THERE is more to the unusual trend of lighter weight steers being discounted at this year's new year calf sales than just a lack of feed.
Beef industry stalwart and Dunkeld lotfeeder Sandy Maconochie, whose family grain finishes cattle under the Hopkins River brand and for Coles, raised the question as he watched young steers sell for less than 170c/kg at Hamilton last week.
"There have been other years when the northern buyers haven't been here and we haven't seen this," he said.
The price fade-out for lighter calves weighing less than 320kg, which has emerged this month, was something many experienced sale watchers couldn't recall seeing, especially since the switch to curfewed selling by liveweight in the Western District.
"This is the first time ever I've seen smaller calves making less cents per kilogram than the heavies - it is quite amazing," said SAL's Bruce Redpath, from Nacaroorte in South Australia.
Rodwells Horsham's Wayne Driscoll - one of the main drivers behind c/kg selling when based at Hamilton more than a decade ago - said the price results of the past week had been unique.
"We've seen prices for light-weight calves on a par before with the top calves, but never 10-20c/kg cheaper - it is difficult to fathom really," Mr Driscoll said.
There is no argument that central to the trend is the dry season and the lack of paddock feed through-out the eastern states, and particularly in NSW which is an area that traditionally absorbs big numbers of smaller weaners from the south.
But while the season has limited competition, other factors appear to be at play, creating what one onlooker referred to as the "perfect storm" when it comes to buying demand for smaller calves that don't immediately fit the specifications for grain feeding and other targeted orders.
The first is the restricted trading that has gone on in recent months due to the erratic and poor returns for slaughter beef, particularly for farmers who were trying to find a way out of high-priced calves bought 12 months ago.
South Gippsland agent Terry Ginnane, Landmark Leongatha, said grass finishers hadn't been actively trading as many finished slaughter cattle, which was affecting demand for replacements.
"Part of the problem is a lot of clients are still holding (prime) cattle waiting for the market to pick up before they sell them," he said last week.
"But with the store market now at these levels of 170-185c/kg for replacement steers it might prompt people to trade a few more."
The high price of store cattle in the past two or three years, after the drought broke, has also fed into a swing away from trading steers to breeding.
While the shift has been subtle, it is starting to show up in the number of calves available at sales this new year, with most selling centres recording bigger numbers.
At Hamilton last week a total of 12,128 Angus, Hereford and European-cross steer calves sold across four sales - about 1000 head more compared to 12 months ago.
While the figures are blurred somewhat by one large draft of calves that was sold at Hamilton rather than Casterton, the overall trend of a bigger supply pool of store calves in Victoria is clearly evident.
So essentially there is a greater number of store cattle on the market, and fewer buyers, with the tight season this summer really exaggerating this shift in dynamics.
Overlaying all this is a lack of confidence in the direction of the beef market and tight money in the rural sector.
It was quite telling last week that no one really described steer calves as "cheap", even when they were selling down to a low of around 160c/kg for 300kg, or less than $500 a head.
Comments were more guarded and along the lines of "if" there is an early autumn break, "if" it rains in the north, "if" a shortage of prime cattle emerges this winter, then the calves would look good buying.
And it is not surprising there wasn't any big profit predictions, because based on current rates in the prime market (which has opened on a weak note with sales cheaper again this week), the calf markets look solid enough.
As a comparison, there was nearly 400 grown steers sold at the Wagga Wagga prime market on Monday and the average return for these heavy steers (500kg to 700kg-plus) was just 162.2c/kg or $911.
Many calf producers were trying to remain positive last week.
But the bottom line is to breed and present lines of well-bred store calves, considering all the input costs involved, including investing in bulls and pastures, farmers really need to be averaging close to 200c/kg and last week's slashed returns are a blow to these cow-calf operations.
It is why it is not surprising that many producers are likely to withdraw heifers from scheduled sales this week, as expected rates of 135-150c/kg are not viable.