23 August 2002

Livestock industry decline continues

By James Garner

ENGLISH livestock numbers fell again this year, confirming that the downward trend in production has continued.

The decline across all sectors was widely predicted and there were few surprises in DEFRAs provisional results in its June census, considering that foot-and-mouth devastated the industry last year.

The biggest single drop in productivity has been seen in the pig industry. However, the Meat and Livestock Commission was expecting sow numbers to fall further than the 11% census figure, and believed this would be reflected later this year.

Independent consultant Peter Crichton agreed. "Sow slaughterings have been at a higher rate in the last few months, running at 6000 to 7000/week – there are more culls going into the system.

"Its not very good for the industry and, with autumn prices not looking great, more people are getting out.

"There is the supply and demand argument that tighter supply will boost prices, but big retailers want a large core supply to rely on, which for them is another reason to look abroad."

He said that there would inevitably be a knock-on affect on the processing industry and more abattoirs would close.

"The weekly kill is only 180,000-190,000, compared with 310,000 four years ago."

Beef production has also suffered a marked decline, with the breeding herd shrinking by 5%. "Its possibly higher than we anticipated," said Duncan Sinclair, MLC beef economist.

He added that the fall in productive cow numbers was in line with predictions as more farmers claimed premium on unproductive heifers. But the figures also pointed to a big increase in in-calf heifers, with those originally destined for slaughter last year being retained for breeding, due to the F&M crisis.

"Some farmers beef herds are in a two-to-three-year transition as they try to get back to the type of cattle they want to keep on farm. Generally, it points to a tight market for the rest of the year – the number of potential slaughter animals is well back."

Although there were no real surprises on the dairy side, with the breeding herd showing a 2% contraction, Mr Sinclair believed this disguised a bigger drop in cow numbers that would be revealed later in the year.

Following the trend, the national sheep flock has fallen by 4% with the number of lambs under one-year-old 6% lower than last year.

"There are nearly 3m fewer lambs this year than pre-F&M levels." But despite tight supply, the MLCs Jane Connor expected a seasonal slip in prices in September and October. &#42