The Port of Karumba’s live export loading yards have sold following years of inactivity, in a sign of the times as the industry moves to larger economies of scale.

Key points:

  • The 1990-built yard was once tipped to export as many as 50,000 cattle a year
  • It fell into disuse after the 2019 floods and just a single approved ship can access the port
  • Karumba was heralded by graziers as an inexpensive alternative to Darwin and Townsville

The family of the late John Kaus, a pioneer of the live cattle export scene in the Gulf of Carpentaria, placed the yards on the market in February with the new owner planning to redevelop the site if no interest from exporters is shown.

Barry Hughes, the Mayor of Etheridge Shire and president of the Gulf Cattleman’s Association, said it was a sad day for local graziers.

“The live export component of marketing and accessibility has had its share of ups and downs out of Karumba,” he said.

Elders Queensland live export manager Tom Kennedy said Karumba was an important port in its day early last decade and helped a lot of Gulf cattlemen stay afloat, despite being a financially marginal facility.

“Locals had no other options and when there was no profit going south, some graziers were filling whole ships,” he said.

A older man rests his left arm on a fence in the fading afternoon sun with aeucalypt tree and poinciana flowers in background

Barry Hughes says exporting from Karumba was a significant freight saving.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Dredging problems

While the Norman River port was maintained during the lifetime of the Century Mine, which transhipped zinc products through the harbour, its final export in 2016 also ended the dredging program.

A deal was soon struck to continue maintenance of the shipping channel and New Century Resources re-established transhipment operations when re-processing of tailings began after it acquired the former MMG mine in 2018.

But the 2019 floods brought millions of tonnes of sediment into the Gulf and limited access other than for New Century’s transhipping barge and fishing vessels.

Karumba’s 2.3-metre draught means just one live export vessel in the fleet of 33 approved for Australian use can access the wharf at present.

Supply chain lengthened

Normanton cattleman and local councillor Ashley Gallagher said the hour’s travel time from his Sawtell Creek Station to Karumba was safer and more profitable than alternatives.

Cattle arrived healthy and fresh at Karumba from nearby properties, something Mr Gallagher said was disappointing to lose.

“It’s a backward step but the live export industry have had ample opportunity to buy it, but if it’s not viable, it’s not viable.”

Cattle are fed in the yards at the Karumba Port

Export cattle must travel 700km or more to Townsville or Darwin.(ABC: Hailey Renault)

With no exports from the port in two years, he said it was difficult to envisage the yards reopening but greater cattle numbers in years to come could change the equation.

“They’re building slowly from the floods but not in great numbers, because 2020 was a very ordinary wet season, we had just three weeks where It rained – the country’s struggling,” Mr Gallagher said.

Exporters face struggle

With live cattle exporters under stress due to the high price of livestock and Indonesian importers dealing with bottlenecks due to slackening demand in COVID-stricken cities, economy of scale is tipping in favour of larger consignments out of Darwin and Townsville.

Mr Hughes warned that with properties in the southern Gulf Country geared to live export of feeder cattle and recovering from the devastating losses of 2019, bigger numbers could mean pressure on remaining export facilities.

“It means a long trek down the road to Cloncurry yards to get into the Darwin facility and highlights pressures on Charters Towers and access into Townsville,” he said.

Mr Kennedy said he agreed more quality yard facilities needed to be developed, especially around Townsville to support the sector as cattle numbers rebuild nationally.

“We need to keep seeing these facilities improve, new state-of-the-art yards need to be brought to the region to support the industry,” he said.

Gulf cattle industry mourns sale of Karumba live export facility
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