THE chase for high-grade Brahman feeder steers for live export ships in the Top End has ramped up, with Indonesian feedlots looking to get set for the annual period of peak beef demand brought on by the religious event of Ramadan.
Phenomenal money is on offer and leading live-ex agents Top End Livestock are putting together a tender offering 3500 to 4000 head, available mid-February, to the seven or eight exporters looking to put shipments together out of Darwin, bound for Jakarta.
The relatively unusual move was the best and fairest way to run things in times of extreme volatility, agent Scott Riggs said.
Top End Livestock is a Katherine-based Nutrien business and typically is able to offer between 6000 and 7000 head to exporters at this time of year.
Under the tender system this year, exporters can nominate a price for feeder steers, bulls and heifers.
Producers believe prices for 280 to 400 kilogram steers could hit $5.50/kg - rates previously unheard of.
Already they have received verbal offers this week at $5.20/kg and the official offer just after Christmas was $4.70/kg for that lighter category and $4.40/kg for steers up to 460kg and empty heifers.
The scarcity of live-ex cattle is in line with the general nationwide cattle shortage as the herd continues to be rebuilt post-drought but has been exacerbated by the big numbers of calves snapped up during the dry season by southern restockers and lot feeders paying record money.
ALSO SEE: Northern live-ex ships grind to a halt
Some Top End producers this week reported offers of $7/kg for little weaners from Queensland fatteners.
Rates for live-ex cattle in the mid $5/kg range would put Indonesian feedlots well into negative margins but supply in feedlots is needed now to have slaughter-ready animals come the Ramadan/Labaran period at the start of May.
There appears to be a willingness on the part of some well-established Indonesian feedlots to operate through a lack of profitability in order to retain customers.
The live-ex trade came to a standstill around last October due to the unavailability of cattle but picked up somewhat out of Darwin in December.
Darwin Port reported 36,423 cattle and buffalo were shipped in December, all going to Indonesia. Only a handful of that was feeder buffalo. The cattle were going into 100-day feedlot programs in time for Ramadan demand.
Some of those cattle are believed to have been bought earlier, at cheaper rates, and backgrounded by exporters.
Darwin Port numbers for November were 18,745 head, historically low and in line with the reduced export activity seen in September and October.
No shipments have left Townsville since last November.
While mustering of northern live-ex cattle could start as early as next month, Cyclone Tiffany rain is likely to push operations back into autumn for many.
Live export producer Tom Stockwell, Sunday Creek Station near Katherine, said it was simply too wet to get to cattle and better infrastructure - something pastoralists had long been fighting for - would ease the current supply situation somewhat.
"It is the case that a lot of the ones coming through need time to grow into the weights and we're still on the rebuild, so people don't have spares up their sleeve, especially in the feeder category," he said.
"But there would be some there ready to go if people could get them to market.
"It's really an infrastructure issue causing people to not be able to supply because plenty would want to at the going rates."
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