THE early bidding trends to emerge from the opening Western District weaner sales on Monday were evident to those watching.
But how to interpret those trends, especially when the prime cattle market has begun the new year on a much cheaper note, is far from clear.
At Hamilton on Monday, the intrigue of the sale was the tight bidding range, with prices rarely moving outside a spread of 178-185c/kg liveweight regardless of calf weight.
It was, according to agents such as David Powling from Kerr & Co, the tightest bidding seen at the centre since it took the step of selling store calves by curfewed weight more than a decade ago.
"I've never seen bidding as tight as this across an entire yarding before," he said.
Essentially the heavier steers at Hamilton (350kg plus) sold better than expected, with the majority selling in the low 180c/kg range thanks to competition from several lotfeeders, including T&R Pastoral, the Teys meatworks, Hopkins River branded beef and a supermarket feeder.
Based on previous years, it should have set the scene for lighter calves to sell into the 190c/kg range or higher, which is the sort of money that has been reported out of last week's Wodonga calf sales.
However, price trends at Hamilton were stronger than anticipated for the heavier steers, but softer than forecast for the lighter calves.
When results go against expectations, it raises questions and the talk at Hamilton was centred around why the feedlots had operated so keenly and what, if anything, it meant.
Ray White national livestock manager, the NSW-based Charlie Maher, said increased buyer demand for heavier steers hinted at a return to a more traditional selling season this year and the possibility of restricted supplies of finished cattle in the autumn and winter, leading to increased prices.
"When you've had a protracted dry period and a fairly big summer sell off of cattle, it stands to reason there will be less fat cattle available off grass in coming months," he said.
"Maybe what we are starting to see is signs of a more traditional pattern emerging for livestock, which we haven't really experienced for two or three years because of wet summers."
The feedback from meat buyers this week was that there is some concern about supplies of prime conditioned cattle, and lambs, from next month onwards due to the hot and dry summer in the south and failure of summer grazing crops.
But The Weekly Times understands that forward prices being offered by meat companies for grain-fed cattle are still, with a couple of exceptions, tracking below 400c/kg carcass weight and margins remain very tight.
It means producers are still having to take their usual leap of faith when buying cattle this summer in the hope that prices will improve into the autumn and winter.
And it appears that faith could be sorely tested in the short term, with prices for slaughter cattle opening on a much cheaper note by up to 20c/kg at Pakenham on Monday.
While the cheaper trend is linked to the closure of markets over the Christmas and new year period, and a resulting build-up of cattle that farmers are under pressure to sell, it adds another layer of uncertainty to the lack of confidence that already exists in the livestock sector.
It could also mean that the calf prices achieved in the Western District early this week could be as good as it gets if farmers become spooked by the latest falls in the prime market.
The limited number of northern orders from NSW in the market for calves this new year, which was the key reason why there was no c/kg price increases for lighter weight steers at Hamilton on Monday, could also prove telling in coming days when sales at Wodonga, Yea and Hamilton clash.
Although on a more positive note, local buyers were quite comfortable with the rates they were paying for calves on Monday considering the quality and depth of breeding they were getting for the money.
Landmark Leongatha agent Terry Ginnane, who is based in South Gippsland, said farmers could operate on prices of around 180c/kg or $600 for well-bred young steers.
"Provided you've got enough grass to keep them going, you should be able to see your way out of these cattle."