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There has been a bit of talk around lately regarding the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) official cattle herd numbers, and how they have ramped up considerably with new methodology. While the herd numbers are old news now, being for June 30, 2023, it's still worth looking at what’s changed.

The ABS previously used farmer surveys to calculate the size of the Australian cattle herd. To reduce the burden on farmers, and in an effort to get an accurate picture, the ABS are now using data from ‘other sources’ as well to calculate how many cattle there are in Australia.

It is not the change of methodology that has bumped the herd number in recent years up, it is the inclusion of smaller farms.  The ABS didn’t survey farms with less than $40,000 in revenue from farming, but it is now including these numbers. 

Cattle on smaller farms still have to make their way through the system, so it makes sense to include these numbers.  There are around 4 million head of cattle on smaller cattle properties according to the latest revision, with most of these beef cattle. 

The new numbers from ABS are largely steady at 4.2 to 4.3 million head above the old numbers (Figure 1), suggesting that smaller farm numbers are much more static than larger farms.  This makes sense with larger farms increasing or decreasing numbers in response to seasons and profitability. 

The cattle herd numbers themselves make for interesting analysis. The ABS pegged the 2023 cattle herd at 28.89 million head.  This was a 4% increase on 2022, and up 7.9% on the lows of 2020.  Interestingly, the ABS 2023 figures weren’t far off Meat and Livestock Australia’s projected number, which was 28.7 million head.  MLA’s projected number was 18% higher than their 2022 figure, but this was the old ABS number.

The conclusion we can come to here is that herd growth was weaker than expected in 2022-23.  The very low female slaughter rate over this period would generally suggest otherwise.  The calf crop can be estimated using herd numbers and offtake (slaughter and live export), and Figure 2 shows it was 7.7 million head in 2022-23. This estimate doesn’t account for on-farm deaths.

What does it mean?

With the current cattle supply so strong, it is no surprise to see a lift in the cattle herd in 2023, although slaughter rates we are seeing at the moment suggest it might have been higher still. The female slaughter rate for the first three quarters of 2023-24 is pointing towards a steady herd this year, hopefully, we don’t have to wait until June 2025 to find out.

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Key Points

  • The ABS has changed its methodology for calculating the national herd, adding 4.2 million head.
  • The increase in the herd in 2022-23 was much lower than expected.
  • Cattle slaughter rates suggest the herd should steady this year.

Click on figure to expand

Click on figure to expand

Data sources: MLA, ABS, Mecardo

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