BREEDERS are preparing their stock for the annual calf sales, writes FIONA MYERS
The state of the southern cattle industry will be tested next month when weaner sales hit saleyards across southeast Australia.
More than 90,000 steer and heifer calves will be sold in the signature event for breeders, a highlight of the southern cattle calendar.
No one is expecting a repeat of the rates set last January where prices consistently exceeded vendors' hopes.
But early pre-Christmas weaner sales have gone better than vendors were budgeting, given a much different prime market to a year ago.
The Eastern Young Cattle Indicator is currently tracking about 70c/kg lower than it was this time last year. Last week it was trading at about 330c/kg.
And grown cattle rates - 315-319c/kg compared to 359c/kg carcass weight last year for 400-600kg steers - will also have an impact.
Those producers who bought weaners last January are getting between $100-$300 less than they were hoping their finished article would make.
That, they say, will mean less for weaners in the yards.
There are also more calves about - another 3000 will be sold at Hamilton next month and a similar rise will be seen at the Wodonga sales.
Agents say this is a result of the swing to purebred herds away from breeding crossbreds for the vealer market.
Vendors are under no illusion that the market is tougher.
The Hausers at Yea, whose Charolais-Angus and Angus calves averaged $835 last year, are factoring in a $150 cut in rates, "and maybe more", Peter Hauser said.
Yet few can really predict what will happen when the sales kick off on January 3 at Naracoorte in South Australia.
Meat and Livestock Australia's chief economist Tim McRae said rain could dramatically change both the prime and store cattle markets. "Everything can turn around with just one wet week," he said.
"If we get a wet spell in northwestern NSW and northern NSW-Queensland, it could be a very good thing for cattle prices."
Former stock agent and bullock fattener Lang Peterkin, from Tallangatta, has been buying steers through spring and will be a player at the weaner sales in Wodonga in January.
His take is that anything could happen.
"No one knows where the weaner prices will go," Mr Peterkin said.
Agent Michael Unthank, from Brian Unthank Rodwells, agrees.
"Things can change so quickly, depending on the season," he said.
"We have often thought things would go one way and a rain up north can change the situation quickly."
Elders Naracoorte's Tom Dennis said producers would sell despite the predicted price drops.
Naracoorte has already cleared 5500 steer weaners, with another 1500 heifer weaners tomorrow, but will sell another 12,500 after Christmas.
"Producers need to sell off their weaners to make room for the next calves coming on," he said.
"We've always had the December sales for people who want to clear their cattle earlier, but the January fixtures are annual too."
Mansfield will not hold a weaner sale this year. Those calves are to be offered in the new facility at Yea.
This central site is expecting to pick up the Gippsland competition for the 7000 calves it will sell in the third week of the sales calendar.
Weaner sales conclude when about 3000 calves are offered at Ballarat on February 22.