By Simon Wragg

FALLING numbers of prime cattle have helped increase beef prices, but the trade still faces stiff competition from imports from Ireland and other EU countries.

Poor weather over last weekend saw a slight fall in the number of stock forwarded at many livestock centres, report auctioneers.

This – and the change in imported supplies – has helped add between 0.5-1.1p/kg to averages for Mondays trade compared with the previous week.

According to Meat & Livestock Commission figures that puts steers at 93.4p/kg (up from 92.9p) and heifers 92.11p/kg (a rise from 90.9p).

“Values here are up 2p/kg,” reports John Uffold of McCartneys Ludlow-based venue.

This week heavy bullocks went on to average 95p/kg and heavy heifers 94p/kg.

“The bad weather up north has certainly helped limit numbers and theres less Irish beef coming in; you dont need much change to alter things.”

At Exeter, auctioneers report buyers are now looking to heavier weights as numbers tighten. That leaves some lighter stock at a disadvantage.

However, the better end of steers achieved 94p/kg with prime sorts averaging 85.6p/kg.

It was a similar story at Carlisle, with auctioneers achieving an average of just under 98p/kg for prime steers with plainer types back at 82p/kg. Heifers and young bulls levelled at 96-97p/kg.

Future prospects look brighter. EU-wide figures suggest production could fall by 1% this year to 7.5 million tonnes.

Combined with a small increase in consumption, that could see a fall in the EUs self-sufficiency of beef to its lowest level for a number of years, suggest officials at the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia.

In the short-term, imports from the Republic of Ireland continue to act as a brake on the UK market, however overall cattle numbers are expected to fall by 5%.

Longer term, production in the UK is expected to rise in the second half of the year.

The ending of the calf processing aid scheme last summer has seen a notable increase in the number of male calves being reared on.

Irish supplies will still feature strongly, but overall imports will only increase marginally, in-line with MLC predictions.

At the same time, UK intervention stocks of beef are almost too small to be significant, with less than 700t being left available by tender.