By Raquel Mustillo
THE future of the Millicent Saleyards hangs in the balance as Wattle Range Council continues to consider extending the operations of the facility for another five years or close the facility in June.
The council-owned facility was originally slated to close last year due to declining throughput, but elected members voted to give the saleyards a 12-month lifeline through to the end of this financial year in an attempt to improve numbers.
Councillor Moira Neagle’s sought support to continue to operate the facility until June 30, 2025 at the January meeting, but the decision was deferred with elected members moving a motion to discuss the saleyards at an informal gathering.
At last week’s informal gathering, council chief executive Ben Gower urged councillors to consider implementing a threshold based on cattle numbers as opposed to a stagnant date to quantify the continuation of the facility.
“I would prefer and recommend you actually look at cattle sold aa the trigger for us to review the ongoing future of the saleyards rather than plucking a date,” he said.
“It might be the number of cattle drops below 7500 per annum and that would be the trigger for us to bring it back to you for a decision.
“Because what happens when you put an arbitrary date, is for all the best reasons, everyone manages a budget to that date so you don’t take a long-term investment view and we end up with a death of 1000 cuts and you end up with a $500,000 maintenance bill.
“We have always said the number one focus has got to be cattle number sold, that’s what secures the future of the saleyards and its ongoing viability.”
Mr Gower told elected members and the public gallery there had been a gradual increase in cattle throughput at the saleyards.
“We had data in the consultants report and there was an average of about 8pc decline year on year for about 20 years – it was declining for a long time,” he said.
“Most importantly, the decline was arrested.
“When we brought it into the public eye and started talking about it, the community starting to use the facility a bit more and realise what its importance is.”
Annual losses have decreased in the past financial years, with 2019/20 recording a loss of $101,839, $135,323 in 2018/19 and $180,163 in 2017/18.
The council chief said cattle sold increased from 8206 in 2018/19 to 10,266 in 2019/20, with the number of sale days rising from 19 to 23.
He said total gross sales had increased from $9.1m in 2018/19 to $13.6m, attributing the increase to a number of initiatives including stronger community support and the change of market day.
Cr Neagle – who along with husband John is also a cattle producer – told the chamber 750 head of cattle at the last sale, with one vendor making $160,000 from sales.
“There was another vendor with 21 head of cattle and there was John and I with five cattle, so we have a whole range of types of vendors and we give them an option,” she said.
“Our five cattle could go over the hooks, they could get pinged for fat content… but putting them in the yards where that’s an option, we can get a good price.
“The stock on offer – and I have heard this straight from the mouths of buyers – is quality stock.”
At the January meeting, a condition report identified more than $500,000 was required for necessary upgrades at the sale yards, noting there was no strategy to ensure compliance and longevity.
But councillors have questioned the need to undertake all upgrades, with Cr Kevin McGrath saying council maintenance on the facility had been minimal.
“Sure enough there is some work to be done, but look at some of the figures for maintenance over the last three years,” Cr McGrath said.
“There are figures for $13,000, $19,000, $5000 – some people spend that on their house.”
Cr Dean Burrow said while the report was “terrible”, he suggested a majority of the upgrades slated by consultants as necessary was superficial.
Corcoran Ward councillor John Drew said a balance needed to be found between the ongoing and capital costs of the facility and the impact on Wattle Range ratepayers.
“There is a burden I feel comfortable with and there is a burden I don’t feel comfortable with and I don’t know where that sits,” he said.
However, Penola-based Rick Paltridge said subsiding the facility was “putting off the inevitable” and “serving a small area of Wattle Range and the ratepayers”.
“For every year the sale yards continues, it is not just the farmer who is losing money, it is the ratepayer whose council rates have to prop those up,” he said.
“Over the whole number of ratepayers, everyone has to share that burden.
“If we want the saleyards, spend the money and then we have to be prepared to hear the arguments against that from ratepayers who have never been to the saleyards in their life.
“I know that stock are going past Millicent to Glenburnie from Kingston and further afield and if the yards here are so attractive, why are those cattle going straight through?”
Elected members are expected to make a decision on the saleyards at Tuesday night’s council meeting.