted in South Australia, containing damning and explosive findings about the “maladministration” of the river system.

A Productivity Commission report into the basin plan also pointed to conflicts and cost blowouts.

The Greens are calling for a federal royal commission to investigate the allegations. So far, Labor has stopped short of endorsing such a move.

But shadow water spokesman Tony Burke signalled last week that once these two scientific reports have been taken into consideration, that position may change.

“We will soon have four extensive pieces of analysis in to the Murray-Darling Basin — the Productivity Commission review, the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, the Academy of Sciences review in to the fish kills and the review commissioned by the Minister,” Mr Burke said in a statement.

“Action needs to be taken now and the fish kills over summer have made clear just how urgent that action is.

“There may be a point where Labor supports a further royal commission in to this area, but right now we are about to have four significant sets of recommendations in front of us and the rivers need action to be taken urgently.”

Labor has announced it will attempt to overturn the cap on water buybacks as part of its response to the worsening state of the basin.

Huge cargo ship launched in Tasmania, but exporters warn it won't be enough

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Tasmanian primary producers have told the State Government not to be complacent about increasing the state’s fruit freight exports, following the launch of the nation’s largest cargo vessel in Burnie yesterday.

Key points

  • The Tasmanian Achiever Two starts on the Bass Strait run between Burnie and Port Melbourne in March
  • The ship has 40 per cent more capacity than other ships on the route
  • Tasmanian exports increased by 14 per cent last year and are likely to increase even further

Cargo operators have at times struggled to operate Tasmanian routes, because of capacity limitations and operating expenses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the north-west coast to officially unveil the 210-metre long ship, which is capable of carrying 40 per cent more freight per voyage than any other Bass Strait ship.

The cargo ship complies with strict international environmental standards, switching from diesel powered engines to the local power grid, enabling it to reach its Port Melbourne destination an hour earlier than its predecessor, the Tasmanian Achiever 1.

The Achiever 2 will begin service from March 1, helping to bolster Tasmania’s growing export sector while ensuring local growers and manufacturers have greater access to national and international markets.

It’s also part of Toll Group’s $311 million investment for two new ships and wharf upgrades in Burnie and Port Melbourne.

John Mullins, Toll Group chairman, said the new ship was built to meet export volume for the next two decades.

He expected the majority of the ship’s capacity will be snatched up by local exporters.

“You’ve got to build a ship with enough capacity to last you 10 years or 15 years, you’ve got to keep an eye to the future so there’s always a bit too much capacity at the beginning,” he said.

Premier Will Hodgman said demand for Tasmanian imports increased by 14 per cent last year and he anticipated the new ship would showcase Tasmanian produce on the international stage.

“Last year we set a record for the highest value of exports in this state, and all this means more jobs for Tasmanians, it means getting our produce out to the rest of the world,” he said.

But reducing the cost of shipping freight to Melbourne should be a priority for the Hodgman Government, said Brett Charlton, chairman of the Freight Logistics Council.

“One would think that with extra capacity that’s not being utilised that there would be a want to fill that space so competition would drive that narrative,” he said.

In addition to the two larger Spirit of Tasmania ferries to ply Bass Strait, the State Government said freight capacity would be secured for the foreseeable future.

Current investment in production for export markets in Tasmania is exponential, said Wayne Johnstone of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.

“We’re nearly at full capacity now, in 10 years time we’ll probably be at full capacity with what’s coming in line which is a good thing for Tassie,” he said.

But Mr Johnstone called on the Government to ensure there is sufficient capacity on freight vessels to cope with increasing exports as demand increases.

“We’ll be keeping the Government, whichever breed it is at the time, on their toes to make sure that we are getting that capacity there for our producers,” Mr Johnstone added.

Nickel boom breathes new life into mothballed Kimberley mine

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The expected demand for electric vehicles is driving optimism in the global nickel industry and breathing new life into a mothballed mine in Western Australia’s remote East Kimberley after a three-year hiatus.

After a tough few years, things are turning a corner for the nickel market, which is up by 20 per cent since the start of the year trading at $US5.61 ($7.85) per pound.

Rising commodity prices have given several projects a boost, including Panoramic Resources’ Savannah mine, which recently reopened near Halls Creek, 2,800 kilometres north of Perth.

Commercial manager Tim Shervington said the mine exported an $8.6-million shipment of nickel concentrate from Wyndham Port this week, its first since reopening.

