By Farmers Weekly staff

THE predicted flood of prime cattle hitting markets in early March has not happened.

And the marginal upturn in prices can, say auctioneers, be sustained for several weeks.

Finishers may now see a firming of the beef trade from late May into mid-summer as the expected shortage of cattle has an impact, according to comments from marts this week.

The 182 prime cattle forward at Newark on Monday produced an average of 114p/kg for premium steers and heifers.

The overall average was 99p/kg, with heifers dominating at 131 head and selling to 134.5p/kg. Auctioneer Paul Gentry said the “whoosh” in extra cattle numbers had not materialised.

“We have not seen more cattle coming forward because finishers have been bitten twice before at this time of year, and they have become more cautious and are more orderly in their marketing.

“A few weeks ago, I would have predicted cattle to be making 10p less a kilo than they are now. Producers are coping with these prices and are making just a modest profit,” said Mr Gentry.

Many markets in the north-west have also failed to see the increase in the numbers of prime cattle. Although finishers were expected to grasp the first opportunity to sell stock as they came off retention, there appear to be fewer in the pipeline than many anticipated.

Chris Dodds who sells prime cattle at Penrith, Cumbria, reckons supply and demand is just about on balance. Penriths weekly market drew an entry of 155 head last week – three less than the same week in 1998. The average price for steers and heifers was 95p/kg.

“That was up about 5p a kilo on the week before, but I dont think it is going to go on rising. A sudden rush of stock on to the market would undoubtedly bring prices back.

“The big feeding men have reduced their numbers dramatically and, whereas the north-west has traditionally seen a lot of beef cattle produced from the dairy herd, the calf processing scheme has undoubtedly removed huge numbers of potential cattle from the system.”

Trade was also boosted in the first two months of this year as buyers replenished stocks after the Christmas period, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission.

February levels got a boost on the back of higher demand for forequarters by the manufacturing trade. In the four weeks to 7 February, retail sales of beefburgers were more than 20% up on the same period in 1998.