Scottish beef has enjoyed a significant premium over its counterparts south of the Border, but the gap has narrowed significantly in recent weeks with the best quality animals being hit the most.
While prime beef values remain finely balanced in all parts of the country, latest figures from AHDB show average Scottish steer values up marginally by 1.5p to level at 357.1p and heifers down by 0.8p at 359.1p.
More worrying however is the fact that the difference between R4L steers and heifers north and south of the Border, was just 5p per deadweight kg, which compares to the norm of nearer 10-15p. For the week ending March 11, R4L steers in Scotland averaged 363.5p per deadweight kg against 358.8p in England and Wales. Similarly heifers sold through Scottish abattoirs of the same grade cashed in at 361.2p compared to 356.1p.
There is even less of a difference for the top grades with -U3L steers in Scotland attracting less than half a pence of a premium at 360.2p compared to 359.8p south of the Border. Scottish heifers are slightly better with a 2.5p per deadweight kg increase at 368.3p against 365.8p.
Yet the overall Scottish steer kill at 357.1p was 13p per kg ahead of those in the south at 343.8p, with the total heifer kill in Scotland fairing similar at 359.5p – some 14.5p ahead of the same heifers slaughtered in England and Wales.
According to Stuart Ashworth, chief economist at Quality Meat Scotland, the premium between the top quality animals north and south of the Border traditionally narrows at this time of year due to 50% of Scottish herds calving in the months of March, April May and with most of these calves finished at 22 months of age, supplies of top quality cattle are highest during the months of January, February, March.
This compares to the national cattle herd south of the Border which has a flatter calving curve due to the higher number of dairy herds and less concentration on spring calving, with a result of fewer top end quality cattle at this time.
“The high proportion of calves born in the spring in Scotland means that the Scottish market is relatively better supplied at this time of year than GB as a whole,” said Mr Ashworth who also pointed out that there were 1% more calves born in spring 2015 than spring 2014. 
“Moving into the second quarter, the pool of Scottish prime cattle diminishes relative to the rest of GB and both steer and heifer volumes slip to a seasonal low during the summer.”
In addition to seasonal supply fluctuations, Mr Ashworth said retail sales data indicates that there is a seasonal profile to the demand for beef.
“Overall demand for beef is at its lowest through the summer and is at its highest from November to January, which usefully reflects the availability of Scottish prime stock,” said Mr Ashworth.
“Within this overall demand, specific cuts also have a seasonal profile. Perhaps not surprisingly, demand for the cheaper cuts such as mince and stewing meat, peaks in January and February while roasting joints sell well at Christmas and Easter.”
Demand for steaks is more consistent throughout the year although it is often slightly stronger during the summer months, when many households will have barbecues, therefore weaker at Christmas. Overall, mince remains the most popular beef cut, consistently accounting for more than half of all beef sales and only falling below half in the Christmas and New Year period. 
“These changes in seasonal retail behaviour to some extent explain the traditional dip in farm gate prices post-Christmas. 
“The 2017 market appears to be performing in line with this typical trend, with prices slipping 7p/kg deadweight since the turn of the year. That said, producer prices remain 5% higher than last year,” observed Mr Ashworth.
As has been the case over the past three years, the relatively better seasonal supply in the Scottish market has led to a narrowing of the premium paid and, with producers responding to the signals regarding carcase weights and looking to sell cattle younger, there has been some building of queues. 
“The market situation at this time of year illustrates the complex business decisions facing our industry. Producers are trying to maximise margins by solving the conundrum of market returns and production costs – generally lower for spring calving herds – and processors are trying to manage a supply that best meets the seasonal retail demand for beef.”