27 February 1998

Store cattle stimulus but down on 97

By Tim Relf

SPRING-like weather has given store cattle prices a boost, but values are still down as much as £100 a head on last year.

Auctioneer Richard Wood at Ashford, Kent, says some farmers have turned their back on the finishing enterprise, after two years of uncertainty.

Green-carded steers of about 10 months old, are changing hands for just under £400. But heifers remain a problem. "The poorer ones, with no paperwork, are still almost impossible to shift."

With fodder cheap, some people are postponing selling stores until the autumn, says Mr Wood. "This may just be putting off a loss – but prices could improve if supplies are shorter then."

Ross Watson at Ulverston, Cumbria attributes the recent upturn in demand to "spring fever".

The prime beef trade seems to have found its base and farmers are re-stocking. "People have to have something to eat their grass, after all. They have to take a risk on something."

It is the heifers which – cheaper to feed and faster fattening – are a better option, says Mr Watson. The base in values is about £200. But a bunch of eight-month-old Limousin heifers recently made £330 at Ulverston. "Six weeks ago, you wouldnt have got £250 for them."

At Caersws, Powys, farmer Garth Williams is also opting for heifers. He recently bought a batch of 18-month-olds for £394 apiece, about £80 less than the year before. The hope is theyll be worth £500-plus when slaughtered this summer.

Any lifting of the export ban would boost trade, says Mr Williams. Plus, beef stock may be in short supply in the summer, with a lot marketed earlier than in previous years.

Tony Evans, auctioneer at Newtown, Powys, says store stock prices have dropped in response to cheaper end-product, leaving a margin once again in the finishing enterprise.

"But theres still uncertainty – unlike a few years ago, when buying store cattle was almost money in the bank."

Some farmers, meanwhile, still dont like heifers. Without the subsidy, there are "no guarantees" on returns, says Mr Evans.

"People say that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. But CID subsidy is a third at the moment."

Warmer weather has been behind the stronger demand, agrees Jeremy Eaton at Skipton mart, North Yorks. "People get a bit more confident when they can see the grass."

The more stable finished market has also helped. "People can do their sums. Theres not the wild fluctuations that there were in the autumn."