Calf slaughter up 20% as costs plague rearers

A worrying rise in slaughter calf numbers shows the cost pressure rearers are under and the continued challenges posed by smaller-stature, spring-born youngstock.

More than 23,000 calves were slaughtered for processing and export in the first quarter of 2023, a 25% increase on the corresponding period in 2022.

This is against a backdrop of elevated milk powder costs as energy prices remain sky high.

Many farms are reporting paying more than £50 for a 25kg bag of powder.

See also: Tight global picture suggests £5/kg beef price could stay

The stark Defra figures show a 20% year-on-year rise for March slaughterings, which saw 11,400 calves taken early .

March slaughter figure compared with later in the year (2019-2022)


March slaughter figure

Average monthly slaughter figure from April to December













This is the highest killing month since March 2020 and will be seen as disappointing after a reduction in calves being slaughtered, thanks to milk buyer policies and the GB Dairy Calf Strategy.

NFU chief livestock adviser John Royle said: “It might be inevitable that smaller-stature animals from the dairy herd are not reared for beef.

“What has been mentioned is that, for these calves to be placed, they have to come to the beef rearer for almost nothing or at very little cost.”

Quality is key

Calf trade generally remains steady around the UK and is back on the past two years. AHDB figures show prices are back on both 2022 and 2021.

Calf prices (calves up to three weeks old) have fallen year-on-year since 2021

Calf type

January to May 2021

January to May 2022

January to May (to 22 April 2023)

Continental-cross bull

£225 (£193-£238)

£188 (£148-£224)

£141 (£115-£164)

Holstein-Friesian bull

£40 (£30-£47)

£32 (£23-£45)

£29 (£21-£42)

Cost pressures have forced many farmers to sell calves earlier to minimise outlay on rearing costs, so this may be limiting prices, say auctioneers. 

Elwyn Thomas, calf auctioneer for Nock Deighton at Carmarthen market, said the smaller-stature dairy cows, even if sired by a British Blue, had very marginal calves.

“They don’t get to the weights of a Holstein-cross,” he said.

Processing calves had typically made £4-£12 a head. This was for small calves out of cross-breds and poor Holstein calves.

Better Holsteins made £20-£60 a head, of which some would be processed, he added.

“Quality matters greatly. There are framier Holsteins that make £50-£100, and Friesians make £70-£110, though there aren’t many of these here. A good Charolais bull made £450 recently and a lot of continentals make £280 a head or more.”