Almost 8,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate was loaded onto the MV Heemskerkgracht at Wyndham Port for export to China.

“It’s been a long time coming, we’ve been in care and maintenance for three years, and to get our first shipment away is very pleasing indeed,” he said.

“I think there’s probably some more confidence in the market with the advent of the lithium-ion battery.

“That has definitely helped things but also stainless-steel production in China has been lifted in the back end of last year.”

After resuming mining operations in September, the recommissioned mine processed its first ore at the end of 2018 and secured a four-year concentrate sales agreement with China’s Jinchuan and Sino Mining.

Mr Shervington said the company hoped to return to monthly nickel exports out of Wyndham Port and were on target to ship out 100,000 tonnes of concentrate this calendar year.

The recommissioned Savannah mine has had its first nickel shipment leave the remote port of Wyndham for China.

A boost for struggling East Kimberley port

Wyndham Port manager Steve Forrest says the restart at the Savannah nickel mine will give a much-needed boost to the port.

The operator of the remote port of Wyndham said the restart at the Savannah nickel mine would give a much-needed boost to the region.

Before its closure in 2016, Panoramic was the Port’s biggest customer, shipping more than 1.2 million dry metric tonnes of nickel concentrate to China in a decade, worth around $1.4 billion.

In the same year, the Port also lost another key customer when Kimberley Metals Group put its Ridges iron ore mine into care and maintenance.

Live cattle exports have also dwindled.

Port manager Steve Forrest said almost 8,000 tonnes had been loaded on a bulk carrier for the company’s first shipment of 2019.

He said it was a great relief for the struggling port and good news for the local economy.

“We’ve had our eye on the nickel prices and the Australian dollar and when they made the announcement they were going to reopen it was very good for us, and the community.”

Boom to bust … to boom?

It’s been a wild ride for the nickel market over the past few years.

At the time of Savannah’s closure, the nickel price bombed out at $US3.93 per pound.

But now the nickel market appears to be back on the up, more than 50 years after the country’s first great nickel boom.

The state’s nickel miners, who traditionally targeted the stainless-steel market, are increasingly looking to the electric vehicle market to drive future demand for the commodity.

Panoramic Resources will start expanding its Savannah Nickel mine in 2019 to extend the mine’s life for a further eight years.

This has prompted new projects like the Nova nickel-copper mine, 360 kilometres south-east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA’s Goldfields, which officially opened in late 2017.

The same year, BHP announced a $55-million expansion of the company’s Kwinana refinery at its Nickel West operations, which will see it ship 100,000 tonnes of nickel sulphates to Asia a year.

Mining analyst Tim Treadgold said the electric vehicle market could account for up to 40 per cent of total nickel consumption in the next two decades.

“The electric revolution is upon us and we’re going to replace oil with metals,” he said.

“It’s a real boost to the industry to be able to look at its market and say, ‘We’ve got the stainless-steel market under control, and there’s an entirely new use of nickel coming down the track’.

“So that’s going to really push the price along.”

Panoramic Resources recommissioned Savannah’s nickel plant by crushing its first ore in December last year.

A ‘fickle’ commodity

However, Mr Treadgold warned there would still be a few challenges for nickel miners along the way.

“Nickel is a spectacular metal going up and coming down and it’s always been that way, it’s peculiarly erratic and volatile, more so than any other metal,” he said.

“The market to watch is not so much the ebb and flow of nickel and vanadium prices, it’s how are electric vehicle sales are going because that’s the end market.

“And if that really starts to take off, metal prices will follow.”

The Savannah nickel mine near Halls Creek restarted off the back of high commodity prices in September.

Savannah mine to expand

Despite the metal’s volatility, Savannah’s future is looking bright with the mine looking to expand later in the year.

Panoramic plans to ramp up production to three quarters of a million tonnes of ore this year, but the key to Savannah’s ongoing success is an additional ore body to the north of the mine.

Savannah mine general manager Ben Robinson said the expansion into Savannah North in August would extend the mine’s life for a further eight years.

Mr Robinson said the project’s restart would create 300 new jobs for the WA economy, at a time when another major mine in the region, Argyle Diamonds, was facing closure.

“Our strategy has been to have a large proportion of experienced people at the start because it’s been critical to get it up and running.

Robotics are used to operate some trucks remotely in the Savannah nickel underground mine.

