NZ cow slaughter rate may have hit new record in May as farmers held stock for longer

Farmers have culled heavily in recent years as they sought to reduce stock numbers when milk prices were low.

New Zealand's cow slaughter season got off to a slow start this year as good conditions prompted farmers to keep milking for longer, however that led to a wave of demand for slaughter late in the season that could have seen the month of May hit a new record for cow slaughter.

The kill season for cows generally starts in March and runs through until the end of May with farmers selecting their least productive dairy cows for slaughter as they prepare for the winter months when there is less feed available. Farmers have culled heavily in recent years as they sought to reduce stock numbers when milk prices were low, meaning they started this season with less excess stock while good grass growth bolstered the amount of feed available.

The season started off at its slowest pace in five years, with just 41,789 cows slaughtered in the fortnight to March 11, the lowest level for this period since 2012.

"Slow March and April throughput accumulated into May potentially being the largest ever month for cow slaughter in New Zealand," AgriHQ analyst Reece Brick said in his monthly sheep and beef report.

Brick said good pasture conditions in the lead-up to May was the main factor influencing cow slaughter rates, allowing dairy farmers to milk cows for a longer period than previous years, and leading to a wave of dairy cows booked for slaughter in May.

"Dairy cows finally came out of the woodwork in dramatic fashion through May," Brick said. "The favourable early autumn weather conditions meant dairy cows were milked for longer than typical, causing this lagged spike in the cow slaughter. The improvement in farmgate dairy returns also meant there was less culling earlier in the season simply to ensure adequate cash flow."

The latest figures for the fortnight to May 6 show 63,103 cows were slaughtered in the North Island, 11 percent more than the same period last year and more than any other year in more than a decade, AgriHQ said. Brick noted that one major company reported slaughtering more cattle in the week ending May 12 than any other week in its history, with nearby weeks similarly busy.

Still, he said slaughter prices didn't move too much in spite of the excess volumes of cattle coming off farms, with all classes of cattle either stable or eased less than 10 cents a kilogram.

For meat processors, the wave of demand for dairy cow slaughter means there is more than enough backlog of other cattle to work through, which will likely keep plants occupied through June, Brick said.

Slaughter figures for the full month of May are due to be released later this month.