Opportunities in camel trade

AGENTS OF CHANGE: This mob of camels has been used for woody weed control at Artunga.
AGENTS OF CHANGE: This mob of camels has been used for woody weed control at Artunga. Toni Somes

HE catches and kills camels for a living, but Mike Eathorne is no wild man from the interior.

Instead this quietly spoken bloke is one of Queensland's most successful meat processors.

The managing director of Meramist, a camel, beef and horse export works, was one of the guest speakers at the Dorper Information Field Day at Inglewood recently.

Mr Eathorne explained the advantages of using camels for woody weed control, a move with the potential to complement the growing international demand for camel meat.

"We have been processing camels at Meramist for the past 10 years," he explained.

"There are significant and growing world markets for camel meat, but the greatest challenge facing processors is finding a reliable, continual supply."

But at a domestic level he said the animals had an "incredible" ability to assist landholders in the battle to control woody weeds.

Mr Eathorne said camels could improve the condition of land, with minimum changes to existing livestock infrastructure and landholders were assured of a market for them long term.

"They can definitely play a very effective role in woody weed control in a high-intensity setting," he said.

"They are also high grazers so they tend to open up tree canopies, which also promotes grass growth."

He said camels had proved effective grazers of everything from lantana to tree pear and wattle suckers.

"We bring mobs of wild camels in from the Northern Territory and South Australia and they actually domesticate very quickly," Mr Eathorne said.

"And they respect your fences, perhaps with the exception of bulls rutting.

"But in reality you can introduce camels with very little modification to your infrastructure, particularly if you have run cattle in the past.

"However you do need to look at things like the height of overhead races, because you need to make sure nothing overhead restricts their hump or they will just sit down."

Mr Eathorne said the other advantage for beef producers introducing camels was the camels passed a ruminant bug onto cattle, which aided digestion.

Yet he explained the biggest challenge for both landholders and processors keen to buy camels was transportation.

"Transport is one of the biggest factors," Mr Eathorne said.

"Not only do trailers need to have the height, you need to be conscious the animals will sit down.

"We can fit 18 mature animals on a 45 foot trailer.

"And if you don't have experienced people handling the transportation for you the mortality rates are horrible."

While he tends to on-sell the younger animals he buys out of central Australia the older ones are destined for the meatworks.

He said ideally camels for slaughter weighed between 550 and 600kg live with the animals tending to dress out with a 50% yield.

"Like cattle we tend to buy the animals based on a hot carcase weight and on our camel grid at the moment a 300kg camel would return about $650."

His Meramist plant has the capacity to kill 120 camels a day and currently dedicates one day a week to their slaughter.

The process slows significantly on that day with the rate dropping from the 25 head-an-hour for cattle to half the number of camels an hour.

The delays are a result of the extra time required in the camel boning process.

"Everything at Meramist is halal slaughtered and the cuts from the camel are similar to beef," Mr Eathorne said.

"But we have had to make major changes to the works with the rails for our camel processing 7.2m off the ground."

He said the biggest camel they had processed was a five-year-old steer, which dressed out at 600kg.

Meramist sells camel meat both frozen and chilled going by sea and air into the world market.

In Europe high quality cuts are in demand by the hotel and restaurant trade, while the US tends to be more price-driven than quality-driven.

"There is a very large Somali population in the US but they are the lower socio-economic class so they are looking for cheaper cuts," Mr Eathorne said.

"Our primary camel meat markets are the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and Reunion Islands.

"The market demand for camel meat and camel products is enormous."

He said this week his company was sending a shipment of chilled camel meat into Kuwait.

"We could definitely do three or four days a week processing camels, but the biggest issue for us is reliable supply," Mr Eathorne said.

"At the moment we rely on feral camels for 90% of our kill.

"Most come off properties in central Australia and supply is definitely hit and miss.

"For the past 12 months we have been trying to firm up more reliable supply arrangements."

Bringing feral camels in, in mobs, is not an ideal form of production as Mr Eathorne invariably ends up with everything - "bulls, cows, calves and yearlings".

He said some were too small for slaughter, so he had no option but to on-sell them.

"In South Australia, in particular, it is illegal to release feral camels so we do sell them on to landholders with prices-per-head ranging from $70-$100," Mr Eathorne said.

"They do then have to add on transport costs and consider the fact that you can fit about 25-26 yearlings on a 45-foot trailer."

He said yearlings tended to tip the scales at 200-220kg and, depending on their food supply, had the capacity to gain between 300 and 900g a day.

"I would like to see landholders considering going into camels for woody weed control as well as to supply export meat markets and I think there are real opportunities there for the right people," he said.

Topics:  camels feral animal control

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