The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revised Australia’s cattle herd size estimate by adding 4.34m head to the June 2023 estimate of 29.88m.

This significant increase has raised eyebrows across the industry given the downward trend in slaughter rates over the past decade and the expectation of record-low slaughter numbers next year.

The sudden change in figures contradicts the belief that the herd size was smaller, with the revision suggesting near historical highs.

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In contrast, recent slaughter rates and trends over the past decade suggest the opposite with the inconsistency prompting many questions and concerns.

The ABS’s new methodology stems from the government’s lack of funding and low response rates to the 2022 herd and flock size survey.

The old method relied on annual surveys with around 25,000 agricultural operations, increasing to 100,000 during census years.

The new approach uses multiple data sources, including fertility data, animal movements, slaughter numbers, live exports, herd demographics, and environmental factors like rainfall and pasture conditions.

ABS adjusted the herd size because the previous baseline did not accurately reflect the actual numbers, which became apparent when the volume of herd movements surpassed what was feasible with the old figures. The new baseline of 28.8m head aims to correct this.

Commentators have stated that the drastic increase in herd numbers poses several risks. International buyers might perceive this as an impending surge in meat supply, potentially reducing their immediate purchasing in favor of a ‘hand-to-mouth’ approach. This could challenge beef exporters in the short term, although the expected herd rebuild next year will likely balance export volumes.

This revision also affects the credibility of Australia’s livestock statistics. The industry now faces the task of reassuring international customers and partners that this adjustment does not imply an actual increase in supply. Establishing trust in the new methodology will take time, as it addresses the inaccuracies of the old baseline.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact of the revised numbers on Australia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. The new methodology, however, shows a 5% reduction in herd size from 2005 to 2021, supporting the country’s GHG reduction efforts.