Unseasonally high rainfall and scarcer herd numbers have boosted Australia's cattle market and an export stampede that threatens to disrupt niche producers like Greg and Chris Stuart, who graze Galloway cows near Hall.
Fewer regional abattoirs are processing cattle for small producers because they are targeting high volumes for overseas markets. The Stuarts sell their meat at the Canberra's farmers market and have had to look for new killing arrangements in Cowra, after a long-standing relationship at Cootamundra abattoir ended abruptly.
Mr Stuart has farmed at Minto for the past 26 years and, while operating outside traditional supply chains, keeps an eye on saleyard prices, which have spiked by 20 and 30 per cent in the past fortnight. "I look on longingly at the moment," he said.
"Last year January was terrible, it was very hot, we had a lot of hot dry westerly winds, which totally burnt off all pasture," Mr Stuart said. "I was fearful that would happen this year, being an El Nino like year according to the weather bureau, I actually ordered in a B-double worth of hay before Christmas. It is now in the shed, because last year was just so bad.
"We went through a fairly dry patch early in summer, but that is all forgotten. We have been working in mud in the past couple of days, and we never complain about mud. It's been a great time, it is quite unusual to have the rain like this at this time of the year."
Meat and Livestock Australia manager of market information, Ben Thomas said the cattle market's strong start to 2015 was mainly due to the rain. Mr Thomas said Australia exported 70 per cent of its beef, and the devaluing of the dollar and free trade agreements with China, Korea and Japan also helped.
The United States, the world's largest producer and consumer, was at a low point of its production cycle and also importing a large amount of Australian beef.
"It is quite encouraging to see how prices lifted after we have received decent rain through December and the first part of January," Mr Thomas said.
Elders Goulburn manager Steve Ridley said the price spike had been expected for months.
"It has finally happened over the Christmas–new year hump," Mr Ridley said. "The cattle market has gone up 20 per cent in the past two weeks. The low dollar, shortage of numbers with the drought in the north, and pretty good world-wide demand – it is basically all about numbers.
"Everyone has been sitting, waiting with bated breath for months, we thought [higher prices] may have happened in October/November, but because of the dry, numbers [of cattle] still flowed on.
"[Meat] processors up until Christmas have been doing extra kills on Saturdays to handle the numbers because they could sell the product."
The cattle market's strong start to 2015 was mainly due to the rain.Ben Thomas
Mr Ridley said feed levels varied through eastern Australia because of summer storms. "We are an isolated pocket, we are a Garden of Eden really, there are still a lot of areas that are very dry, they can only just sell cattle so far down."
At Wagga Wagga saleyards on Monday a record of nearly 7000 cattle fetched around $5.95 million – surpassing the $3.6 million turnover from last year's mega sale – which would set a new earnings record for the centre.
Rob Nicholl of Elders Cooma said; the Monaro had so much grass people had sent cattle from Holbrook and Bathurst for agistment. Inquires had come from Coonamble, Walgett and Dubbo. "People haven't got enough mouths to keep up with all their grass," he said.
Farmers were after lighter cattle to cash in on high prices, but they were becoming harder to find.