20 December 1996

Slow uptake for beef calf cull scheme

By Tim Relf

OPINION remains split as to how many beef-bred calves will be slaughtered under the processing scheme.

The Meat and Livestock Commission says that up to 40% of eligible calves could, at certain times of year, be destined for slaughter. Between July and September, for example, calf supplies tend to be high, putting pressure on open market prices.

Early indications, however, show very limited uptake. In the first week of December, it accounted for under 1000 such animals.

How different to the dairy calf programme which, in the same week, culled 11,856 head, taking the cumulative total to about 385,000.

Auctioneers say just the poorer beef sorts – typically of Angus, Hereford or Channel Island breeding – are being killed. And most put the uptake rate at less than 10% of the total eligible.

From the rostrum at Salisbury mart, John Bundy reckons people are now keeping stock for rearing, taking a long-term view of beef prices.

A bottom has been put in the trade at about £120, he says. And this has had a knock-on effect on heifer calf values. Some are making £80 which, not so long ago, would have been nearer £15, says Mr Bundy.

At Lanark, auctioneer David Gray says animals are also being kept by over-quota dairy farmers to use milk supplies. He, too, is predicting a shortage of beef. "It could almost become a delicacy."

The switch away from the use of beef bulls in the dairy herd this autumn will limit supplies, he suggests. Some of the cows which have been slaughtered were in calf, too.

Last Monday saw most good sorts at Lanark over £200, with the Christmas show champion at £250. But despite the firmer values, about 40% of eligible calves are entering the scheme at Lanark, reckons Mr Gray.

But at Sturminster Newton, the figure remains nearer 10%, according to auctioneer Charles Matthews. Not a fan of the scheme, he dubs it "of more help to the Treasury, than farmers".

Interest in heifer calves for rearing has increased, however, with the scheme giving an uplift to prices. "Once people have acquired 90 steers – and so filled their subsidy allowance – they may look to heifers which, even without subsidy, still look good value."

And rearer-buyers could be shopping in bigger numbers in the new year, suggests Gloucester auctioneer John Pullin. The £7 drop in the scheme price after Jan 1 is likely to be reflected across the board, he says.n