Questions raised over MLA’s 28.8 million head herd size assessment

Jon Condon, 07/02/2023


AN estimate in Meat & Livestock Australia’s 2023 industry projections released last week suggesting the national beef herd will grow this year to 28.8 million head has raised some eyebrows around the beef industry.

A number of stakeholders have queried the size of the herd increase figure with Beef Central, convinced that it is over-cooked – especially given that the beef herd hit 30-year lows only two or three years earlier due to drought.

One large processor said export beef customers inevitably noted such statistics, and could come back to ‘kick us in the pants’ in price negotiation as a result if they believed there was more beef in the Australian pipeline than there actually was.

“It’s a very bold forecast, and it doesn’t do us any favours if the herd size number is over-inflated,” he said.

The issue of methane calculation from an over-inflated national beef herd estimate has also been raised this week.

MLA stoutly defended the herd number in the latest projections, and the methodology used to arrive at it, during an industry briefing held on Thursday.

In a separate conversation, MLA managing director Jason Strong also made the valid point that it is not uncommon for MLA to receive challenges on its herd size estimates for being too small, as well as too large – and at times in the same annual cycle.

Beef Central questioned MLA’s confidence in the accuracy and the methodology of its herd size estimate during last Thursday’s briefing.

“We are extremely comfortable with the 28.8 million head figure, given it has been through a thorough peer-reviewed process, tested with industry,” MLA’s manager for market information Stephen Bignell said.

Senior analyst Ripley Atkinson said it was important to think about the significance of just how intensive the recent herd rebuild has been, and the relationship between the retention of females, the improved herd productivity being seen after years of investment in genetics, and three consecutive La Nina years.

“All of those contributing factors have played a significant role in the advance in herd size that we are forecasting,” Mr Atkinson said.

“(We trust) the capacity of our model to recognise adjustments, changes and the weather, and the significance of that – even despite the fact that we are building an El Nino event into the model within the next 18 months. Yes the herd growth will taper off, but the growth is there, and it is underpinned by the key production fundamentals.”

Mr Atkinson said there were three key factors that were the hallmarks of why the industry was seeing current growth of this size – the production fundamentals, the stock turnoff rate, and the female slaughter rate.

“In terms of the production fundaments, water and grass availability is high – and that is underpinning continued confidence in joining larger numbers of females, to increase numbers,” he said.

“From that, we’re expecting that breeding female numbers will return to pre-2019 (start of the drought) levels. And on top of that, the reproduction conditions for females with grass and water has been very good – that means improvements in branding rates, lower mortality rates, barring any abnormalities in seasonal conditions.”

“We know there is going to be a larger number of breeding females, but also the investment that cattlemen have made in genetics is also underpinning the productivity of the national herd, through net feed intake, fertility and growth rate, which will last for years to come.”

In terms of stock turnoff rate, MLA estimated it hit its lowest level on record in 2022, reaching 24pc last year – well below the long-term average back to 1990 of 31pc.

That stock turnoff rate tells us basically the number of cattle slaughtered or exported live, as a percentage of the total, Mr Atkinson said.

“When it hits such a low level, we know that retention of animals has been very, very intense. It’s evident when you look at slaughter numbers being the lowest in 37 years and cattle yardings well down on 2021. It’s clearly indicating that the retention of animals on-farm has to be delivered to market at some stage, and that’s naturally growing the size of the herd.”

“Beyond that, the retention of females (female slaughter ratio) reached its lowest consecutive rate over 15 months on record – eclipsing the 2010-2012 period,” Mr Atkinson said.

“All this is contributing to the expectation we have in the forecast improvement in cattle numbers out to 2025.”

Mr Bignell said there had been significant herd size growth in southern Australia in 2021 and 2022, and that would now move into “really seeing what the rebuild in the north can do.”

“We know the retention of females in the north was high last year, and that’s going to contribute to that rebuild growing further in 2023.”

“This year we have the herd growing 4.5pc, and at 28.8 million, it will be the largest seen since 2014, at the end of the last long wet period,” Mr Bignell said.

Herd growth would taper off after that, given weather conditions normalise and turn.

“We have had three successive years of greatly improved seasonal conditions, and the lowest slaughter in 37 years for two years running. That is what is reflected in such high values in our herd estimates for this year,” he said.

