Expected suckled calf slump is here
SUCKLED calf prices have slumped, with buyers wary of spending money.
Not that many have got money to spend anyway: Finished cattle were making under 80p/kg lw this week and returns from sheep and grain remain in the doldrums.
As the sale season gears up, suckled calves are changing hands for £100/head less than last year in some areas.
"The most depressing sale I have ever sold cattle at," says Dennis Hunt, manager of Horsen Farm, Simonsbath after last weeks auction at Cutcombe, Somerset.
His heifers were making from 48p to 58p/kg. The steers, offered with all subsidies unclaimed in a bid to "entice more buyers", made from 105p to 114p/kg.
"I came home very disappointed," he says. "I usually enjoy taking quality there and seeing them sold."
The trouble is, says Mr Hunt, the finished cattle trade is lacklustre, leaving farmers wary about buying stock to fatten. "People are afraid to gamble."
Many of the people with stock to sell, meanwhile, are unable to delay selling – even if they wanted to. Housing space is limited and cows and sheep often get first call.
"Its a long winter here on the moor. We have to think twice about what we can keep."
Overall, steers and heifers averaged £250 at the Cutcombe offering last Wednesday, says auctioneer Peter Huntley. As to how that compared with last year? "I havent dared look," he says.
Contributing to the price drop was the smaller size of many of the animals on offer. "Its been too wet for everything," says Mr Huntley. "The lambs arent doing – and you can see it in the cattle, too."
Among the heifers, the stronger stock was in more demand, he adds. Creep feeding paid off in some cases, with a few extra customers for the 300kg-plus sorts.
At St Boswells, Borders, auctioneer Jack Clark reckons Aberdeen Angus calves are making a premium, with the end-product worth more. His comments follow last Thursdays offering, where bullocks averaged 106.5p/kg (£438/head), compared with 121.5p (£516) last year.
The heifers at St Boswells levelled 67p/kg (£242/head); last autumn saw them at 90.3p/kg and £305.
Duncan Sinclair, Meat and Livestock Commission economist, dubs such drops inevitable.
"You just need to look at the way the finished price has moved."
Prime cattle are now making 80p/kg, compared with about 96p/kg this time last year. A 550kg steer will, therefore, gross about £80 less. "Animals are now being bought at a price where there is a greater potential for making money," he adds.
"Suckled calf buyers have lost money for the last two years and they cant afford to do it again."
• For a picture round-up of a big West Country calf auction, see page 38.
Seeing red…suckled calf sellers have been disappointed to see prices tumble from the levels of last year. But it was inevitable, say some commentators, as buyers look to get them cheap – or not at all.