9 January 1998

Cattle prices firm despite fears of fall

By Tim Relf

By Tim Relf

CATTLE prices have held firm, despite fears of a New Year fall.

Mondays average for all cattle at Meat and Livestock sample markets was 93p/kg, down just 0.5p/kg.

"Quite surprising for January," says Somerset farmer Fran Evans of the demand for beef. With calf prices having fallen, theres now "light at the end of the tunnel".

And shes confident of making money on the recently bought Continental heifer calves which cost £17 apiece. Female stock, she says, is far cheaper than steers – its value not inflated by the prospect of subsidy. "Always buy what someone else doesnt want."

Heifers also finish quicker, hopefully marketable in 16-18 months. "Give them high quality feed and get the meat on them, not the fat. If you feed them right, you can hardly tell the difference between a boy and a girl once theyre on the hook.

"Rolled barley costing £119/t, compared with £150/t this time last year, will also help margins."

But cattle reaching the finished market at present are still losing money – about £60 a head, reckons Mrs Evans, compared with £200 a head last year.

In auction markets, meanwhile, auctioneers were reporting stronger buying interest earlier this week, as demand increased after the Christmas slowdown.

From Norwich, Mike Gamble says, together with the smaller entry of cattle, this helped maintain values at pre-Christmas levels. "Traders will only buy if they have empty fridges. They dont want stocks."

But he remains cautious and is expecting no increase in values. "Imports continue to overhang the market."

There are also too many under-finished heifers offered, as farmers sell them early to prevent dentition rules consigning them to the over-30-month scheme, says Mr Gamble.

At York, auctioneer James Stephenson says while the talk among butchers on Monday was of a good Christmas – with beef well sold – they were only prepared to buy at the same price, or slightly less, than the previous week.

Heifers, at 99p/kg, averaged 4p more than steers, with a strong demand for 450kg carcasses favouring the smaller female animals.

The bull trade was quite buoyant, says Mr Stephenson. This reflects tight supplies, down about 25% on a year ago, as the calf slaughter scheme takes its toll.

Beef could be in shorter supply in the months ahead, predicts Mr Stephenson, partly because the 30-month age ceiling on marketings means stock is now sold at lighter carcass weights.

"Some people that, in the past, would not have considered marketing animals under 650kg are now selling them between 500kg and 550kg."

But as to whether this means prices can be expected to improve, Mr Stephenson says: "It only takes one stroke of the pen from Dr Cunningham (farm minister) for the whole scene to be muti-lated."