THE only way for beef producers to get better farm-gate returns is to reverse the concentration of abattoirs, and robotics could be the key.
This was the message Meat and Livestock general manager Richard Norton brought to central Queensland graziers during a series of seminars recently. “Everyone wants to be an abattoir owner, but people don’t want to pay the money,” he said. Processing is now the biggest manufacturer in Australia and like all other manufacturing, there has been a contraction. “Hopefully robotics will reduce the barriers of entry for processors to the country.”
Beef producers have just experienced two years with the biggest cattle sell-off not seen since 1977 and an equally huge demand for beef overseas, but had the lowest farm-gate returns. Mr Norton said the lack of returns was because of processor capacity, which caused a bottle neck in the supply and demand chain. “What industry should be asking MLA to do is to ensure the barriers to entry to setting up a processing plant in Australia are reduced so that there is more competition in the processing sector.”
The most significant cost in setting up an abattoir was wages, and robotics had the potential to halve the number of workers needed, Mr Norton said. During the seminars, he played a video of the JBS Bordertown project, where a jointly funded R&D project sees 15,000 sheep carcases are processed each day using robotics and automation. “When I show that video to foreign investors, they get excited – there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.” Although the technology does not come cheap, Mr Norton said for an abattoir of this size there was a return on investment within 12 months.
“We need to increase our processing capacity because there will be an increase in the beef herd.” The next step is to translate this technology from sheep to cattle.
However, JBS Australia’s corporate affairs manager John Berry has put to rest any thoughts that this technology will result in a cut in labour.“ Processing plants still require a lot of labour, so this technology is not translating into major labour saving – it is not a panacea to people.” Rather, the technology at the Bordertown plant was being used as part of the company’s Great Southern assurance program. “So what we are looking at with the lamb business is ongoing improvement with technology, which leads to better consistency across the product. “This leads to better productivity, quality and better returns to the producer,” Mr Berry said.
This technology, developed by New Zealand company Scott Technology, is also being used across the Tasman. “The important part about it is that companies like us continue to invest in technology and innovation and that we are able to adapt it to our industry.” The application of this technology to beef would not be immediate, he said. Cattle Council’s David Hill said this new technology was exciting, and there was a lot happening in this field. He did, however, question how the current robotics would translate to cattle. “When you look at the robotics being used, it is for sheep and lamb and these carcases are a lot more uniform.” Mr Hill said there was lots of new technology on the agenda, such as DEXTA scanning used for objective measurements, and it was exciting. Processors liked to point out how much they had invested in the industry, but producers have invested even more, he noted. “It is the whole of industry, and we have to look for efficiencies where we can and I don’t want to see a whole lot of meat workers lose their jobs.”
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Article Source: Queensland Country Life