THE only concrete trend to emerge out of a big flurry of store cattle trading in the past week is uncertainty.
While store prices had been tracking fairly consistently, bidding bounced around last week to the extent there was some significant differences recorded, even between sales on the same day.
The dearer prices at Yea last week, compared with the flatter Euroa sale held a few hours later, were a case in point.
The question it begs is why? And are there just simple drivers at work such as freight differences between venues, wavering farmer confidence in the season and the outlook for beef prices.
Or is it something bigger, such as a shift in supply and demand and the need for a bit more reality in regards to the price of weaners compared to end returns for feedlot and export cattle?
There was a bold statement made in the mountains last week at Omeo, by a big player in the southern beef market, that what the industry is starting to seeing is a re-alignment of values that will continue as the breeding herd grows.
"This sale is cheaper than a year ago, and next year will be cheaper too, because the breeding cattle cycle is changing and all those expensive heifers that people have been buying are starting to come on-line (and produce calves for sale)," he said.
It might seem like a big statement, but the latest figures confirm how quickly the Australian cattle herd is growing.
Last week, ABARES released its latest female cattle slaughter figures, which show how the trend of lower cow kills has continued this year, with the February cow kill lower than a year ago. In the year (to February) the female cattle kill in Queensland declined 159,000 head compared with the previous year, while NSW was down 72,000 head; WA 80,000 head and Victoria 65,000 head.
Market analysts with Meat and Livestock Australia said it was further evidence that the industry was on track to have a 30 million-head cattle herd by this June - up 4.1per cent.
"The retention of breeding stock over the past two years and an improvement in branding rates across the country has underpinned MLA's forecast herd growth over the next few years, with overall cattle numbers expected to increase 4.1 per cent to June 2012," it said last week.
More than 40,000 store cattle were advertised for sale across the eastern states last week, and the increased supply seemed to have an impact on prices by dispersing buyers and cancelling out northern orders as NSW and Queensland buyers shopped closer to home. The return to more "buyable" prices was a talking point at last week's calf sales at Omeo, Ensay and Benambra after bidding for the top calves was more subdued than anticipated, with most buyers appearing unwilling to cross the $800-a-head mark.
Gippsland agent Rohan McRae, Elders Korumburra, said the air of confidence that saw restockers chase store weaners to record prices last year no longer existed.
"Last year was the one of the first good seasons we'd experienced for a while and the market was driven by grass and the expectation of what the beef job might do," he said.
"Now the figures are coming back in and there is not as much in it as people had hoped, as you just can't seem to get much more than $1100 to $1200 for a bullock and that is the reality which you have to work to when buying cattle."