GEELONG City Council’s closure of its 150-year-old saleyards has put Victoria’s livestock biosecurity at risk, forcing hundreds of sheep and cattle into unregulated markets such as Gumtree and eBay.
More than 150 farmers met in Geelong last week to demand the council re-open the yards, which were closed after an engineering and occupational health and safety report deemed them unsafe.
The closure in August has highlighted a growing problem for the livestock industry as it struggles to service, monitor and trace thousands of sheep, cattle and pigs being raised and sold on lifestyle properties.
About 500 Geelong, Bellarine and Surf Coast farmers who responded to a survey on the closure said they would be forced to sell their livestock through online markets Gumtree and eBay, or on the “black market, tax-free”.
Others said they had no idea where they would sell, with many saying they had only a few hectares and even fewer livestock, so carting them to saleyards at Ballarat or Colac was not viable.
Some lifestyle farmers declared they would try selling “over the hooks” or take their three or four sheep or cattle “direct to the abattoir”, options that are not viable or available.
Local agent Will Richardson said he had about 2000 customers who faced a logistical nightmare trying to find a buyer for their stock.
“At the yards we educated them on how to get a property identification code and national vendor declaration,” Mr Richardson said. “We mentored them.”
Queenscliff livestock producer Fiona Conroy said peri-urban farmers needed a saleyard service, given agents played a pivotal role in educating them.
“We will lose all traceability of livestock if the saleyards remain closed,” Ms Conroy said. “It will undermine the (State) Government’s traceability program.”
Leopold farmer Daniel Ryan said the closure increased the risk of backyard deals.
“Obviously if there are no yards and agents, there’s no PIC and no traceability, which increases the risk of disease going undetected and untraced,” Mr Ryan said.
Geelong Saleyards Users Group co-ordinator Ian Kelly said the risks were enormous to Australia’s credibility in terms of biosecurity. “If some disease comes in we need to ensure the NLIS system works,” he said.
However, Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said the saleyard closure would not reduce the state’s ability to track livestock.
“No, it will not be compromised. If producers sell their livestock online they will still need to be electronically tagged,” Ms Pulford said.
Victoria has seen a massive growth in the number of lifestyle properties, with farmers attending last week’s meeting saying the Geelong saleyards not only offered an opportunity to sell small lots of sheep and cattle, but gave them a focal point to learn and socialise.
“The saleyards are the farmers’ men’s shed,” Mr Kelly said. “It’s (the yards) probably the main service farmers get for their rates, because they don’t use the elderly citizens’ club.”
Mr Kelly said the saleyards were one of the few services the council offered the region’s 1041 rural properties, which contribute more than $2.5 million a year in rates.
City of Greater Geelong administrator Kathy Alexander told the meeting the council could not afford the estimated $15 million to bring the yards up to industry standards.
“We can limp along for a while … and we could spend $900,000 and reopen the cattle pens, that’s all possible,” Dr Alexander said. “But we need to put forward a business case that allows us to tap into the state and federal funding that’s available.”
But farmers told Dr Alexander that the council’s estimate of $15 million to renovate the yards was “ridiculous”.
Mr Kelly and others said most of the sheep pens could be reopened, with every second pen left empty for agents to stand in, instead of using walkways.
Farmer Geoff Gugger said 42 pens and two ramps could be opened so farmers could trade stock.
Other farmers offered to run a working bee at the yards to get some of the pens operating.
In its 2015-16 annual report the City of Greater Geelong reported it had set aside $690,000 for redevelopment of the yards, but questions remain whether that will ever be made available.
In May this year the Victorian Government dismissed the council and appointed three administrators following an investigation that found the council was “dysfunctional” and $93 million in debt.
Australian Lamb Company buyer Angus Lloyd said taking out the yards risked livestock being sold “under wraps”.
“Traceability will go up the shithouse,” Mr Lloyd said. “We need to have ear tags so we know (can trace) if there’s disease.”
Livestock transporter Ron Jennings said carting livestock to Ballarat, Colac or Pakenham was not viable for many small-lot farmers.
“Two of us went out and did 10 pick-ups from locals to get 400 sheep (to take to Ballarat), starting at 11.30am and finishing at 9.30 that night,” Mr Jennings said.