England’s suckler herd has grown for the first time in five years, according to new figures.
The December 2015 livestock census showed there were 700,000 cows in the beef breeding herd — 0.7% more than the year before.
The herd had shrunk 5% between 2011 and 2014, as most specialist suckler businesses struggled to make money before subsidies.
But farmers may have been encouraged by strong store cattle prices, which were well ahead of year-before values throughout last autumn.
Yearling and forward store prices have kept creeping up in the past three years, despite sharper volatility in the finished trade.
National Beef Association chief executive Chris Mallon said the suckler herd growth was likely in established herds, not new ones.
He said most finishers felt there was a lack of good-quality, beef-bred cattle, especially continental-crosses. This meant there was a competitive market for those animals, even when finished prices had fallen.
“We were short of supply of beef-type cattle and that message has been feeding through [to suckler producers] over the past couple of years,” Mr Mallon said.
AHDB Beef and Lamb said the beef herd figures were more positive. But it was too speculative to call an end to the long-term decline, as support payments would keep falling and make farmers more reliant on market returns.
“Given the fact that lack of profitability is still going to be an underlying issue, any notable expansion in the suckler herd does still seem fairly unlikely,” the levy board’s report said.
The English dairy herd carried on its rising trend, despite the collapse in milk prices.
Breeding cow numbers rose for the fifth year running, increasing 1.2% to 1.18m head.
The number of dairy cattle under two years also jumped 3%, which suggests the expansion is likely to last.
England’s sheep flock has also grown, though the figures have to be treated carefully.
The breeding flock rose 4% on the year to 6.6 million head, but only after the 2014 figure was revised down by 2%. This is the second year where numbers have been changed dramatically from early estimates.
A bigger flock in December means lamb supplies should be plentiful throughout this year year, which could weigh on prices.
The number of “other sheep and lambs” was also up 1%, suggesting a big carryover of lambs into 2016.