The Millicent saleyards is in danger of closing next year if a last ditch effort to get more cattle through the fortnightly prime market is not successful.
The annual yarding has dropped from more than 35,000 head in the 1980s to just 8500 in 2017-18, falling about 10 per cent a year for the past decade. The last sheep sale was held more than a decade ago.
After several reviews in the past few years, the Wattle Range Council, which owns and runs the yards, recently made the difficult decision to call sale-o for the last time in mid-2020. But last week more than 200 agents and producers attended a public meeting to discuss ways to keep the site operational.
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These included changing market day from a Thursday to a Monday or Wednesday afternoon, or establishing a service kill abattoir adjacent to the yards.
Wattle Range chief executive officer Ben Gower says Millicent is in a difficult position to draw numbers, with larger selling centres Naracoorte to the north and Mount Gambier to the south, and the ocean to the west.
He said a committee would be formed to explore all the options.
“There was a lot of discussion (in the meeting) about what we could do to make ends meet but we have tried many things – our saleyard manager was even agisting and trading some cattle last year, which made us a $43,000 profit that went against the losses,” he said. “We want to keep (the yards) open if we can but they will need to show in the next year some real change for the elected members to vote to drop the resolution; it won’t be easy.”
Mr Gower said the estimated direct benefits from the yards to the community were about $270,000 a year – greater than the $200,000 annual loss – but the big unknown was the cost of future infrastructure upgrades needed, such as a roof or soft flooring.
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Independent agent John Chay is one of four agents who operates at the yards and is a staunch supporter for keeping the 43-year-old yards open.
He says it is the “shop window” to his business and believes if many of his clients can divert even 10pc more of their cattle through the yards it is possible to arrest the decline.
The yards still enjoy strong buyer support, especially for the grassfed vealers the area is renowned for, he says.
“(Last Thursday) one of my clients sold 30 mixed-sex weaners and they made nearly $1120 – there is not a store sale in the past three weeks in the South East where they would have made that much,” he said.
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Furner beef producer Chris Bateman said it would be very disappointing if the Millicent saleyards closed, as he used them regularly, but believed it would hurt small producers particularly hard.
“Anyone that is only selling 10 to 15 head – how do they get them to market without it costing them half the value of the livestock?” he said.
He considers the best option to reverse the falling yardings at Millicent is to move the fortnightly prime cattle sale from a Thursday to a Monday, if they can get the buyers on board.
“The industry is changing with processors looking to buy more direct, which is understandable for meat quality, but for Millicent to survive we need to get more cattle there,” he said.
“A lot of cattle, not just from Millicent but also Kingston and Tantanoola, go to Naracoorte or Mount Gambier because they perceive there are better prices earlier in the week.”
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He does not see a service abattoir at the yards to boost numbers as a viable option, with supply more likely to come from a paddock than cattle bought at the yards.
“These days only the large processors are still running and they all rely on feedlots for continuity of supply,” he said.