Growing WA’s battery mineral exports

The nickel price recovery reflects a wider battery metal boom which is strengthening a number of commodities in the state.

WA is the world’s largest producer of lithium and a leading producer of other battery metals including cobalt and rare earths.

Australia’s first dysprosium mine outside China was officially launched by Northern Minerals at Browns Range in the Tanami Desert mid-last year.

Savannah’s restart also comes at a time when the State Government has launched the WA Future Battery Industry Strategy, designed to aid the state’s growth as a battery minerals exporter.

If successful in its bid, the Government has committed $6 million to host the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre in Perth.

Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston said the unprecedented growth of the future battery industry represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for WA.

Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan with Northern Minerals managing director George Bauk at the official opening of the Browns Range rare earths pilot project.

The heroes and heartbreak of the devastating north Queensland floods

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Tinnie ride around Townsville shows floodwaters

As north Queenslanders continue to deal with the fallout of unprecedented flooding, we take a look at the stories of resilience to emerge from the natural disaster.

There have been tales of heartbreak and stories of heroes as thousands of Townsville residents clean up their flood-ravaged homes and graziers try to save their cattle from starvation.

On Friday, the Insurance Council of Australia estimated losses in Townsville of $606 million, while rural lobby group AgForce said the immediate cost to cattle producers would likely top $1 billion.

Locals shocked by pace, amount of water

When thousands of homes went underwater, several low-lying suburbs including Bluewater and Toolakea, north of Townsville, were some of the first to be inundated.

Ute, shed washed away in Bluewater

The force of the water blew out the wall of Roger Goodwin’s home in Bluewater. His backyard and downstairs area were destroyed.

“I was just aghast at the pace of the water,” he said.

“When it started to hit about two metres high, the debris was hitting posts under the house.

“The noise was deafening at some points, and it got scary.

“I saw the rescue helicopter and I thought I could be in that soon.”

The state of Clayton and Carmel Linning’s house was dark, musty and quiet, after the floods.

“We were preparing for the worst, I knew we had to have had a lot of water through our house, I knew it was going to be bad,” Mr Linning said.

“I expect the smell will putrefy as the days go by and the mud starts to bake a little bit more with the sun and the heat.”

Heroes emerge from disaster

Through the tragedy there were uplifting stories of mateship and resiliance as Queenslanders banded together to help one another.

The Populin family were hailed as “true heroes” after they took more than 60 flood-stricken people and their pets into their two-storey home as floodwaters inundated their Townsville suburb of Idalia.

“We had dogs, we had cats, I think a guinea pig,” Alicia Populin said.

“I think we ended up with about 16 families here from our neighbourhood.

“They had called SES but there were just too many to evacuate at one time so they started walking in.”

Flood in Townsville in north Queensland

Meanwhile, neighbours of 79-year-old Des Smith raised the alarm that he would need rescuing from his Maxwelton home in western Queensland.

Confined to a mobility walker, Mr Smith was estimated to be about 20 minutes away from drowning when police choppered in for a dramatic rescue.

“He was concerned about his dog, so I opened up some of the meat that he had for his dog, put it on the bed, put the dog on the bed, and then myself and Luke basically sort of shepherded him out [of] there.”

It was a race against time to recue Mr Smith after his home was swamped

The scale of evacuations also led to some innovative thinking, with dump trucks used to help get residents to higher ground.

Mayor Jenny Hill praised her council crews for coming up with a way to turn “tip trucks into people movers”.

“The innovation in times of disaster like this is second to none,” she said.

Some evacuees found shelter where they could, with more than 50 people finding refuge at Annandale Central Shopping Centre in Townsville.

Owner of Tracie’s Hair and Beauty, Tracie Davis Nieass, kept her doors open overnight to make the experience as comfortable as possible for everyone staying the night.

“I knew I had hairdryers and I had a clothes dryer to get people’s clothes dry,” she said.

Spike enjoys the warm air from the hair drier as a treat amongst the floods

“I had tea, coffee and plenty of cups so I came over, a couple of clients and a former staff member came down to give me a hand.”

Spike the dog was one of those VIPs, relishing in the opportunity for a bit of pampering while his family, the Browns, took shelter.

WARNING: Images included below may upset some people.

Heartbreak for graziers

Hundreds of thousands of cattle have been lost in western Queensland, a devastating financial and emotional blow after those same cows and graziers endured years of drought.

