National cattle herd to ease to 28.6m says MLA’s 2024 Projections

Beef Central, 27/02/2024

FOLLOWING three years of growth leading to the largest cattle herd in ten years in 2023, the Australian cattle herd is expected to ease to 28.6 million head by June, according to Meat & Livestock Australia’s 2024 Cattle Industry Projections released today.

Click on graphs for a larger view

The national herd will continue to taper down in 2025 and 2026, and by 2026, is likely to sit at 26.5 million – 6.8pc smaller than 2023, the forecast suggests.

Female retention remains above long-term averages, particularly within northern production systems, illustrating that the herd has entered a maintenance phase as elevated turnoff has been driven by high supply rather than producer intention to destock.

The forecast is based on a number of key assumptions based on future weather, interest rates, inflation (both within Australia and overseas) and input costs.

Northern Australia continues to grow, south slips

The drop in cattle numbers in 2024 is under the assumption of a normal or drier weather outlook, MLA says.

Market information manager Stephen Bignell said female retention remaining above average was an element that is contributing to the Northern Australian cattle herd staying in a growth phase.

“Following an above average west season across much of the north of the country, the northern cattle herd is expected to grow further, especially as consistent rainfall events brought on by cyclones and low-pressure weather systems continue throughout the summer,” Mr Bignell said.

For the Southern Australian herd, MLA expects it to constrict further into 2024, as it reaches maturity.

“This will lead to increased turnoff while the cattle cycle enters a herd maintenance phase. This dynamic is influenced by the 2023 New South Wales female slaughter rate (FSR) averaging 48pc, above the long-term tipping point between expansion and contraction of 47pc,” he said.

A focus on productivity and genetics from Australian cattle producers during the 2020-22 rebuild has resulted in a resilient breeding herd, the Projections report says.

“This means that the herd reaction to higher turnoff rates will be less severe than in previous years. We expect solid numbers of young cattle in the coming seasons both through the northern and southern systems,” Mr Bignell said.

MLA also projects a lift in the slaughter rate which will drive production close to record levels in 2025. However, labour availability remains a concern for processors, especially as the number of processor-ready cattle increases.

After lifting 20.2pc in 2023 to just over seven million head, adult slaughter is expected to rise a further 11.7pc in 2024 to 7.9m head, the highest number since 2019. Supply of processor-ready cattle is expected to increase throughout 2024 as the herd reaches maturity.

In 2025, slaughter is expected to rise a further 5.3pc to 8.3m head. This will be well above the ten-year average but below the 8.5m slaughtered in 2019. After this, in 2026 slaughter is expected to ease 0.3pc to 8.3m head – still above the ten-year average but below the 2025 peak, Projections says.

Carcase weights will fall during these high production years, through weights will remain well above long-term averages, thanks to the investments in genetic profile, and consistent expansion in Australia’s feedlot sector.


Beef production is forecast to rise to 2.5 million tonnes in 2024, 11.7pc higher than 2023 and the third highest volume on record. Production is expected to lift a further 4.3pc in 2025 to 2.6mt, which will be the second highest production volume on record, and remain flat into 2026.

Despite slaughter remaining below previous peaks in 2014, 2015 and 2019, overall production is expected to match or exceed those previous peaks as carcase weights have risen steadily and are now consistently higher than seen a decade prior. This increase will improve Australia’s position in global markets, providing opportunities for both beef exports to increase and more beef to remain within the domestic market.

US bears big influence

The United States remains Australia’s key supply competitor, alongside Brazil, who export beef to key markets shared with Australia.

With the US forecasting an easing to its drought condition across key cattle producing regions, a strong and extensive US herd rebuild is expected to start during 2024.

The result is expected to be a contraction in the American domestic beef supply, which will create an opportunity for Australian beef in global markets (both within the US and North Asia). Additionally, solid domestic supply will support strong demand for live cattle exports into major markets. 

Drought conditions in the US have eased considerably from the peak in late 2022, which spurred the fall in slaughter and subsequent shift in trade balance. Despite falling 4%, slaughter remained above the long-run average. However, US demand has grown relatively consistently over the past 20 years as high median incomes and a growing population have increased the pool of beef consumers.

The current forecast from the USDA for 2024 is a 3% decline in production and an 8% decline in exports. Alongside a slight rise in imports, this would equate to 725,000 fewer tonnes of beef traded internationally compared to 2022, or a 6% reduction in global supply. This would have a much larger impact on Australia than other exporters, as Australia is one of the few countries that has similar market access to the US and thus competes directly with the US.

The USDA forecast is contingent on conditions continuing to improve over 2024. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has raised the possibility of La Niña conditions returning to the US in mid-2024, which would prolong the period of elevated slaughter and slow a future herd rebuild. Although this would impact the speed of the herd rebuild, it would not impact the ultimate result, which is declining beef production from 2024 until at least 2026 and likely below-average production for several years after that.

Livestock prices

Supply In the livestock market, supply dynamics play a pivotal role in influencing domestic prices. Demand for processor-ready livestock tends to exhibit stability, irrespective of the herd’s size or growth phase.

This year’s Projections suggests that herd sizes will remain elevated, leading to an abundance of processor-ready cattle. This level of stock availability could mitigate competition pressures on livestock prices, leading to a buyer-led market environment.

During periods of herd rebuilding, stable demand intensifies competition among buyers.

Price forecasts

MLA’s cattle projections includes an aggregate price estimate made by a panel of independent analysts for the national feeder steer indicator and national heavy steer indicator. Each is asked for an upper and lower estimation, as well as an average.

As seen in this graph, the feeder steer price is forecast to trend upwards on current rates by 4.8pc to reach 363¢/kg/liveweight by 30 June, with an aggregated upper estimation reaching 401¢/kg, or a 15.8pc rise to current prices.

Analyst comments note that an upwards shift in local prices on the back of strong export and restocker demand will support prices into 2024. Climate outlooks forecasting favourable seasonal conditions through cattle regions will potentially provide a boost to restocker demand and in turn apply upwards pressure on prices.

Analysts estimate a 6pc or 18c/kg lift to the heavy steer price which is forecast to reach 318¢/kg (liveweight) by 30 June. As export demand is expected to lift, with a focus on the US market, heavier animals will be in solid demand through 2024 if conditions follow forecasts.


Last year was a significant year for weather events, with an El Niño event and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) declared in September, followed by four cyclones making landfall in the 2023/24 wet season so far.  

For this year, Australia is expected to remain within a neutral IOD, while the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) outlook, which indicates an El Niño or La Niña event, notes that we are likely to move out of the El Niño phase by May. Long-term forecasts for a La Niña event in 2024 are varied.

This year is looking to be a positive year for the cattle industry with the herd staying within a maintenance phase. While forecasts remain crucial for business management, the expected relative climate stability in 2024 suggests that decision-making may not be as reactive to long-term forecasts as observed in the reactive markets of 2023, MLA’s forecast said..


To view MLA’s 2024 Cattle Industry Projections report, Click here











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