Monday, March 4, 2024

Golden calves reward rearers’ efforts

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Record prices paid this spring after rules changed and fewer calves were offered.
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After a tough few years for calf rearers, to the point where some large-scale operators have abandoned the trade, it’s great to see those that stuck it out finally receiving good money for their calves.

Of course, costs haven’t come down, and reliable labour has remained difficult to secure. But the prices paid have consistently floated around record levels – unlike any other class of livestock throughout the country. 

This spring the North Island yards have seen $20-$30 more paid than last year on 100-130kg lines. Friesian bulls have averaged $533, though they’ve typically been a little stronger in the paddock.

There are a few reasons behind the development of this trend. One is the simple fact that fewer calves were reared, especially those that were born later. This mainly applies to the South Island, whose bobby kill was up 50,000 head on last year. 

But that has flow-on effects for the North Island, given a large number are usually traded over the Cook Strait in their lifetime. 

It is worth remembering that changes in Fonterra’s on-farm euthanasia rules would have had some influence on these tallies. The national dairy cow herd has gradually shrunk over recent years too, so the larger number of calves bobbied likely comes from a smaller base of calves born.

Changes in farming policy seem to be another driver. The lack of confidence around lamb markets this summer and autumn has pushed a portion of buyers away from store lambs, with 100kg calves considered a good alternative due to the low per-head pricing compared to older store cattle, but also because of the greater flexibility in terms of when these can be traded out – either as store cattle over the short to medium term, or by being taken to finishing weights for a longer-term trade. 

Poorer milk pricing and increasingly tough farming regulations are pushing more properties away from dairy farming into drystock trading too, adding the odd extra calf buyer into the mix.

A good spring for grass growth can’t be ignored either. Not only has this meant more people have been looking to add mouths to paddocks, it’s also supported pricing on yearling cattle. And prices paid on yearlings affect budgets for buyers entering the 100kg calf market for replacements.

Another interesting trend is the gradual disappearance of the straight Friesian bull. The latest published statistics show that only 25% of New Zealand’s recorded dairy cow herd is considered Friesian, down from 33% five years earlier. Both these and other straight-bred herds have slowly been replaced by the popular Friesian-Jersey mix, which now accounts for 59% of dairy cow numbers.

Given that Friesian bull buyers are quite selective against lines showing Jersey genetics in their markings, more dairy farmers are switching to using beef sires to support the value of their calves. This has become more viable since the live export ban, too, as it’s easier to source replacement dairy heifers that would otherwise be shipped to China.

This has been clear in the North Island yards that AgriHQ regularly collects data from – the number of Friesian bulls sold through to early December was only 6100, down from 8000-11,100 through 2016-2021, whereas beef-cross calves of all sexes came to 7900, essentially unchanged from normal.

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