CONCERN IS mounting that prime cattle values are being undermined ahead of the seasonal peak as producers rush to qualify cattle for slaughter premium, stock continues to come off grass and what trade officials call “unfounded” allegations of imports of cheap beef persist.

Early this week slaughter markets saw averages edge back where high volumes of under-finished stock continued to diluted prime cattle prices, particularly heifers, which remained in demand, reported auctioneers.

In Scotland, Billy Stott of John Swan & Sons’ Newton St Boswells mart aired concern having seen 2p/kg wiped off this week’s clean bullock and heifer trade. “At a time when we should expect to see a rise (in prices) as the trade builds up ahead of Xmas, it is looking flat – that’s worrying.

“The High Street also looks quieter, reflected in buyers at the ringside. Notwithstanding, demand for the best animals is keen. Top-end bullocks reached 132p/kg liveweight against an average of 107p/kg.”

As more stock comes off grass entries have risen sharply for some. An extra 95 head penned this week meant John Uffold at McCartney”s Ludlow market, Shropshire, saw bull and steer averages edge back.

Several factors were affecting demand, he said, not excluding imports of cheap beef. “It’s understandable the retail end is under pressure if cheaper imports widen the gap between domestic beef prices.”

Trade officials differ in their analyses. Beef economist Duncan Sinclair of the Meat & Livestock Commission suggested more credence should be paid to consumption data than unfounded talk of mounting imports. “In the two four-week periods to Oct 10 – when beef prices fell – consumption figures show retail beef sales fell 3.8% and 4.1%, respectively.

“If we are going to see an easing of the UK economy consumers are obviously reining in spending. That is becoming apparent in the data sets. It will be something to watch in the next few weeks,” he warned.

Abattoirs – which see 80% of cattle supplied direct from farm – are offered more stock than needed, it is suggested. That could increase entries at liveweight centres if producers seek to enter cattle to qualify for slaughter premium – about £54 – before the year-end.

Although market averages have been hit, auctioneers point out that quality entries are still making good money.

Maurice Wall of J H Palmer & Sons Highbridge market, Somerset, saw this week’s consignment of Limousin heifers from one producer average 115p/kg. “The smart entries are still in demand,” he said.