2021 bull sales: 20pc increase in numbers sold at auction

Jon Condon, 01/12/2021

A COMBINATION of more bulls being catalogued for sale by bull breeders, dramatically higher sale clearance rates and exceptional seasonal conditions has driven a dramatic 20 percent increase in the number of beef bulls sold at auction this year across Australia.

Total bulls sold at auction in 2021 for the nine breeds listed in Beef Central’s annual report (see today’s separate story on price trends) was 23,307 head – almost 4000 or 20pc higher than the equivalent summary last year, and about 5700 more bulls than the 2019 drought year.

The previous record high number recorded in this annual series was in 2017, when 21,676 bulls were sold via auction.

This year’s statistics are all the more remarkable because eastern states commercial breeding cow numbers are still in early-stage recovery due to earlier drought. However as illustrated in recent ABS slaughter statistics, rates of female kill this year are record-low, as every available breeding female, almost regardless of age, is brought into breeding duty.

Some have found the growth in the volume of sales this year a little perplexing, when the national cow herd is still coming off 30-year lows after drought.

The most common explanations are that bull buyers battled on with the bulls they had on hand for the two drought years 2018-19 (and for many, into the early stages of 2020), meaning they have been playing catch-up in bull requirements this year. Part of that was also that those existing bulls were getting older, creating more incentive to replace with younger sires this year.

Secondly, many commercial cattle breeders typically have a few ‘spare’ bulls on hand, in case of injury or misadventure. They were the first to be liquidated when conditions got dry in 2019, and are only now being re-added to herd inventories.

The continued exceptional seasonal conditions across large parts of eastern Australia is also serving to underpin demand for bulls this year.

Bull numbers sold at auction 2021

Table notes: The Limousin breed is in administrative transition to Wagga’s Genetics Hub this year, and was unable to provide data for this year’s report. Shorthorn statistics include both Shorthorn Beef Australia and Performance Herds data.

Clearance rates sky-high

Results in the table above clearly show that while many, if not most, bull breeders catalogued a lot more bulls for sale this year, clearance rates of anywhere from 91pc to 97pc suggested buyer demand was still well ahead of record numbers on offer.

As Beef Central reported back in September, 100pc clearances at bull sales became almost routine during the depths of this year’s spring bull sales.

While neither of Australia’s two largest breeds by numbers used – Angus and Brahman – record breed-wide sale clearance statistics, most others had their best-ever clearance result this year.

Shorthorns topped statistics, clearing 97pc of bulls offered (91pc last year), while Charolais was second at 96pc (94.3pc last year). Santa Gertrudis and Simmental both sold 95pc of bulls offered in 2021, with Droughtmasters on 94pc, the same as last year. Herefords illustrated the dramatic change in fortunes since the drought, with clearances rising from 68pc in 2019, to 89pc last year and 91pc in the year just completed.

Beef Central’s previous annual bull sale reports indicate that 2016 was the ‘goldilocks’ year when everything went ‘just right’ for bull breeders, combining a better than average season in most areas with strong cattle prices and high international beef demand. And on top of that, herd recovery was still in progress after earlier drought, elevating bull demand even further. Clearance rates for most reported breeds that year sat in the low to mid 90s.

Numbers of bulls sold

In terms of outright numbers of bulls sold in 2021, Angus breeders continued to dominate auction results, by an enormous margin.

Readers should not that this report is based on auction sales only, as it is impossible to verify paddock sales volume conducted by private treaty (see references below).

For the first time, Angus breeders cracked five figures for sales volume, accounting for an incredible 10,811 bulls sold at auction. That was up a dramatic 24pc or 2119 bulls on last year. Taking a longer perspective, Angus auction sale numbers have more than doubled over the past 20 years, with just 5656 bulls recorded as sold in 2001.

Angus Australia’ Peter Parnell suggested Angus feeder steer and slaughter cattle price premiums was one of the drivers, underpinned by large Angus-based commercial brand programs.

Numbers of Angus bull sales held also surged dramatically this year, increasing from 172 last year to 204 in 2021. Sales were held in all mainland states, plus Tasmania.

Double digit growth

All breeds recorded in the table at top of page showed double digit percentage growth in bull turnover this year.

Numerically, the next largest breed by auction numbers was Brahman with 2563 bulls sold, up 20pc or 428 bulls on last year.

But the auction figure masks a much larger population of Brahman bulls actually in use across vast tracts of Northern Australia. Australian Brahman Breeders Association chief executive Anastasia Fanning said it was widely accepted that at least as many Brahman herd bulls are sold out of the paddock (sometimes via contract breeding), as are sold via auction each year. And a third, large channel exists, where pastoral companies and large private commercial operators breed their own herd bull requirements, using their own purebred nucleus herds, or bought ‘over the fence’ from neighbours.

It makes it impossible to gain any reliable statistical guidance on the overall number of Brahman bulls in use across Northern Australia.

Other major tropical breeds like Droughtmasters and Santa Gertrudis also sell large numbers of herd bulls via the paddock. Santa Gertrudis chief executive Chris Todd said breed levy streams suggested around 1500 paddock bulls were sold this year, in addition to the 2100 auction bulls.

Even Angus breeders sell large numbers of bulls out of the paddock, Angus Australia’s Peter Parnell suggests the annual number may be similar to auction sales.

Among other breeds recorded in our annual survey, Herefords produced a dramatic 39pc rise in numbers sold this year, accounting for 2234 bulls, up 39pc on last year. Drought and bushfires during the early stages of 2020 may have reduced Hereford numbers sold during autumn sales last year, making this year’s rise all the more substantial.

Droughtmaster numbers lifted 14pc this year to 1776 bulls, while Charolais numbers rose 13pc to 1678. After a big jump in numbers the previous year, Santa Gertrudis sales lifted a further 8pc this year to 2100 bulls, while both Shorthorn and Simmental bulls increased 11pc this year, to 683 bulls and 1168 bulls respectively.

A number of breeds launched new sales this year – some with remarkable success, given that it often takes years, if not decades for bull breeders and their prefixes to achieve high levels of buyer support. Newcomers like Queensland’s Casa Toro Simmentals operated by the York family, holding only their second sale this year in September, sold all 42 bulls offered for a $13,200 average.

Drift from paddock sales to auction?

It’s often said that in periods of high demand, auction is the preferred selling method for virtually any commodity, in creating bidding ‘tension.’

That may have applied in some cases in 2021, with anecdotal evidence in some breeds that this year’s sharp rise in auction numbers may in part be due to more bulls that would otherwise have been sold in the paddock, being diverted into auction catalogues.

Conversely, some breeds, such as Shorthorn, have seen some additional southern sales this year as paddock sales, instead of auction, Beef Central was told. The trend from paddock to auction selling the trend was not apparent in the Brahman industry, ABBA’s Anastasia Fanning told Beef Central.

“We haven’t seen any real evidence of bull breeders switching from paddock sales to auction this year,” she said.

“There is still a very large following for paddock buying – many larger northern operators returning year after year to the same studs to secure their next round of herd bulls out of the paddock,” she said. “There is no real evidence that that has changed much this year.”









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