CALVES are expected to fetch about $100 a head less than last year when southeast Australia's new year weaner sales begin this week.
A dry spring and a lack of widespread northern rain is expected to put a dampener on demand. About 100,000 cattle will go under the hammer during the next month.
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This week, 10,500 weaners will be offered, dominated by Wodonga's offering of 7500 tomorrow and Friday.
Action moves to the Western District next week with yardings of 12,600 weaners at Hamilton and 7000 at Casterton, on top of a further 10,000 at Wodonga and 5500 at Yea.
The softer prime market is expected to take its toll - the benchmark Eastern Young Cattle Indicator is down 100c/kg on this time last year at 328c/kg.
Experts say this will likely wipe $100 from weaner values.
Australian Lot Feeders Association president Don Mackay said lot feeders would operate at the sales, despite high grain prices and poor returns when selling grain-fed beef.
"But they need to balance their books," Mr Mackay said.
"We are not arguing that cattle were too dear (last year) or that grain is too dear (this year) - it's just that we are selling into a market of north Asia which is struggling, and selling with a dollar that is very high."
Mr Mackay said rates of up to 280c/kg paid for light calves and 250c/kg for heavier calves last year would not be repeated.
"It (last year's prices) can't happen, and if they do, we (the feedlotters) won't be buying," he said.
Albury Wodonga Stock Agents Association president Michael Unthank said there had been good interest for weaners from as far north as Toowoomba in Queensland.
But he said locals were expected to provide the mainstay of competition.
Mr Unthank, of Brian Unthank Rodwells, said vendors should see 200c/kg as a premium rate, rather than an expectation. This meant the best calves would make $700 rather than $800 or more. "For heavy steers, a 350kg steer calf making 200c/kg is about where the market will get to," he said.
"We are getting indications the northern blokes will be here, but not in droves, so will rely on our locals to buy."
Elders Casterton manager John Lawson said Wodonga would provide the best guide to weaner rates this year.
"We have had a bit of inquiry from northern NSW and southern Queensland but it's hard to know what will happen until it does," Mr Lawson said.
"I think our producers with better calves will get 200c/kg and be happy enough with that.
"The 200c/kg will be around but it's more likely heavy steer calves will make 180-200c/kg."
Mr Lawson said quality would not be an issue, but calves might be lighter this year because of a dry spring.
This could work in vendors' favour, as some buyers wanted to fit more calves on a truck to lessen cartage costs. He was optimistic the sales in the Western District would go well. "In 40 years of being involved with these sales, I have never seen a pen left in the yards yet," he said.
Long-time calf buyer and vendor Richard Ogilvie, from the Ogilvie Group at Kingston in South Australia, said the weaner sales would be "soft" this year.
"We all needed a good general rain across Victoria, NSW and Queensland for the weaner sales to go really well," Mr Ogilvie said. "In southeast SA we haven't had a fall of more than 5mm since the start of October and it's very dry.
"A rain would have taken the pressure off the market."
Last year, the best rates were paid at Wodonga's opening sales where heavy weaner steers made to 250c/kg while lighter drafts sold to 284c/kg.
At Hamilton, steers sold to 250c/kg but most fetched 220-230c/kg.