2023: a year in review of the Australian cattle market
08 December 2023
- Change, confidence and cyclicity have been the hallmarks of the cattle market in 2023.
- Despite the challenges the market has faced in 2023, the year is looking to end more positively than most of the past 12 months.
- Multiple opportunities present an extremely positive 2024 for the industry.
Change, confidence and cyclicity will be remembered as the hallmarks of the Australian cattle industry in 2023.
Compared to 12 months ago, the industry is in a very different but similarly positive state.
The industry has changed from the lofty price period of 2020–2022. The cyclical nature of the herd has reached its maturity stage and ever-changing confidence and sentiment has genuinely dictated market performance in the face of typical supply and demand fundamentals.
Most in industry would agree that 12 months ago, the expectation was for the market to move lower in 2023. Those expectations were accurate, to an extent. The market fundamentally moved faster and harder than historical prices had seen in a very long time.
At the market’s lowest point in mid-October, prices ranged anywhere from 58%–70% lower than year ago levels and anywhere from 32% to 52% lower than 10-year averages. The same prices 12 months earlier were all above 5- and 10-year averages by some margin. This gives context to how significant the decline in price has been in 2023.
There were several factors that drove the downturn, many of which have been discussed at length this year. Supply, weak buying demand, higher numbers of stock on-farm and critically, confidence. It could be said that there has never been a more seismic shift in the confidence of Australian livestock producers in such a short time than what has played out in 2023.
At a generalised level across the country, seasonal conditions have been significantly better than 2019 when the country was enduring its worst drought in memory for many places. Although prices this year have fallen further and more substantially than that drought period ever reached, the driver of this decline is confidence.
Market confidence, and particularly producer confidence, is driven by either current weather conditions or the weather forecast and subsequently, market prices. This confidence in turn influences buying behaviour and demand or lack thereof and as a result market and price performance. Consider the last two years, where producers’ confidence in the outlook and current weather conditions with grass and water available saw this intense demand drive the market to record highs week-on-week.
Now consider the intense media and industry scrutiny on El Niño that began early this year. Despite El Niño not being formerly called as a weather pattern by the Bureau of Meteorology until September, the six months prior to this and the media attention driving broader industry discussion reverberated and manifested negative sentiment within the market.
As this negative sentiment loudened and broadened in reach, it continued to remove buyer confidence to compete in the market, which weakened demand due to the drying weather and the dry outlook. Lower demand from a lack of confidence in basic macro-economic principles at a time of increasing supply created the perfect storm for cattle prices to fall below 10-year averages.
This lack of confidence in the market has had a major impact on price performance in 2023, more so than the Australian cattle market has ever seen, or at least since the 1970s beef crash.
Cattle production is a long-term play, from a genetic decision being made to a general turn-off time of that beast, upwards of two to two and a half years is a common timeline. Cattle producers know things take time and as a result, the cyclical nature of the industry in line with weather patterns and other global dynamics ensures that the longer-term structural dynamics of prices will change.
Producers and the industry have been in challenging operating and market conditions before like they have been for most of 2023 and every time that has occurred, the industry and the producer has found ways to overcome these challenges.
There is no question that the longer-term demand and fundamentals of cattle and beef production for Australia remains exceptionally strong. Changing herd dynamics in the United States, a continually growing affluent middle class across the world demanding high quality consistent beef and a resilient domestic consumer who prioritise beef in their shopping baskets are three key examples.
The past six weeks have shown how quickly rain can change sentiment in the market and uplift prices, meaning the market to end 2023 is moving back towards where it should have most likely fallen to, not the lows it found itself in, in October.
Looking ahead to 2024
There is no question there have been challenges for all parts of the sector and its supply chain in 2023, although with recent rain, falling retail prices, strong exports and rising processor throughput, the outlook for the sector remains exceptionally strong.
Monitoring the United States’ dynamic into mid-2024 will be a key factor in providing support to feeder and finished cattle prices as their production volumes fall.
Looking domestically, the efforts and investment producers have made in genetics and improving infrastructure and on-farm management over the past three years will continue to pay dividends with better performance of their herds. This will become more apparent when seasonal conditions become more challenging as the herds’ productivity remains strong with high turn-off weights and better fertility despite difficult seasonal conditions.
Next year will be an exciting year for cattle producers and the industry more broadly, as the outlook remains very positive with the fundamentals of the sector in a very solid position.