Moving out to 2025, when the herd is projected to reach 29.6 million head – it will be the largest seen in 46 years. But the reason for that were reduced slaughter for two years (this year again will be well below the ten year average) and improved seasonal conditions, Mr Bignell said.

How does the MLA herd size forecast work?

Beef Central asked MLA to explain the methodology behind the herd forecast in more detail.

The calculation is based on systems dynamics modelling, working with statisticians at the University of Queensland. Underpinning the model is ABS data back to the 1970s, and BOM data back to the 1900s. The process also relied on peer-reviewed literature.

Once a ‘first-run’ of the model data is produced, the results are put in front of beef processors and pastoral companies for ‘stress-testing.’

The data entered into the UQ model comes from ABS, and a group of ‘about 15’ large beef processors and pastoral companies are consulted in the review process, Beef Central was told. The same process has been used for some years.

35,000 respondents in equivalent US herd survey

At much the same time as Australia’s beef herd size assessment was being calculated, the United States beef industry recently completed its annual 1 January cattle herd inventory report.

Fuelled by enormous Federal government financial support through the US Department of Agriculture, the US each year carries out a detailed survey of some 35,400 cattle operators across the nation, based on in-person interviews, email, mail and telephone communication.

A random sample of US producers provided data for the estimates. Survey procedures ensured that all US cattle producers, regardless of size, had a chance to be included in the survey. Large producers were sampled more heavily than small operations, USDA said.

Beef survey a possibility

During discussions on the industry’s herd size estimates, Mr Bignell said there was some consideration being given to introducing a comprehensive beef industry survey, akin to MLA’s annual sheep survey that is currently conducted each year.

It is unclear if a similar beef survey ever existed in the past, but if it did, the likely reason for its demise was lack of producer response.

In contrast, about 2000 sheep producers (weighted towards larger operators) voluntarily contribute flock size data as well as other information on breed and market segment each year – and have done so for decades.

In a similar theme, ABS no longer produces beef herd commodity data on a regional or category basis in its statistical research. MLA now receives only three top-line figures for national numbers for meat cattle, dairy cattle and a combination of both. Previously the statistics were much more comprehensive, broken down into 13 segments from calves to breeding cattle and steers.

The reason given by ABS on its website for no longer providing more comprehensive cattle herd data was “a lower quality response to the Rural Environmental & Agricultural Commodities Survey.” In essence, this means the response rate from beef producers was so low that the data was no long considered reliable.

“But we’re looking at introducing, or re-introducing something similar to the annual sheep survey for beef,” Mr Bignell said. “The concept is being looked at again,”

Participation will be key if the beef herd size survey does see the light of day. Otherwise the industry can have little to complain about in terms of herd assessment accuracy, if it not prepared to be part of the process.


Tomorrow: Independent analyst Simon Quilty’s take on MLA’s 2023 national herd size estimate.





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  1. Andrew Street, 07/02/2023

    My limited experience with ABS is they will continue to pester you and demand a responses. Looking at the ABS website it is compulsory “ Under the Census and Statistics Act 1905, you are obliged to provide the information requested by the ABS.”
    So I would expect the ABS Data should be accurate. If not they should capitulate and stop pestering us!

  2. Grant, 07/02/2023

    With a friend like the MLA, beef producers need no enemies. MLA consistently over-estimates herd size, which in effect talks down prices. The methane non-issue adds another risk to producers in the long term. Maybe they count the lost NLIS buttons out in the paddock and stuck in netting fences around the country? Simply put, MLA is a menace and should be wound up. How is that promised levy payer register going, by the way?

    • Rob Moore, 09/02/2023

      Good point Grant.
      “Active Devices on PIC ” can often include the 1500 tags in the cupboard-bought well ahead of branding time.I find it ironic that this exercise is solely derived from the Breeders- the ground zero of the Meat industry- the ones that(in beef). have 9 months for the bull and cow, then another period to feeder weight to see if they have shown a profit on the animal. Therefore imo- most breeders are very reluctant to polish the crystal ball and forecast what the result of that maiden heifer might be – in 2.5 yrs time..If the branding buttons are counted as grown cattle plus all the drought flood losses aren’t taken off data base. Then I reckon Brad is right…….24M and respect the Breeders OR there is No Beef Industry

  3. Brad Bellinger, 07/02/2023

    24 million.

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