But the same swollen river that killed the stock then moved its floodwaters north, where graziers in the Gulf of Carpentaria feared up to 75 per cent of their herd could have succumbed.

While there have been food and fuel drops, it is too late and too little for many.

AgForce estimates primary producers across Queensland have lost more than 500,000 head of livestock.

Robert Chaplain went out in a chopper to check on his cattle on his property east of Cloncurry last week and was confronted with devastation.

“It’s like inland seas, there’s waves in the middle of it in some parts,” he said.

“Flying down there you can see a lot of dead cattle, there’s a few survivors.

“There are a lot of places that are reporting 100 per cent [losses] … and big numbers too, not just a couple of hundred.”

Infrastructure damage bill mounting

Flooding engulfs a freight train line at Corella Creek in north-western Queensland. (Supplied: QR)

The repair bill from the floods is still mounting — there has still been no estimate on the cost of fixing damaged public infrastructure.

Queensland Rail (QR) said it could take up to six months to repair some of its inland train lines.

QR had significant trouble accessing a train which had several wagons topple over while being stowed at Corella Creek, in the outback.

Its load of zinc, lead and copper was carried away in the floodwaters.

Volunteers work around the clock to help flood-hit graziers

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Amid the ongoing flood crisis in north-west Queensland, an army of volunteers and small businesses is making a difference in the fight to save surviving cattle from starvation.

In the towns of Richmond, Winton, Cloncurry, Julia Creek and many others, helicopters have been in the air for more than a fortnight assisting frantic efforts to save livestock.

Professional pilots, alongside volunteers in their own aircraft, have been moving cattle away from danger, saving thousands, but when the extent of the floods became apparent, the true horror of the catastrophe was revealed.

Pilot Ben Tate said many isolated cattle had succumbed to the floodwaters.

Pasture submerged by days of flooding will take years to recover from the event, crippling the grazing industry.

“We pushed [cattle] well out beyond the known flood line, which helped save a lot, but there’s cattle out where we thought was well beyond flood level that are gone,” Mr Tate said.

“I fed cattle about six days ago on an island, about 40 or 50 head of steers, and I came back at 6:30 the next morning and they were all gone.”

“There’s no precedent for it — it’s well and truly above and beyond what we ever expected,” he said.

Community effort

At Richmond Aerodrome, a base was established early on to coordinate efforts to first move cattle away from known flood peaks before a relief effort began to drop hay to stranded animals.

“The last seven days have been extremely hectic not only for the pilots, but the fantastic community giving us a hand on the ground,” Mr Tate said.

“It’s a busy time but everyone’s banding together. It’s just a job that needs to be done,” he said.

Dave Fox is one of many volunteers who have worked hard to deliver supplies and fodder to stricken cattle.

Owner of Fox Helicopter Services Dave Fox and his wife Patsy have been helping to coordinate the disaster relief plan for Richmond Shire Council.

Working from the aerodrome, starting before dawn and staying well after dark, they have organised fodder drops and relief for thousands of surviving cattle across the shire’s 26,000 square kilometres.

Pilots and mechanics have been working around the clock to maintain aircraft for the emergency response.

Supplies of aviation fuel were threatened early on as a result of the total isolation the town faced, leading to the army’s airlift relief.

“There were a few times when we were down to the last drum of fuel with half the day to go,” Mr Fox said.

“Then the Spartan [military transport plane] would arrive and here comes 3,600 litres and we’re away again,” he said.

Critical support

“We’ve got a great engineering team … they’ve been tremendous and brought parts out and repaired machines that would have ordinarily been on the ground for days waiting for parts,” Mr Tate said.

Behind the scenes, teams of local women have been feeding the pilots and support workers with lunch, snacks and refreshments.

It’s smoko time for the volunteers providing flood relief in north-west Queensland.

The toll is beginning to show on the ground and in the air, but roads are opening up as the country dries, reducing the strain on helicopters.

Philip ‘Pipi’ Wells from Blue Dog Helicopters in Hughenden has covered hundreds of kilometres assisting Ergon Energy workers repair powerlines.

Witnessing thousands of dead and suffering cattle trapped in corners of paddocks, Mr Wells said they helped where they could by cutting fences and walking animals to higher ground.

“Right through from [Hughenden] to Cloncurry and north and up the Gulf, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

As graziers and residents start returning to their homes, the pain of the experience has also affected pilots.

