New data shows Victorian cattle producers are changing how they manage their herds as graziers look at other options to safeguard their beef programs in the event of a price correction for young cattle.
While prices for lightweight calves are becoming increasingly difficult to justify for some buyers, producers are turning their sights to cows for breeding and fattening as statistics show the state's cow market has grown steadily since January.
Meat & Livestock Australia data from the National Livestock Reporting Service reveals volumes of restocker cows through Victorian saleyards have more than tripled since January, up to 1421 head in April from just 543 head four months earlier.
Elders Albury, NSW, livestock manager Brett Shea said the move to buying cows was not suited to everyone, but it had been a noticeable trend in the north of the state as a result of high beef prices and interstate competition.
"Running cows and calves doesn't suit everyone and it's not like we have heaps of clients going that way but it's certainly a move some clients have been making," Mr Shea said.
"It's been hard to get over $2000 for a feeder animal so for those people to come back in at $1700 for a weaner presents a very small margin whereas if you sell a bullock for $2400-$2600 and come back in on the lead weaners, there's still up to a $600 gross gap.
"So it's more suited towards someone who has been selling feeder or domestic kill cattle and it's purely about mitigating that risk in the event the job goes pear-shaped so you can breed yourself out of trouble."
He said joined cows offered a number of benefits with many people choosing to retain the cow for breeding and sell the calf at a future store sale, or sell the cow to an abattoir within 10-12 months of purchase.
MLA market information analyst Stuart Bull said in Victoria the cow market was often viewed as a "less riskier option" given the heights of the market and time spent to feed store cattle to a desirable weight.
"Producers with grass are able to turn around cows quickly by buying them already well-conditioned, currently at 480 kilograms, and provide a finished product for processors at 600kg," Mr Bull said.
"Cows are heavily favoured in the Victorian market and are the most sold category at the saleyard typically, incentivising producers to take this approach as demand is there."
But while Victorian graziers have increasingly purchased cows in recent months, their NSW counterparts have done the opposite and shied away from restocking cows with numbers in decline since November 2019.
Ballarat agent TB White & Sons director Leo White said the trend had been less obvious in central Victoria.
"Buying a cow and calf or a joined female is a safer option than buying a small calf at $1600-$1700," he said.
"However, steers are a lower-maintenance article.
"If steers do slip a bit in the winter, they will pick up condition in spring but cows and calves need constant attention and can come under a bit of stress in winter."
Mr White said the strength of prices and demand in prime markets had helped with producers' optimism.
"It's a big outlay to buy these smaller calves but on the other side you're getting huge money for bullocks," he said.