Australia cattle supply to tighten as herd rebuild begins

February 22, 2021 - After contracting for two years, the national cattle herd is expected to increase 2% to 25.2 million head in 2021 as it enters a rebuild phase, according to Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) 2021 Cattle Industry Projections.

The rebuild comes after cattle numbers fell to 24.6 million head in 2020 – their lowest level since the early 1990s – as a result of prolonged, severe drought.

Improved seasonal conditions in southern Australia throughout 2020, and above-average summer rain in northern Australia during the 2020–21 wet season so far, are expected to produce an abundance of pasture in all major cattle producing regions across Australia except parts of Western Australia.

MLA Market Information Manager, Stephen Bignell, said 2021 represented a new frontier for the Australian cattle market, with the combination of a reduced herd, record high prices and a global market attempting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cattle supply is expected to tighten in 2021 as producers retain more breeding stock to rebuild their herds,” Mr Bignell said.

“Producer preferences to hold onto young cattle rather than turn them off into the vealer market is already evident. During the first few weeks of 2021, yardings and slaughter numbers have been down on year-ago levels.

“As the rebuild gains momentum on the assumption of above-median rainfall for the start of 2021, total adult cattle slaughter is forecast to fall 3% on 2020 levels, to hit 6.9 million head, the lowest in 25 years.

“The increase in cattle being retained for breeding purposes will cause the female slaughter percentage to drop, and in the second half of 2021, this is expected to fall below 47%, signalling a technical rebuild.”

Mr Bignell said despite the expectations for slaughter to decline, national beef production is forecast to remain unchanged at 2.1 million tonnes carcase weight (cwt), similar to 2020 and levels recorded in 2017, which was also a herd rebuilding year.

“Beef production is underpinned by a forecast increase in carcase weights. In 2021, national adult carcase weights are forecast to lift 3.2% on 2020 levels, to average 301.3 kilograms per head,” Mr Bignell said.

“The lift will largely be driven by an increase in the male portion of slaughter, coinciding with a fall in the number of females turned-off during the year.

“Carcase weights have trended steadily upwards for 20 years, with slight variations due to seasonal conditions.

“The growing size of the feedlot sector, with over one million head on feed, will also contribute to rising carcase weights.”

Mr Bignell said beef exports are expected to lift 2% in 2021 to 1.1 million tonnes shipped weight (swt), growing to 1.2 million tonnes swt in 2023.

“In 2020, COVID-19 affected demand for beef in key markets due to the global drop in foodservice activity and market access issues. Global growth GDP of 5% is forecast in 2021, which should see global demand for beef rebound,” Mr Bignell said.

“Despite the COVID-19 disruption, there is evidence that the domestic beef market remained solid in 2020, with Australia one of the largest per capita consumers of beef in the world and the domestic market is still the single largest buyer of Australian beef.”

Australian live cattle exports for 2021 are expected to be 960,000 head, down 9% on 2020 levels. However, demand from South East Asia for Australian cattle is expected to recover in the second half of the year.