Struggle for survival revealed in wide-ranging beef survey

Some 66% of beef producers will have difficulty in surviving without the farm subsidy – and only 33% reckon their beef enterprise makes a profit every year. This is according to an exclusive Farmers Weekly online survey of beef farmers in the UK and Ireland.

The survey, which attracted more than 1,000 responses, also showed that beef prices and input costs are seen as the greatest challenges to beef enterprises over the next two years.

Furthermore, when asked which factors posed a threat to their beef enterprises, 78% of respondents cited government policy – higher than media demonisation of ruminants (71%) and the price of variable inputs (62%) (see “Which of the following do you believe pose a threat to your beef enterprise?”).


Results showed that a devolved agricultural policy was not working for most beef farmers – according to 71%, it is better managed at a UK level (England 77%, Scotland 44%, Wales 84%, and Northern Ireland 32%).

Only 30% were confident their devolved nation’s agricultural policy would help deliver on biodiversity, landscape and food.

Comments about the greatest challenges in the next two years included:

  • Covering cost of production [with] bovine TB
  • Cattle prices not being high enough to justify continuing as a finishing unit
  • Tenancy security
  • Input costs versus output sale prices
  • High input costs – making forage, buying straw, fuel, machinery
  • Bovine TB restrictions.


When asked what they saw as the biggest opportunity for their beef enterprises, respondents were most likely to say they did not see much opportunity for them over the next two years (13%).

However, 8% saw direct sales to consumers via beef boxes, restaurants and farm shops as an opportunity.

A further 7% thought a decline in the national herd would help demand, and similar numbers anticipated increased demand for high-quality or grass-fed beef.

As one farmer wrote: “Better meat less often.” Another thought their best opportunity was: “Producing a quality product with minimum environmental impact. The story needs to be told.”

Managing volatility

Despite their concerns, beef farmers have been responding to challenging times by increasing their herd size, cutting costs and changing how they sell cattle.

Of those who took part in the survey, 36% had grown their herd over the past five years – the average increase by 45% – and 49% of this sector believed they could cope “easily” without farm subsidy.

A further 33% of farmers had maintained cattle numbers, while 25% had fewer cows. But according to 6% of farmers, the cows were going.

Nearly all those responding – 90% – reported managing cost and price volatility, with cuts in bought-in feed and fertiliser their top two strategies. (See “In which of the following ways have you managed volatility of beef/cattle prices and costs?”)


Making more from grassland was also a priority, with 53% saying their feeding system was predominantly pasture based, particularly for suckler calf producers (65%).

Only 15% of respondents were feeding a total mixed ration.

Others had reduced machinery use and started to outwinter stock, while some ticked the “other” box and said they were “not finishing to reduce overwinter feed costs” or had a second job/were working off-farm. (See “In which of the following ways have you managed volatility of beef/cattle prices and costs?”).

Yet 65% said they were unlikely to join a marketing co-op, compared with 31% who were likely to do so, and 4% who were already members.

Beef sales

Although 36% had not changed how they sold cattle in the past five years, the rest had switched.

They cited a variety of methods ranging from 20% selling more deadweight and less liveweight, to 18% selling stores younger, 11% diversifying into direct sales, and 8% branching out into sales of breeding stock.

For 58% of respondents, cattle were marketed mostly deadweight, with most of the specialist finishers taking this route (81% of those surveyed); 21% of farmers sold mostly liveweight and 20% a combination of both.

Almost half (47%) worked with one sole processor – particularly smaller suckler herds (1-49 cows), where 83% said they worked with a single company.

A further 9% were selling to one processor on contract. Working with two processors was done by 28% of farmers, while 13% used three or more – and this was the top method for larger herds of 400-plus cattle (27%).

When asked whether they would be in favour of processors fixing the price at the start of the year at a minimum level, and demand driving any increase thereafter, 54% said yes.

Measuring performance

Surprisingly, although most (80%) said they were recording KPIs, just 20% were using data capture tools to do so.

