The number of cattle and calves to be slaughtered in 2013-14, largely as a result of drought, will be the highest in more than a decade

Drought-hit farmers have been describing for months the pain of being forced to slaughter starving cattle at alarming rates.

Now, new data shows the extent of the damage: the worst in more than a decade.

The number of cattle and calves slaughtered across Australia as a result of dry conditions will increase by eight per cent in 2013/14, the government’s commodity forecaster says.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences expects that in the drought-hit eastern states farmers will be forced to destock cattle by 32 per cent over the financial year, the highest numbers since 2003/04.

In Queensland, the slaughter of beef cattle rose by nine per cent year-on-year to 2.1 million head, while in NSW slaughter rose by 14 per cent year-on-year to around 1 million head.

The number of sheep has also dropped significantly in the past 18 months.

Drought in the eastern states and South Australia has resulted in an extra 1.3 million adult sheep slaughtered in these states during the first half of 2013-14, compared with the same period in 2012-13.

The sharp rise in the slaughter of cattle and sheep will mean farmers won’t be able to rebuild their herds and flocks until 2015/16.

“Livestock producers in affected areas have responded to the adverse seasonal conditions by sending increased numbers of stock to slaughter, while crop producers have responded by reducing summer crop plantings,” ABARES says in its annual commodity report.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, with a return to average rainfall forecast in the remaining months of 2013/14 and in 2014-15.

Assuming that happens, there will be some improvement in pasture and crop planting conditions.

“However, if drought conditions persist and pasture conditions do not improve during 2014/15, then livestock slaughter may be higher than currently forecast, putting further downward pressure on prices and causing herd and flock numbers to fall below expected levels,” ABARES says.