The high prices traditionally paid for store cattle – when compared with their value as primestock – has always been a seasonal talking point. But as prices spiral by more than £100 a head compared with last year and demand for prime cattle reaches fever pitch, it looks like this spring’s trade is going to get even dearer as supplies tighten and finishers prepare for a boom.

Expensive feed, which is likely to carry on rising, will continue to take a sizeable chunk out of prime cattle profit and there’s the fear that a price hike in the UK beef market could see supermarkets sourcing cheaper supplies from South America. But as prime cattle hit 212p/kg liveweight last week and markets reported the highest demand since the pre-BSE trade of 1996, it is a situation that’s wafting the flames of a market already on fire.

Although throughput at markets in the south west has been marginally up in recent weeks, it’s an unseasonal trend that buyers who still need cattle should regard with caution.

Greenslade Taylor Hunt auctioneer Robert Venner does not think there will be the usual late spring flush of cattle. “We had 890 stores through the ring last week with no shortage of takers for big, strong steers at £900 apiece. But I think numbers could start to fall off soon.

“Our overall average for steers is heading towards £800, with heifers at well over £600. Cattle that were making £420-£450 before Christmas are now at £550-£580,” he added.

All auctioneers are aware of the fragility of the market, which is rising against a situation of minimal imports of foreign beef.

But David Beaumont of Hopes Auction Mart, Wigton, Cumbria, said it’s not easy to forecast the future.

“Finishers who bought stores last autumn have made a good margin if they’re selling cattle now. Feed is dear, but they’re back buying more cattle. Store cattle vendors are doing well too, but many heifers that would have been kept back for breeding are being cashed-in through the store ring.

“It’s a supply situation that’s being compounded by the prospect of few beef-cross calves coming from the dairy herd, so it looks like supplies of UK beef cattle will continue to be tight for some time,” he said.

Store bullocks have been comfortably making £800 a head with the best up to £950 at Wigton, while eastwards into the Yorkshire Dales auctioneer Stephen Walker of Leyburn has been finding it easy to sell good steers at £700-£800 on a market he describes as “on fire”.

The increasing scarcity of top-notch short-term finishing cattle – and the hundreds of forward stores taken out of Cumbria recently and bound for finishing in Ireland – is further tightening supplies of older animals in the north and making long-keep cattle look even more expensive. Buyers facing up to 10 months of finishing costs are confidently giving £650-£750 a head.

Store cattle numbers were down at Ludlow market where McCartneys auctioneer Michael Thomas said current entries of 850 head a week were about 15% lower than last year.

“Some traditional store sellers have decided to keep cattle and finish them. There’s plenty of silage around and finished prices are an incentive. Spring grass is late and the grazing men haven’t started buying yet, but like many other markets I think there’s going to be fewer stores around as we move into the main spring selling period.”