Infrastructure like dams and machinery was washed away by the flood.

“It was bad before, but I think it won’t sink in for a while,” he said.

Mr Fox said the focus was on the people who have been impacted the most: graziers who have lost thousands of head of cattle.

“Some of the people we have here volunteering here on this airport, flying out day in day out to deliver stores or carry things, they’ve been directly affected,” he said.

“I really do thank them for their time and effort and everyone in the community thanks them.”

Saleyards at livestock hubs face uncertain future with traffic in decline

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For many regional towns the local saleyard is more than a just a place to buy and sell livestock — it is the hub of the community.

But changes in the industry — including a shrinking herd, online auctions, and centralisation of farms — mean many small saleyards around the country are facing dwindling visitors and sales.

In South Australia’s south-east, the council-owned Millicent saleyards has been operating at a loss of, on average, $113,000 per year for the past six years, according to council documents.

“A shift towards fewer and larger saleyards is already occurring,” a Wattle Range Council report said.

“It has been estimated that up to half of all regional saleyards have closed in Australia in the past 20 years, mainly owned by small rural councils.”

The Millicent saleyards will be the latest in the region to cease regular operations in recent years unless the community comes up with a solution to its declining revenue and throughput.

But members of the community fear the closure would be “devastating” to the town, and argue that the benefit the saleyards provide is worth the cost.

More options for sellers and buyers

Declining traffic and revenue is affecting small saleyards right across Australia.

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Advances in technology mean farmers have different options for selling livestock — such as on-farm sales, online auctions or selling straight to the customer.

The size of farms is also affecting the number of livestock being sold through smaller saleyards.

“A lot of the farms are getting bigger, and a lot of the smaller ones are dropping by and getting bought up by their neighbours,” livestock agent John Chay said.

Mr Chay has been using the Millicent Saleyards for 21 years.

The Millicent saleyards also face competition from larger nearby saleyards like Mount Gambier, which attracts a lot of sellers from south-west Victoria, and Naracoorte, which is close to a large meat processor.

“But as you can see here [in Millicent], this sale and what we had a fortnight ago were the best sales for the week, out of Mount Gambier, Naracoorte and Millicent, and everyone is leaving here with a smile,” Mr Chay said.

The local council voted to close the Millicent saleyards in June 2020 unless a “reasonable solution” to its declining revenue is found.

But Wattle Range Council CEO Ben Gower said the council would probably run the saleyards at a loss if the number of cattle being sold was not decreasing each year.

“The saleyards don’t exist to make money for the council,” he said.

“Council provides all sorts of services at a cost: libraries, boat ramps, swimming lakes, swimming pools, childcare centres.

“The patronage of those services is not in decline though.”

Saleyards’ community important for mental health

Leon Hancock, who lives on the outskirts of Millicent and attended a community meeting about the facility, said saleyards can be important to the mental health of primary producers in the community.

“Farmers in financial distress tend to self-isolate,” he said.

“So saleyards are typically one of the few places they will continue to go to connect with other people.

“If we remove the saleyards from that mix, then we we reduce the number of places a farmer will typically go to to connect with other people.”

Garth Huppatz says it would be “devastating” if the saleyards closed.

Garth Huppatz from Rendlesham has been farming since 1954 and said the saleyards closure would be “devastating” for the Millicent community.

He said farmers would often “bring the wives” to the sales and spend the day around town afterwards.

“If we’ve got to go to Mount Gambier to sell our cattle, we’ll be going to Mount Gambier to do our local shopping too,” Mr Huppatz said.

“There’s not too much here now — there’s only the saleyards and the mill that are keeping people here in Millicent.”

So how do you save a saleyard?

After the vote to close the saleyards unless a solution to the declining revenue and cattle sold is found, the Wattle Range Council opened the floor to the community.

Close to 200 people packed into a meeting room at the Millicent Arts and Civic Centre to pitch their ideas.

Installing solar panels to cut on power bills, leasing the yards on off days to bring in extra income, and getting a farmers’ co-op to take control were some of the ideas thrown around.

But Mr Gower said it would be difficult to address the underlying issue — fewer and fewer people using the saleyards each year.

“They’re small fees and they’re really a drop in the ocean.”

One idea, which council is investigating, is introducing a service-kill abattoir in Millicent to try and encourage more buyers to come to the area.

