By Jeremy Hunt
Forecasts of higher prime cattle prices have come as a welcome relief to beef finishers, who held their nerve this autumn and at some suckled calf sales paid over £100 a head more than last year.
And with Christmas primestock shows about to get underway, auctioneers expect the early signs of more confidence in finished cattle to trigger some lively trading to meet the seasonal demand for beef.
The good grass growing summer meant suckled calves at autumn sales were well grown and often heavier. Even though some fixtures did see a small reduction in average prices, most auctioneers say many buyers were getting better value and more kilos for their cash.
While bidders were clearly keeping a strict lid on just how much they were prepared to spend, some sale rings were readily shifting top quality steer calves at £1,000-£1,100. It was this trade that lifted averages by £50-£100.
West Country auctioneer, Simon Alford of Kivells, described this autumn’s suckled calf trade as “very dear” with prices up by around £100 a head to average £715 for steers and £645 for heifers.
“All the way through the season the trade has been strong, particularly for the spring-born suckled calves. Buyers have shown great resilience and were buying suckled calves on a falling finished trade – but gradually prices for finished cattle are starting to improve. This week we saw Farm Assured “in spec” cattle making over £2 a kilo at Exeter.”
Carlisle auctioneer, David Tomlinson of Harrison and Hetherington, said returns for some of the best suckled calves this autumn have been “phenomenal”.
“We’ve had some sales where prices were up by £120 a head on the year. Yes, there have been some sales were prices stayed on a par with the year before, but on the whole there’s been an increase of around £50-£80.”
At Welshpool Livestock Sales’ main weanling fixture of the season, prices were up £27 a head for spring-born heifers calves, which averaged £682.50, but the steer average of £780 was down £40.
“When you look at what’s been happening in the beef trade the overall demand for weanlings was good. Store cattle prices in general have remained pretty firm too,” commented auctioneer Keith Davies.
“Two days before the weanling sale we had 1,100 head to sell on a trade that wasn’t too far away from the previous year, with strong stores making up to £1,200.”
While last year’s pre-Christmas trade for finished cattle was disappointing, this year is already showing a seasonal lift – and one that finishers hope will be maintained.
According to EBLEX the year-end improvement in returns for finishers should be part of a trend that will continue into 2015.
EBLEX analyst Debbie Butcher says supplies of beef cattle coming on to the market will be tighter during 2015 and it’s expected to have a direct impact on finished prices.
“We are now in a much more positive position than we have been for most of 2014. The peak price levels of last year were unsustainable, but as far as consumers are concerned we’re now seeing more being spent on beef even though consumption is slightly down,” says Debbie.
Since August EBLEX figures show that finished cattle prices have increased by 20p a kilo and slaughterings are up by over 15,000 head.