Cattle Projections Looking Up After Hitting The Lowest Level Yet
The Australian cattle numbers fell to their lowest level in two decades in 2020 following the severe and prolonged drought we have received. With current prices at record high levels, improved weather conditions in most areas and a return to slightly normal conditions are now affecting producers’ decisions on cattle breeding and retainment. Things are looking up for the national cattle projections as it enters the rebuild phase with a forecast of a 2% increase to 25.2 million head.
The increase is attributed to the above-average summer rain in northern Australia during the 2020-21 wet season and the improved seasonal conditions in southern Australia. As a result, there is a substantial amount of pasture in most major cattle-producing regions. This has improved producers’ ability to provide for their cattle as well as increase their stock supply. For all producers located in the different regions of northern Australia, FutureBeef’s webinar on ‘making the most of the forecast’ is a great resource on the tools which are most useful in understanding the current climate and the La Nina season. However, the increase to cattle numbers does not correlate to an increase in the availability of cattle in the market.
In 2021, cattle supply is expected to tighten, as producers retain more breeding stock to rebuild their herd and maintain their genetic pool. It is projected that an increase in retaining heifers for breeding will result in the percentage of heifer slaughter dropping around the second half of 2021. This is forecasted to drop below 47% which signals a strategic rebuild.
The focus on retaining cattle to improve herd numbers is also expected to decrease slaughter levels (although not drastically). The projected numbers of cattle slaughtered are expected to decrease by 3% to 6.9 million head. Meanwhile, calf slaughter is also expected to drop by at least 7% as producers turn away from the vealer market. Yardings and slaughter numbers are already showing this with figures from early 2021 down on early 2020 levels.
What differentiates this rebuild from previous rebuilds is the pricing of cattle. The current record high prices may motivate producers to take advantage of these prices by offloading them. Interestingly, in the current climate, the carcase weights will have the biggest impact as both an increase of prices and feed availability will encourage producers to retain their cattle for longer in order to achieve higher weights and greater returns. As the size of the feedlot sector continues to grow (with over 1 million head currently feeding), the carcase weights will continue to rise with the projected 2021 predictions to rise by 9.3kg/head to a record-breaking 301.3kg/head.
The export levels are forecasted to grow by 10% over the next three years with 2021 increasing
by 2% to 1.1 million tonnes and by 2023 to 1.2 million tonnes. Despite the COVID-19 impact on beef demand in key markets the global GDP is expected to grow by 5% in 2021 which should also see an increase in global demand for beef rebound. Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) has provided a great research report on the industry projection of 2021 which provides insight on the various considerations producers must be aware of in the industry. With producers retaining stock to improve levels, it will be interesting to see the effects this has long term on export and demand.
The forecast for 2021 is unexplored territory for the Australian beef industry. Although the COVID-19 recovery has begun, its impact will continue for years to come. The current figures surrounding cattle rebuild signals a slower rebuild than previous occurrences. This can be attributed to fewer numbers in breeding stock and the impacts of the drought on producers.
There are clear opportunities for the Australian beef industry both nationally and globally, however, how we overcome the current challenges will require adaptation and forward-thinking.