By James Garner
CATTLE prices fell last week as the market reacted nervously to Frances BSE problems and plummeting beef consumption.
The Meat and Livestock Commission confirms that both deadweight and liveweight values fell, with prices for prime cattle at auction dropping 0.95p to 85.55p/kg on the week.
Despite concerns over the beef market in France, there is still evidence that the main reason for lower prices is a shortage of quality beasts, says the organisation.
Premium cattle – E- and R-grade carcasses and a fat class of 2-4L – are still making about 100p/kg and have bucked recent price falls.
Prime cattle, too, are also showing a similar trend.
Both categories compare favourably to price falls for poorer steer cattle, graded as “other”, which fell 2.4p during the final two weeks of October, says the MLC.
This is confirmed by many auctioneers, who have said for weeks that cattle coming forward off grass alone this autumn, are poorly finished.
These cattle – short of time and flesh – are hard to sell, says Newarks Paul Gentry.
The only value in the market is for overweight cattle above 750kg.
“These are not fancy prices. Nor are strong supermarket spec cattle that arent FABBL registered.”
But good quality cattle were still selling at 110-120p/kg on Monday, and “square cattle” also sold well, he says.
MLCs chief beef economist Duncan Sinclair believes cattle lost more condition before they were housed than many producers thought, reporting that some abattoirs reckon “rain washed the flesh off cattle”.
In spite of terrible weather in recent weeks, numbers being sold remain strong, and were up on the week, says Mr Sinclair.
“There are more cattle around this year than last, which isnt unexpected,” he says.
However, that increase, coupled with a reported climb in imports, puts the traditional pre-Christmas beef price rise in doubt.
“The unease in France is not helping the tone of the market,” says Mr Sinclair.
And, he says, there is a possibility that Irish beef, destined for the French market, has already been diverted to the UK.
It is too early to confirm this, as import data is unavailable, but the home market is distinctly nervous – a view shared by auctioneers.
Mr Gentry says he is terrified of the French situation.
“If you cast your mind back to 20 March, 1996, beef consumption in this country plummeted.
“Reports are that the same thing may be happening in France and it doesnt take a genius to work out that Frances imports are likely to come to the UK, because of our strong currency.”
In his view, the UK should be far stronger in resisting imports of lower quality beef than that produced in this country.
Ironically, given the French ban on UK beef, it seems that any fallout from their own BSE dilemma may result in the lid being kept on British beef prices in the traditionally buoyant festive market.