Scottish prime cattle producers have seen prices climb by 5% since the start of April, but producer prices remain 5% lower than last year, the latest analysis shows.
With the exception of February, when the kill was 6% higher than last year, Scottish abattoirs have handled very similar numbers of cattle to last year over the first quarter.
Steer numbers have, however, been lower and it is the significant increase in heifer slaughterings that has maintained slaughter volumes, analysis by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) shows.
However, during April supplies began to tighten up but the volume of beef available is being helped by increases in carcase weights of 3-4kg per animal.
“With the average Scottish carcase weight for steers creeping above 380kg, the implication is that higher numbers of steers will be falling outside the ideal retail weight limit,” said Stuart Ashworth, QMS Director of Economics Services.
“The average carcase weight of Scottish heifers does, though, remain well below the benchmark 380 kg,” he added.
Weekly abattoir throughputs across the UK, as a whole, were also higher during January and particularly February than in 2018 but have tightened since then.
“During April, the UK weekly kill of prime cattle was 1% lower on the year,” said Mr Ashworth.
“Consequently, April was the first month in 2019 when UK beef production fell below last year’s levels.”
According to Mr Ashworth, this tightening of the pool of prime cattle is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as Scottish calf registrations during 2017, and currently reaching slaughter age, were 0.25% lower than in 2016.
Scottish registrations have continued to trail last year’s levels since then, with the 2018 registrations being 2.5% lower than in 2017. A similar pattern occurred in England and Wales.
With regard to exports, the UK is not a big exporter of beef but did see modest increase during January and February 2019.
Imports dipped slightly, although delivery volumes from the Republic of Ireland were maintained at the expense of other smaller suppliers like Poland, France, Namibia and Botswana.
“Because of the extra volume of domestically produced beef, the net beef supply during January and February wasn’t much different from a year ago. With retail sales of fresh and frozen unprocessed beef under pressure in the first quarter of the year, the home market remained well supplied pressurizing wholesale and farmgate prices,” commented Mr Ashworth.
While Scottish producer prices trail last year’s levels by 5%, Irish producers are currently receiving 8% less than a year ago. Meanwhile across Europe, the average price of prime stock is 3% lower than last year.
“Contributing to the decline in the Irish producer price is the considerable increase in slaughter volumes,” said Mr Ashworth.
“So far this year, the Irish have slaughtered 6% more cattle than a year ago with young bull numbers increasing 19% and heifer slaughterings up 11%.
“Recently the level of increase on last year has dropped so that it currently stands at around 1% and their price has started to strengthen as well.”
The Irish December census showed a decline of 0.25% in one to two-year-old cattle in December 2018 and a 4% decline in under one-year old cattle at December 2018.
“Consequently, like Scotland, Irish prime cattle numbers are likely to tighten through the year helped by a more than 35% increase in live cattle exports so far this year,” concluded Mr Ashworth.