21st March 2014

Census results indicate beef and sheep supplies will continue to be tight

The results of the Scottish December census published this week give a clear indication that supplies of beef and lamb look likely to remain tight for the foreseeable future, according to Stuart Ashworth, Head of Economics Services with Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

Declines were reported in the numbers of animals in the cattle herd and sheep flock, though there were some encouraging signs of some growth in sow and gilt numbers in the Scottish pig herd.

“While this indication of continuing tight supplies will not be welcomed by the processing sector, the news may be better received by producers given the census results continue to show they will hold some strength in the market place as domestic supplies are likely to remain very tight. However, with consumers continuing to watch their pennies very carefully, supplies may not be as tight as some would like to think,” said Mr Ashworth.

The results for the cattle sector help to explain why the prime cattle market has shown some weakness over the past quarter, although it is now beginning to stabilise. 

The number of male cattle over two years old on farms in December increased by just short of 10% and they will now be coming onto the market, observed Mr Ashworth. Similarly, male cattle of one to two  years old edged up by about 0.5% so the current market, particularly when increased carcase weights are taken into account, is slightly better supplied than it has been for a while. However, this slight improvement in supply is likely to be short lived as the census shows a decline of some 3.5% in the number of cattle under one year old on Scottish farms in December.

“On the longer-term horizon, the 0.7% decline in beef cows with offspring and a 13% decline in beef females over two years old without offspring does not suggest much prospect of a larger beef calf crop in 2014 and that will impact on production through into 2016.  A modest increase in the Scottish dairy herd will do little to offset the decline in the beef herd,” observed Mr Ashworth.

Given the challenges faced by the sheep sector from mid-2012 to mid-2013, he said it was perhaps little surprise that the Scottish breeding flock in autumn 2013 is reported to have fallen by two percent. “A reduction in the number of hoggs intended for breeding population by almost five percent suggests limited prospect of any improvement in breeding sheep numbers in autumn 2014,” Mr Ashworth added.

“Although scanning results have been mixed, a more open spring should lead to some improvement in the number of lambs reared and the 2014 lamb crop may prove to be little changed from last year. In the short term, though, the census showed a decline of almost six per cent in hoggs intended for slaughter which will undoubtedly mean limited availability between now and June when the Scottish new season lambs begin to reach the market.”

Results from the December census in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland show similar trends to Scotland in respect of both the cattle herd and sheep flock.  They reveal a decline in breeding sheep numbers, a slight increase in cattle over one year old followed by a significant decline in cattle under one year old.  While the English census reported similar trends among the cattle population, slightly more dairy cattle but fewer beef cattle and a declining population of cattle under one year old, it did report an increase in the breeding sheep flock.

Meanwhile, observed Mr Ashworth, the Scottish sow herd is reported to be marginally larger and a substantial increase in gilts intended for breeding suggests some expansion in the sow herd in the short term. 

However, the number of slaughter pigs was reported to be 11% lower than last year reflecting the increase in cross border trade in weaner pigs following the closure of the Broxburn abattoir.

Sign up for the latest news and views