Why our freshwater turtles are facing extinction

This post was originally published on this site

A new scientific study has found native freshwater turtles are on the brink of extinction in South Australia, a concern predicted 30 years ago but little action has been taken since.

First published in the Scientific Reports in Nature journal this week, the researchers said rapid action was needed for conservation to be effective to save the dying species.

Researcher Ricky Spencer, Associate Professor of Ecology and Zoology at Western Sydney University, said the main driver for declining turtle populations was invasive foxes preying on turtle nests, but the impacts of marine disease and water quality issues were also significant contributors.

“We see foxes destroy turtle nests and they also eat the females throughout the catchment, but in South Australia we are probably now seeing the effects of water quality catching up with it [declining turtle populations],” Dr Spencer said.

“Ten years ago, during that millennium drought, we had mass mortality events because of water-quality-related diseases such as the marine tubeworm killing freshwater turtles.

“Overall we are probably seeing between a 70–90 per cent decline of once ‘common’ native species.

“We are actually now not seeing any signs of activity or any turtles in some populations.”

The researchers identified crashing turtle populations caused by the deaths of aging turtles and no juvenile turtle populations coming through due to nest predation, leaving no chance for populations to recover.

James van Dyke, senior lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at La Trobe University, said turtle populations in South Australia were most concerning and were like a “turtle aged care home”.

“At some of our sites in Victoria and New South Wales, on a good night, we might catch 30 turtles, whereas on a good night in South Australia we would get one or two,” Dr van Dyke said.

The researchers assessed populations of the broad-shelled turtle, eastern long-necked turtle, and the Murray River turtle in the Murray River and some of its associated waterways.

Why the river system desperately needs native turtles

The researchers said the recovery of turtle populations was essential to the health of the Murray River ecosystem, as the turtles were the “vacuum cleaners of the river”.

“We just had the Menindee fish kill event … and the turtles are really important in terms of those ecosystem processes,” Dr Spencer said.

“Any fish kill, turtles are the best cleaners and converters.”

Dr van Dyke said the turtles were essential to the health of the river, recycling nutrients and contributing to the prevention of blue-green algae blooms.

“They eat pretty much anything, they eat a lot of vegetation and green algae, they eat a lot of dead stuff in the water, and they also eat a lot of insects and invertebrates.”

Fear of tubeworms’ return if dry conditions continue

Chairperson of the Alexandrina Wildlife Support Group Inc Deanne Smith was involved in the clean-up and rescue of turtles during the marine tubeworm infestation in the Murray River in 2008.

She said losing thousands of turtles was heartbreaking and they were fearful it could happen again soon.

“They are probably ready to do its thing again if conditions worsen,” Ms Smith said.

“There are still active tubeworms just at the mouth of Sugars Beach on Hindmarsh Island, so it is a bit of a concern that it is so close to the River Murray.

“Prime conditions for tubeworms are stagnant, still water … from what I have seen lately, we still have quite high salinity, but we do have water movement in the Lower Lakes.”

Dr van Dyke said infestations of tubeworms occurred during major droughts where salinity levels increased.

“The turtles will get tubeworms encrusting on their shells and you can have a lot of turtles die at once from that.”

Dr Spencer said freshwater turtles could not handle high salinity levels and, if that did occur, turtles would be wiped out straight away.

Scientists call for action

The study found funding limitations, political constraints, and limited data often made effective action difficult, but the researchers said it was essential.

“The difficulty is we had 30 years to do something about it, because it was predicted by researchers 30 years ago,” Dr Spencer said.

“What government agencies don’t do well is to respond to these types of predictions.

“Usually the response occurs when populations are already declining.

“We saw the community outrage around the fish kill in the Murray-Darling in the Darling system recently and a lot of that obviously has to do with water storage and water use.

“We actually need to have proper discussion and almost reset the Murray-Darling river system … and turtles are a vital part of that.”

Dr Spencer said it was not just about the fish.

“It needs discussion around key species in the Murray-Darling,” he said.

“There are things that we can do and we certainly look at restoring populations and one of the beauties of turtles is that they live for a long time and the other thing is that they produce lots of eggs.”

Ms Smith said in the Lower Lakes region it was important to look at the recovery of the environment, which she believed had not recovered from the millennium drought.

“We need to try to fix the environment where the repopulations of turtles can live and survive,” she said.