West Gippland saleyard clash

Warragul saleyards closure and the race to build at Longwarry

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As a syndicate moves to build its own saleyards at Longwarry and the Warragul closure looms, emotions are running high regarding Gippsland saleyard operator VLE's intentions.

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Warragul saleyards' closure has become totemic as both Victorian Livestock Exchange and a syndicate plan new saleyards for West Gippsland.

The syndicate of farmers, agents and investors expects to present a proposal for a 120,000-head capacity saleyard to Baw Baw Shire Council by Christmas, having purchased a 26-hectare site near the Princes Freeway at Longwarry in August.

It comes as locals digest the mid-September announcement by VLE - which operates the Warragul, Pakenham and Leongatha saleyards - that it would close the Warragul saleyards in just six weeks.

With it came the promise of a new West Gippsland facility in the next three to five years and a commitment that Pakenham remain open until it was operational.

VLE's decision a fortnight ago to postpone the Warragul closure to December failed to reassure locals like Trafalgar dairy farmer, Jim Abrecht.

"It's ridiculous," he said.

"They've known for a long time that Pakenham will close but they've done nothing about building a new saleyard.

"This is my opinion - I might be wrong but this is how it reads - they're only interested in closing Warragul and as soon as they get a massive offer, they'll just sell Pakenham and whatever they get at Koonwarra, they'll be happy with."

Syndicate spokesperson and Alex Scott & Staff Warragul agent Neil Darby said the Longwarry development would provide security.

"It's time agents and farmers ran our own facilities and took control of our destinies because there's no control when saleyards are privately owned," Mr Darby said.

"VLE's closing Warragul down and directing everything to Pakenham, which they've said is worth a lot of money, and they will sell at any time if they get offered enough money, whether that's today, tomorrow or next week.

"They're just doing the wrong thing by the industry.

"There's been no proper consultation and, since their press release came out, they've continually changed what they're doing."

Another saleyard user, Trevor Bramstedt, said a lack of consultation had been frustrating.

The owner of Bramstedt Livestock Transport, which runs a fleet of 11 trucks, said he hadn't been consulted about the feasibility of redirecting cattle from Warragul to Pakenham ahead of the announcement.

"Normally, we might take 250 cattle to Pakenham on Sunday night but, after Warragul closes, it could be up to 800 cattle," Mr Bramstedt said.

"Logistically, we've just got no hope of doing that.

"Someone suggested we should buy more trucks - what, to run them for one day a week?

"They're trying to push three days into one and I don't think the saleyards will be able to handle it."

Arrangements for dairy cattle and bobby calves were also under question and Mr Darby said he would hold dairy sales at Lardner Park.

Prominent Yannathan dairy farmer Noel Campbell said Pakenham's facilities were unsuited to dairy cow sales.

"I don't think VLE's got their heads around what dairy farmers need," Mr Campbell said.

"If you want to buy a dairy cow, you need to be able to see her udder and Pakenham's design doesn't allow for that.

"Some of us are fearful they will shut Pakenham and expect us to use Koonwarra but the trip through the hills is too dangerous for cattle trucks."

Landmark Warragul agent Michael Savage said that, although Landmark was not part of the syndicate, he was disappointed Warragul would close before a new facility was operable.

Mr Savage said the industry needed "one good set of saleyards in West Gippsland".

"If the two parties could get together and build one set of saleyards, that would be best for the farmers."

Mr Darby said while VLE had approached the Longwarry investors to run the proposed facility - which VLE denies - the overture had been "politely declined".

"We've had enough of them," he said.

"Agents and farmers are the VLE's clients.

"If agents treated their clients the same way the VLE treat theirs, we agents wouldn't have a business.

"We'd be out of business."

VLE managing director Wayne Osborne said amalgamating the Warragul and Pakenham markets would benefit farmers.

"The end game is to build a market with a size that is sustainable," he said.

"With more cattle, you attract more buyers, creating more competition and better prices."

He said MLA figures showed centralised facilities could generate premiums of $60 to $80 a head.

Mr Osborne maintained that communities, too, would be better off even when saleyard amalgamations forced the closure of smaller local yards.

"People don't do their supermarket shopping after a day at the saleyards - they might buy lunch but that's about it," he said.

"Retailers and communities do well when the farmers around them are getting the best return for their cattle.

"For example, there's a lot of cattle coming very long distances to Pakenham rather than to their local yards because they can get a premium of $100 or more.

"Apart from a small percentage in yard and agent fees, all of that premium goes back to their home region and the extra money is spent by farmers in their local community."

VLE was considering a shortlist of four properties for an amalgamated saleyard.

Mr Bramstedt said VLE had created uncertainty with "vague" timelines and changing plans.

"They keep contradicting themselves," he said.

"Everyone's running scared because they don't do what they say and nobody wants to be in a position where we don't have a saleyard in the district."

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