THE HAVOC being wreaked on the red meat processing sector in the form of COVID-19 infections keeping abattoir workers at home continues to keep supermarket beef shelves bare.
There is no way of predicting how long it will be until processors are back online at a level that might be expected outside of the pandemic. Nor whether all parts of the supply chain, including transport and distribution, will follow the same worker absenteeism trends. Likely, it won't be until Omicron infections in all sectors ease that the flow of meat returns to anywhere near normal.
Certainly supermarkets and processors are not making promises around timelines and limits on meat purchases remain.
As to the implications for producers when workforces are back in strength - will there be a processor rush on cattle to 'catch up' - it's uncharted territory so nobody is making a call on what is about to come.
This is a supply chain crisis the likes of which we've never experienced, beef industry stalwarts say.
Slaughter rates have picked up somewhat from the first week of 2022, likely a result of government changes to isolation rules, and as the Omicron wave hits its peak and comes down the other side, it is expected volumes will at least hold.
Still, the kill remains well under the average seasonal pattern.
Analysts Thomas Elders Markets were last week reporting figures were 31 per cent under the slaughter volumes seen for this week last season and 49pc off the pace for the five-year seasonal average.
Meanwhile, young cattle prices continue to climb as restockers scramble to get mouths on the ample volumes of feed La Nina is delivering to paddocks.
The Eastern Young Cattle Indicator had been going up all week and was tapping on the door of the $12 a kilogram carcase weight mark, however it did take a dip after Tuesday's trade.
Supply is ebbing and flowing. The processing sector dramas seemed to create a bit of hesitancy to sell but then the upward movement of the EYCI brought more cattle out.
Either way, demand is quickly soaking up what's on offer and agents still say yarding sizes could swell significantly before demand would even be slightly dented.
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The feedlot manager likely has a far bigger headache than the farm manager at the moment.
Australian Lot Feeders' Association Barb Madden provided the following comment: "The disruption to processor shifts is having a knock-on effect through the supply chain which is causing yards to hold onto finished cattle longer than they need to and challenges in slaughter scheduling. The back-up of cattle in the system is impacting cattle staging and entering some feedlots, so we will see some ongoing supply impacts as a result of this current disruption.
"It is very pleasing to hear that all parties are doing their best to minimise the impact and work collaborative to manage the challenges.
"Feedlot operators have a strong culture of contingency planning and yards have been readying themselves for these disruptions since the start of the pandemic. Yards have systems in place to minimise the impact of staff who have contracted COVID-19 and to date there have been no major feedlot staff shortage issues reported."
THERE will be lessons learned from the current situation with perishable food supply chains that will serve to strengthen agricultural industries going forward, experts believe.
Chris Coldrick, a consulting partner in the Melbourne Supply Chain and Procurement practice at Deloitte Australia, said for most sectors - agribusiness certainly - there had been a disruption on the input side that blindsided operators.
"Shortages of certain items have created shortages of others. Adblue, based on the unavailability of urea, is the perfect example," he said.
"Many have for the first time realised where their inputs come from, and the fragility of supply. That information has not been hidden but there's been no need to know before.
"A better understanding of inputs will make supply chains more resilient going forward."
Mr Coldrick said the weaknesses had not been a fragility of production but rather of the chain that gets it to the consumer.
"In some cases, at every step between farm and fork there are constraints we've never had before," he said.
"I don't believe those constraints will be problematic in the longer term but what we might see longer term is consumers adjusting expectations.
"Some customers may be willing to pay for guaranteed availability in the future."
Retail demand prediction is also now very much in choppy waters.
Demand trends had quite successfully been predicted using historical data for the 15 years leading up to the pandemic but panic buying, and supply disruptions, has made that data wildly fluctuating and unreliable.
"Forecasting scenarios will be one way of doing it in the future but the other is to accept unpredictability and to carry more inventory and set yourself up for redundancy in supply," Mr Coldrick explained.
"The second option, of course, brings in added expense."
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