30th October 2020

Historic calving profile reflected in current prime cattle market movements

During October, Scottish cattle finishers have seen prices some 13% higher than a year ago although they have drifted lower in recent weeks. According to the latest market commentary from Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), a contributory factor to falling price is an increase in the volume of cattle reaching abattoirs.

September, in particular, saw an exceptional decline in prime cattle slaughtering of more than 10% compared with the same month last year  but by the end of October weekly slaughter numbers had increased to a  similar level to a year ago.

“While the number of prime cattle reaching Scottish abattoirs may have recovered, the volume of beef produced has not recovered as quickly with average carcase weights remaining lower than last year,” said Stuart Ashworth, Director of Economic Services for QMS. 

Mr Ashworth notes that through August and September, BCMS data suggests that prime cattle have been brought to market around 6-10 days younger than last year.

“Historically prime cattle slaughter age gets younger in the final quarter as increased numbers are drawn for the peak spring calving period eighteen months ago.  Scottish calf registrations in the first half of 2019 were similar to a year earlier, while registrations in the second half of 2018 were significantly lower.

“The significant squeeze on slaughter numbers through August and September reflects these reduced calvings in late 2018 and the recovery in numbers in late October reflects the calvings in spring 2019.  Consequently, this would suggest that slaughterings over the next quarter will be similar to last year, although a continuation in the trend to lower carcase weights would result in a small reduction in beef produced,” said Mr Ashworth.

Mr Ashworth notes one feature of recent slaughter data is the growth in heifer slaughtering. 

“By the end of September slaughter of beef sired females had grown just over 2% in Scotland while beef sired male slaughterings were unchanged. 

“With the suckler herd showing a decline of 0.7% in the June census, this meant there would be some reduced requirement for replacement heifers needed to maintain herd size.” 

However, the pattern of slaughtering and calf registrations suggests that prime stock slaughter numbers are also influenced by the continued use of sexed semen in the dairy herd, allowing increased numbers of beef sired cattle to be produced from these herds. 

“Calf registrations from the first eight months of 2020 shows this trend in the dairy sector continuing as dairy sired female calf registrations have increased, while dairy sired male registrations have reduced,” said Mr Ashworth. 

Meanwhile beef sired registrations have increased in 2020, although the suckler cow numbers have declined. 

“It is unlikely that trends in the dairy herd can explain all of the movement in beef calf registrations, which were particularly strong in February and March; indeed these two months of 2020 are the only months to show increases in total calf registrations in Scotland so far this year. 

“Taking into consideration the reduced calf registrations in late 2019, this may suggest a further move towards spring calving suckler herds. Equally, it may also be improved productivity within the suckler herds with more calves being reared per 100 cows in the beef herd, supporting calf registrations while overall cow numbers decline as reported in the June census,” concluded Mr Ashworth.

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