Cattle on feed for the January-to-March 2020 quarter decreased 12 per cent from the record high of last December to sit at 1,087,594 head, according to the results of the latest Australian Lot Feeders' Association and Meat & Livestock Australia survey.
Changes in numbers on feed across states were mixed. Queensland and New South Wales both experienced notable declines in cattle on feed. Queensland decreased by 113,422 head, or 16pc, to 606,633 head, while NSW decreased by 45,584, or 13pc, to 304,110 head.
Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia all recorded modest increases in numbers on feed with Victoria increasing by 2,988 head, Western Australia by 3,399 head and South Australia by 649 head.
ALFA president, Bryce Camm, said the declines in cattle on feed were not unexpected given the seasonal change and resulting higher feeder cattle and grain prices over the period.
"It has been a solid start to the year and very pleasing to see much needed rain in a number of cattle growing regions off the back of very challenging years of drought," Mr Camm said.
"Resulting confidence in the restocker market has driven stiff competition for feeder cattle, impacting price and limiting cattle availability whilst grain prices have also remained persistently high culminating in feedlot utilisation dropping 12pc to 78pc.
"Whilst the full extent of COVID-19 isn't reflected in these quarterly results we do expect to see subdued numbers of cattle on feed over the coming months given the level of uncertainly moving forward.
"Despite cattle numbers falling, national feedlot capacity reached new heights increasing 1pc on the December 2019 quarter to land at 1,397,470 head; reinforcing investment confidence in the feedlot production system over the long term," Mr Camm said.
Adam Cheetham, MLA's Senior Market Analyst, reported that records had also been set for grain fed cattle turnoff and prices during the quarter.
"With cattle on feed reaching an all-time high of 1,239,563 head in the December 2019 quarter, it was not surprising to see turnoff increase 21pc to a record 863,403 head during this past quarter," Mr Cheetham said.
Continued demand for high quality Australian beef from export markets and a limited supply pool resulted in strong demand for finished cattle which also drove price during the period.
"The Queensland 100 day grain fed steer over-the-hook indicator broke new ground in the March quarter, reaching a peak of 649/kg carcase weight and averaging 613/kg cwt for the quarter, up 1pc from the December 2019 quarter and 11pc higher than year-ago levels," Mr Cheetham said.
"On the export front, volumes to China eased 18pc to 19,602 tonnes swt, as restrictions due to COVID-19 created logistical issues at ports in China from early January to the end of March; however these volumes were still 10pc above year-ago levels.
"Despite uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, exports to Japan increased 2pc from the December 2019 quarter to 34,169 tonnes swt, however this was offset somewhat with volumes to Korea easing 11pc from the previous quarter to 12,571 tonnes swt," Mr Cheetham said.