22nd March 2013

Tight supply of prime cattle underpinning producer prices

Defra slaughter statistics for February show UK processors have killed 2% fewer cattle than last year, which follows on from a 3% decline during January, according to Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

However, the pressure on numbers has been greater in England and Wales than Scotland.

“During February, Scottish abattoirs are reported to have killed 1% fewer prime cattle than they did last year while throughputs in abattoirs in England and Wales fell by 4%,” observed Stuart Ashworth, QMS Head of Economics Services. This is, however, a modest improvement from the 6% decline in the kill in January in England and Wales.

“The tightness in numbers is aggravated by lower carcase weights.  During February the estimated carcase weights of clean cattle across the UK were just over 2% lower than last year,” said Mr Ashworth.

“Combine the two elements and supplies of beef from prime cattle during February were 4.3% lower than last year. However there has been an increase in cull cow slaughterings, compared to a year ago, and as a result the overall production of beef in the UK during February was some 2.5% lower than last year.”

At the same time as domestic supplies have tightened, said Mr Ashworth, most of the multiple retailers are seeking to minimise the damage of the horsemeat scandal by reaffirming their commitment to beef from the UK and Ireland.

“Adding further to the market mix has been increased export activity. The latest trade data shows UK beef exports in January have increased by 15% and, although there was a small increase in imports, the net effect of the trade was a decline of 600 tonnes of beef on the home market, coupled with the fall in domestic production,” he added.

The current supply and demand balance is therefore favouring producers.  However, the publication of the December census results for the UK does show an increase of 1.8% in the number of male cattle between one and two years old and an increase of 2.2% in the number of heifers in this age group.

“Even if a number of these heifers are intended for breeding, the increase in the number of one to two year old cattle does imply a modest increase in the number of cattle to be marketed in the medium term,” commented Mr Ashworth.

The sector that has benefited least from the recent increase in farmgate prices for livestock has been the pig sector.

“Despite a small increase in the past week, prices are lower than they were at the start of the year.  A quick look at slaughter statistics reveals an increase of 1% in prime pig slaughterings across the UK during January and February compared to a year ago.  However, the results of the December census suggest that this improved supply will be short-lived as they reveal a decline of 3% in the number of fattening pigs on farms which is consistent with the reduced number of sows,” said Mr Ashworth.

The census did, however, report a significant increase in the number of gilts intended for breeding which may mean that the decline in UK sow numbers that has been occurring for an extended period may be coming to an end.

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