THE strength of global demand for beef and the fact Australia exports three quarters of its production means trade access and market diversity will be a key agripolitical goal for cattle producers this year.
However, it is only one of many moving parts and big challenges that producers and their representative organisations will have to remain abreast of during 2020.
This is the view of the new boss at the peak producer advocacy group Cattle Council of Australia, Travis Tobin, who took up the reins just before Christmas.
Mr Tobin walks into a highly-charged environment - devastating natural disasters taking a huge toll, fast tightening supply pushing up against strong global demand and an industry in the midst of attempting big reform of its internal structures and representation.
Opportunities for whole-of-industry reform are rare, Mr Tobin said.
"So we must make the most of this opportunity to ensure that greater transparency and accountability are embedded in a new MoU (Memorandum of Understanding for the red meat industry) and we deliver a structure that provides producers with line of sight on how and where industry levies are directed," he said.
Mr Tobin is adamant properly-resourced peak industry councils that can empower and represent producers' interests are a logical and necessary element in any future industry structure.
He comes from a CEO position at the Queensland Farmers Federation and has previously worked for the Federal Department of Agriculture, the Ricegrowers' Association of Australia, and the National Australia Bank as a business analyst.
Growing up, he spent most of his non-schooling time on his family's sheep and cattle station in the western division of NSW and worked there full time for a few years. He has also spent time on extended family livestock properties in the Scottish Borders of the United Kingdom and the Adelaide Hills.
He said the current European Union trade negotiations were the first opportunity in decades to improve Australian beef access to this high value market.
"Industry is working with the Australian Government with the ambitious goal of concluding the negotiations by the end of 2020. But that timeline must not be at the expense of a good deal for producers and Australia's broader red meat industry," he said.
"The UK is set to start the formal process to leave the EU on January 31 so securing a new trade deal with our oldest trading partner will be important."
Capturing some of the increased demand from China, given its sizable protein shortfall, will also be important during 2020, Mr Tobin said.
At a production level, Mr Tobin said the obvious immediate challenge was continuing to manage through and recover from the extreme weather events experienced in the past 12 months - floods, fires and prolonged drought which, in one way or another, have all been unprecedented.
"These climatic extremes mean the national herd will likely drop to 25.5 million head by June 2020, the lowest number since the early 1990s. As export opportunities are growing, rebuilding the herd when conditions permit will be a fundamental priority," he said.
When seasonal conditions do improve, an industry-wide focus on fertility and modern genetics, coupled with ever improving utilisation of pasture and water will provide opportunities for faster post-drought production recovery, he believes.
"The ongoing success of the industry depends on the productivity and profitability right through the beef supply chain, with producer and farmgate sustainability at its foundation," Mr Tobin said.
Cattle Council remains committed to structural reform, according to its new CEO.
"More broadly, we are at a historic juncture in Australia's livestock and red meat representational structures. Further progress on Cattle Council's internal restructure is pending the current Red Meat MoU negotiations. Fundamentally, any changes must represent stronger grassroots producer representation," he said.
On the subject of MoU progress, he described conversations as positive, but said there was still a lot to work through.
Based on two meetings just before Christmas of signatories there are some areas of agreement, such as with a single body for integrity systems, and other areas where there is a way to go before consensus can be achieved, Mr Tobin reported.
Mr Tobin says a unique strength of the beef cattle industry is its scale and geographic spread - around 57 per cent of agricultural businesses carry beef cattle on more than 79pc of the total area of agricultural land in Australia.
"This means that beef cattle producers are not only providing the highest quality, nutritious and safe food at a relatively low cost to consumers, they are managing a significant portion of Australia's total land mass," he said.
"Beef's geographic footprint makes our producers the largest cohort of natural resource and ecosystem stewards. This scale and geographic spread also means that the industry is a critical part of the rural economy in almost all regions of Australia."
For an organisation like Cattle Council, this uniqueness also presents some of the greatest challenges.
"It means that across the industry there are many different production systems, environments and external business pressures so building consensus on policies requires genuine leadership," Mr Tobin said.
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