21 March 1997

Its simple: Give market what it wants

Its one year on from the start of the BSE crisis and the beef industry is still in turmoil. This special feature looks at how to reduce costs and what to consider to safeguard their future. Also, what do buyers want, and how have retail markets reacted to customer concern? Edited by Emma Penny.

ALTHOUGH its an old message, market requirements – and making the best use of resources – will be crucial to the survival of beef producers.

Thats the warning from SAC beef expert Basil Lowman. "We have to produce what the home market wants. In the past we have produced peculiar things to meet overseas markets, but that has to stop."

He believes that when overseas buyers do come back to buy British beef they will want to buy what the home market requires.

"There will be one spec for 95% of the beef market. That will be for carcasses finished at a minimum of 260kg deadweight and a maximum of 340kg, largely from castrated males or females. Carcasses will have a fat class of 3-4H, and conformation score of R or better."

But there will be little incentive to produce carcasses grading at E, he believes. "Those cattle grading at E have more muscle mass than their lungs can cope with efficiently, making them more susceptible to pneumonia. Thats why its best to aim for R or U grades."

Dr Lowman also believes that beef cattle will move through fewer farms before slaughter. "There will be considerably less movement of cattle.

"Sucklers will be finished on the farm of birth, while dairy cross animals will be taken onto only one unit to be reared and finished."

Selling a beef animal costs an average of £30 a time, he warns. "Thats too much when beef prices are never going to be astronomical. Hill farmers will continue to sell animals off their farms, but theyre likely to go to only one farm for storing and finishing."

And producers who buy large store cattle depend largely on buying cheaply and selling well, a practice which is likely to become less prevalent. "Beef production rather than this type of dealing will become the norm."

Buying lighter cattle and finishing them will also mean that producers are able to take advantage of better feed conversion rates – buying an animal at 200kg rather than 400kg to finish at 600kg liveweight will give a 20% better feed conversion ratio, he says.

And better use of farm resources is vital. "If you are in the east that means lots of straw, using second quality grain and perhaps vegetable waste. In the west, it means making better use of abundant grass."

On all farms, grass will become more important. "It is the cheapest available feed. And the longer you own an animal the more use of grass you can make, reducing cost/kilo liveweight gain."

He also warns against developing a system which ensures maximum subsidy payment at the detriment of all other factors. "Its no use being inefficient and not producing what the market wants. We dont know how long subsidies will last for and its vital to aim to produce what the market wants – efficiently."

Cattle will stay on one farm from birth to slaughter – each sale cuts £30 off margins – Basil Lowman.


&#8226 Maximum carcass weight 340kg.

&#8226 Conformation R or better, few Es.

&#8226 Fat class 3-4H.

&#8226 Largely castrated males or females.

&#8226 Calf to carcass finishing on one farm.

&#8226 Better use of farm resources.