By Simon Wragg

BEEF prices took a slight knock last week when the overall GB value slipped to 87.9p/kg liveweight, a fall of 1.5p/kg on the week, against competition from an increase in lamb numbers entering the meat market.

Fluctuations must be taken in context, says the Meat & Livestock Commission. The two sectors compete for sales and while cattle numbers have been reasonably constant, the sheep sector is now working up to the seasonal high backed by some in-store promotions by leading retailers.

But beef finishers have little cause for complaint. Returns from sales have been uncharacteristically steady at 88p/kg across the summer, buoyed up by a possible swing in the number taking advantage of this years low grain prices, suggests MLCs Duncan Sinclair.

Feeding cereals gives producers a greater degree of certainty and control compared with grass-finished cattle. Prices also havent suffered from the availability of intervention beef which was a feature of last years market.

There is little evidence that the emptying of the last commodity beef from EU stores is sucking in imports. Retail sales of mince are up to about 42% of the all beef purchases suggesting abattoirs have increased the volume of domestic forequarter cuts to supply the market, albeit at a low price.

There is concern, however, that the quality of some grass-fed stock is affecting the national picture. Newark-based auctioneer Paul Gentry says some cattle coming forward for the prime ring are showing signs of losing their backs.

Prices will suffer, but look at the best end and we are still getting bids up to 120-130p/kg for best heifers and steers. Averages would be about 98p/kg throughout.

The national price average could be undermined again this week but for a very different reason. Threat of fuel shortages affected some prime markets earlier in the week. Ludlows Monday market experienced a slow trade, says auctioneer Richard Gwilym.

Some buyers are hesitant, not knowing whether theyll be able to move meat when theyve got it back to the plant, he says. That reason, and a relative increase in the number of stock coming in under finished as good grazing dries up locally, combined to ease averages by about 2p/kg.

Meat traders are hopeful the supply chain wont be disrupted if demonstrations are eased. Larger outfits suggest they have enough diesel for at least a week. Supermarket trade appears to be normal; people still need to shop even if that means walking to a store, says Midland Meat Packers Shaun Baker.