HOW much influence are farmers or restockers having over the weekly prime beef market and prices for young cattle?
A great deal, judging by the reasons trotted out by market analysts to explain last week's price drop of 5-15c/kg for cattle being sold by auction at regular prime markets.
Last week's 5 per cent price fall in the benchmark Eastern Young Cattle Indicator to 371.75c/kg carcass weight - the lowest level so far this year - was blamed on the big run of store cattle sales held across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.
"The major reason behind the weaker trend (for the EYCI) was the increased supplies with several large weaner sales being held, which reduced competition," analysts from Meat and Livestock Australia said.
This raises the issue that many farmers still appear to connect the prime market with abattoir and meat buying, even though a big segment of the trade and pricing is connected to restocker and feedlot activity.
The misconception could be a reason why the price disparity between store cattle and actual slaughter cattle has become such a problem. Farmers have been driving inflated values in both the store and prime markets. This means the true state of the beef trade can get glossed over.
Agents said cattle prices had held up in recent weeks because of seasonal influences and confidence among cattle producers, rather than any great strength in the export or domestic beef markets.
"In recent weeks, the whole job has been propped up by the exceptional (early) autumn break," Wodonga agent Trevor Parker said last week.
Meat wholesaler John Dawson, from the Dandenong-based Oakdale Meats, said trading conditions for beef had been ordinary for a number of weeks. He said if it hadn't been for the rain and flooding last month, the market would probably have eased back then.
"From our perspective as meat wholesalers, this has been the toughest couple of months we've ever put in and other wholesalers I talk to are saying the same. No one is happy with beef," Mr Dawson said.
The bottom line, he said, was that beef was too expensive compared with other meats, and they were struggling to sell it.
The same situation appears to exist in the export market, with the recent feedlot closure by JBS Swift an extreme example of a big global company struggling to make the figures add up for grain-fed beef.
There was some talk last week that the beef market could be quite lacklustre this winter unless there was a significant change in market dynamics, such as a reasonable drop in the Australian dollar to below parity with the US greenback.
Mr Dawson, who is also a producer and was selling cows and calves at Wodonga last week, said a great deal could hinge on the number of fat cattle set to flow out of Queensland this northern dry season.
"What worries me now is the north and what numbers they can push out," he said.
Last week there was a big surge in cattle numbers at NLRS-monitored saleyards in Queensland, with 27,400 head going through the auction system in what was described as a "near-record" trading week.
With bigger numbers also sold in other states after the Easter break, cattle numbers at NLRS-monitored saleyards reached more than 74,000 head nationally, the second largest weekly total ever, according to NLRS records.
There are mixed messages, however, from agents about the supply outlook for slaughter cattle this winter.
Some suggest the early planting of oat crops in the north because of good soil moisture could result in reasonable early supplies of young slaughter cattle.
This is because demand for feedlot cattle, 450kg, is fairly slow and more animals could be targetted towards the supermarket trade.
Others report that local abattoirs are worried about southern supplies this winter, as most of the opportunity feedlots have not been operating.
Some agents said they had been approached by companies to feed cattle.
But if I were a betting person I wouldn't be putting money on too much of a price premium developing for slaughter cattle this winter.