By Jeremy Sollars
Stephen Cullen and his family have a long association with the Warwick Saleyards and have seen a lot of changes over nearly 55 years of its operation.
The Cullens hail from Karara, west of Warwick and Stephen’s grandfather Tom was the first foundation president of the Warwick and District Municipal Saleyards Board back when the facility opened in 1962, serving in that role until 1974.
Plaques inside and outside the Saleyards office commemorate Tom Cullen’s legacy there, along with other key local figures who were part of the creation of the Warwick Saleyards, which was a joint project of the former Warwick, Rosenthal and Glengallan shires.
As the debate over the future of the Saleyards continues to gain heat, many in the community are questioning who should run them into the future – along with questions over the options for future expansion and growth.
Like many others, Stephen Cullen – who works for Kevin McMahon and Sons Stock and Station Agents – has seen the Warwick Saleyards grow and evolve down through the years.
“We’ve got a lot of family history here – I started here when I was 17, working for McDougall’s,” he told the Free Times this week.
“There’s been a lot of changes- a new drafting complex, new catwalks and scales and the sheep pens.
“At the end of the day, the Saleyards were built by the ratepayers.”
The Southern Downs Regional Council is currently assessing Expressions of Interest (EOIs) for the potential leasing out of the Saleyards to a private operator, and is yet to put a timeframe on a final decision, while still retaining the option of continuing to manage the facility directly into the future.
But a council spokeswoman told the Free Times this week the EOIs would be discussed by its Saleyards Advisory Committee at a meeting due to be held “in three weeks”.
As reported in the Free Times, the inaugural meeting of the Saleyards Advisory Committee was held last December, at which future options for livestock sales in Warwick were discussed.
Along with the leasing option, the committee also considered a suggestion by Les Fraser of Frasers Livestock Transport to demolish the existing facility and build a new Saleyards on a nearby ‘greenfield’ site.
Mr Fraser – who spoke to the Free Times at this week’s cattle sale on Tuesday – said his family had not submitted an EOI to lease the Saleyards, contrary to what many in the community had been expecting.
But he was adamant in his view that the existing Saleyards are too small and there’s not enough room on the current site for future expansion.
He said the Fraser family had “no interest in building or running a saleyards” but also said Warwick had huge potential for future growth as a livestock selling centre.
“We’re ideally situated for a new, state of the art, undercover selling facility,” he told the Free Times.
“The closest other selling centres are Dalby and Casino and Toowoomba’s which is in a densely populated area.
“And we’re the only weekly sheep selling centre in Queensland.
“This is the ideal time for Warwick, and we’re not starting from scratch, but this facility is too small and there’s no room for expansion, and there’s not enough holding capacity.
“We’d need 60 or 70 acres to build a proper facility to handle the potential future growth.”
Mr Fraser denied suggestions a parcel of land owned by Frasers Livestock depot off Kenilworth Street was being put forward as a potential new site.
“We didn’t buy that block to build a saleyards on,” he said.
“There’s the old dump site that’s just sitting there, and it’s all industrial land in the area.
“We need to look at all of the options for Warwick’s growth as a selling centre.”
Others who spoke to the Free Times at this week’s cattle sale expressed concerns about safety for employees handling livestock inside the yards complex – including difficult beasts – pointing out that the design of laneways with overhead bars meant moving stock around on horseback was not possible.
Concerns were also raised about drainage within the existing complex, which slopes down towards the north from Bracker Road.
Open minds – but more information needed?
The consistent comment made by producers and others in the local agricultural sector about the current Warwick Saleyards debate is a lack of information from the council about the current Saleyards operation – and what leasing it out to a private operator might mean.
Concerns also exist over confidential meetings of the Saleyards Advisory Committee this year, with the Free Times last week having been unsuccessful in obtaining the minutes of those meetings through a Right To Information (RTI) application to the council.
Agent George McVeigh of TopX echoed those sentiments this week, but also has an open mind about the future of the facility.
“I think as agents we’re interested in anything that improves and maintains the Saleyards and attracts new clientele,” he said.
“At the moment, we have people selling cattle here from everywhere – including Goondiwindi and places like Mungindi in northern New South Wales – this is a great selling facility.
“We were told at a meeting of agents last year with (council CEO) David Keenan that the Saleyards don’t make a profit, the income is taken up by labour costs.
“I think the concern is that an outside operator could increase the fees and charges, they could double the agents’ affiliation fees and sellers could be charged more per head.
“Everyone needs to have more input and more of a say, whether it’s about leasing or building a new saleyards.”
Mr McVeigh said a bigger – or a new saleyards – in Warwick could “capture” new livestock business from western areas of Queensland, but pointed out that the current facility works well for many local producers.
He also rejected the view held by some that saleyards would eventually be made redundant by online livestock sales.
“Online really only works for the big lines of cattle, where you’ve got two or three decks on the trucks, with the cost of freight the way it is,” he said.
“The Saleyards here work well for the smaller lines of cattle, and you might have six different weights.
“The smaller sellers will sometimes get a better price than they would online, depending on the day.”
TopX trainee Morgan Harrison said while online livestock sales were part of the market these days, face-to-face selling in a physical saleyards environment was still integral to the industry.
“You’ve got to look at the clearing rates with online sales – AuctionsPlus has only cleared around 30 per cent in the last couple of weeks,” he said.
Big numbers expected at meeting
Producers and other interested landowners and parties are expected to turn out in force to a meeting on Thursday 11 August – at the Freestone Memorial Hall to discuss both the future of the Warwick Saleyards and the council’s new ‘Invasive Pest Control Scheme’ (IPCS).
The meeting, to be chaired by former mayor Ron Bellingham, will commence at 11am at the hall on Freestone Road, and has been organised by former deputy mayor Ross Bartley.
A council spokeswoman would not confirm if mayor Tracy Dobie and councillors would attend the meeting, saying they would “respond directly to the organisers”.