Farmers were either not interested (38%) or found them too expensive (35%), with 25% citing an unstable internet connection (see “Which KPIs do you record and how?”).


Calving ease, daily liveweight gain and growth rates were the top three recorded KPIs, and methods were almost equally split between pen and paper (48%) and software (42%).

Advice and support

Farmers were most likely to discuss their beef business with their vet – cited by 63% – closely followed by friends (60%), while 52% used family meetings.

Only 5% ticked “none of the above”, while in the “other” category, people mentioned conversing in buying, benchmarking, grazing and Facebook groups, as well as with auctioneers and “respected fellow farmers”.

In businesses with 100-plus cattle and arable enterprises, staff meetings were also used to talk about beef business.

Work-life balance

Asked about time off work (see “How important to you personally are time off and holidays?”), while holidays were important for 40% of respondents, the average number of days taken in 2023 was just 10.7. The ideal number of days off came to 18.6.


Farms with more cows (500-plus), or with arable or forestry enterprises alongside cattle, took the most holiday: 14.5, 12 and 14.7 days, respectively.

Next generation

Questioned about future plans, 43% of farmers said they had a succession plan in place, and a further 20% had discussed this topic, leaving 5% “don’t know” and 31% saying they had no plan.

Specialist finishers (53%), larger herds of 400-plus cattle (55%), and bigger (200-499ha) farms (54%), were more likely to have this sorted.

Who took part?

Suckler calf producers made up most of the respondents (54%), followed by breeder finishers (39%), store growers (32%), specialist finishers (18%) and calf rearers (17%).

The mean number of suckler cows was 88 and the mean number of cattle 249 head. Respondents were farming a mean of 259ha and had an average age of 53.

Beef farming with other enterprises

Most beef enterprises (80%) were run alongside other enterprises, mostly sheep or arable, although there was a range of ventures including horse livery, dairy farming, holiday camping, turkeys and fruit.

These setups made agricultural sense, according to 49% of cases, but on 20% of farms, these other businesses subsidised the beef herd.

Family were working “part-time but unpaid” on 36% of beef farms and, on average, three people were taking a salary from the beef enterprise. (See “Which of the following regularly work on your beef enterprise?”)

Important traits in beef cattle

Growth rate was one of the most important traits in genetics/cattle, selected by 59% of survey respondents when asked for their top three traits.

This was followed by fertility (47%) and ease of fleshing off forage (47%).

Genetics and named sires scored 0%. Temperament and ease of calving came in the “other” box at 8%, which ranked alongside locomotion (8%).

And for those who buy cattle, their preferred traits were: growth rate (50%, rising to 73% among those who classed themselves as a specialist finisher), shape and conformation (48%), and ease of fleshing off forage (43%).


Survey headline findings

  • Only 33% of beef enterprises make a profit every year
  • 66% think their business will survive with difficulty without the farm subsidy
  • Government policy is seen as the biggest threat to beef enterprises
  • Greatest opportunity over the next two years? Most likely to say “none”, or through direct sales
  • Beef prices and input costs are seen as the greatest challenge to beef enterprises over the next two years
  • 90% are managing price and cost volatility; most likely by cutting fertiliser buying
  • 36% of beef farmers have grown their herd over the past five years (on average by 45%), while 33% have kept the same numbers
  • For more than 50%, feed is predominantly pasture based
  • In the past five years, 66% have changed how they sell their cattle
  • More than 50% market cattle as mostly deadweight – and most of these via one sole processor
  • 80% are recording KPIs, most likely via either pen and paper or using farm software
  • Just 20% use data capture tools on the farm – non-users cite a lack of interest and prohibitive costs
  • Farmers are most likely to discuss their beef enterprise with vets, friends and at family meetings
  • For 40%, holidays are important, yet for 20%, holidays are not currently an option
  • Respondents take about half the holiday they would ideally like
  • In 2023, on average 10.7 days of holiday were taken against an ideal of 18.6
  • 40% have a succession plan with the next generation of their family
  • 33% have no succession plan in place