Australia’s cattle herd is set to fall even further than expected this year to the smallest numbers since 1988 on the back of persistent drought in key production areas.
High rates of slaughter have undermined hopes of rebuilding the herd as the US Department of Agriculture’s Canberra bureau cut its forecast for Australian cattle numbers at the close of the year to 24.48 million head.
The 31-year low reflected drought in the key production areas of New South Wales and Queensland which holds two-thirds of the domestic herd.
“The subsequent lack of feed has resulted in high cattle turnoff and destocking in 2019, and subsequently higher slaughter rates,” the bureau said.
The slaughter has included an unusually high number of female animals, making up 58 per cent of slaughterings between March and June, which would likely slow down the restocking process even if the rains returned.
Calf rates for 2020 were expected to drop 300,000 head year-on-year to 8.40m head, the lowest since 1985.
And the high female throughput rate has continued into July, with Meat and Livestock Australia recording throughput of adult cattle above 700,000 head for the fourth time in the last five months.
Of that, 57 per cent was female. The high female slaughter rate was also having a major effect on carcase weights, which were down 3 per cent or 9kg in 2019 so far.
The USDA Canberra bureau forecast a reduction in Australian output in 2020 as slaughter rates drop back due to a smaller herd size and a focus on restocking.
Exports will also drop in 2020.
“Despite expected continued demand from markets such as China, the reduced availability of cattle for slaughter is the major driver in the expected drop in exports,” it said.
But 2019 exports will be up at 1.65m tonnes.
“These slaughter and export levels, however, are unsustainable,” it added.