THE likelihood is now strong of northern stock being held back in the short term, either forced because of roads cut by water or opportunistic on stations where rain has fallen and feed will be fast-growing.
While the big Northern rains have so far only brushed the places where feed and water shortages were forcing an earlier-than-typical start to musters, it appears to be on its way in some form.
Many of those operations will be likely to look to put weight on if they do receive falls, given stocking rates are low and the increased supply of cattle in the past month has taken a toll on live export prices.
Townsville’s exports yards are closed and an indefinite hold on deliveries is in place. Agents said the shutdown of stock movement in northern Queensland could last weeks.
“The next few months will certainly be interesting in terms of demand for cattle,” Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association chief executive officer Will Evans said.
Live export prices out of Darwin have dropped by as much as 10 cents a kilogram in the past month, with feeder steers around 325c/kg, heifers 300c, herd bulls 280c and crossbreds and Shorthorn crosses about 60 to 70c less.
This had been in response to forced turn-off decisions given the lack of feed and water.
Where musterers had been heading north at the end of January, well before schedule, the weather outlook is now relatively positive for a lot of the top end but the key to supply, and therefore prices, will be how many stations and how many head are under the falls, analysts and industry leaders said.
Meat and Livestock Australia is projecting a decline in live cattle exports in 2019 to 950,000 in line with the herd contraction.
Having an overwhelming influence on the trade was the high cost of Australian cattle destined for price-sensitive markets, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, MLA analysts said.
The shadow looming over that situation was how fast, and hard, restockers come back into the market on the wave of rain, pastoralists said.
That would force live exporters to pay even more for already expensive export cattle.
However, MLA acknowledged the fundamentals for beef consumption growth in South-East Asia were very strong with the region having some of the fastest-growing populations and economies in the world.
“If there’s one takeaway from 2018 it’s that demand from South-East Asia is strong,” Mr Evans said.
“As these supply chains mature I think we’re going to see even more competition for cattle across the north, which is great news for producers and the remote and regional communities they operate in.”
Cattle exports to Indonesia last year totalled 589,000 head, up 15 per cent from the previous year. Vietnam numbers were up 22pc.
Mr Evans said it was very difficult to be able to project live cattle export volumes for a year out and as always it would come down to rainfall and prices.