Livestock farmers will always have challenges to face, but there are opportunities to increase returns by responding flexibly to changing market trends, according to the CEO of one of Scotland’s leading beef and lamb processors.

“By optimising weight at kill, finishing cattle younger, and targeting certain times of the year to market cattle and lamb, producers can enjoy returns well above the average,” said Robbie Galloway, CEO of Scotbeef, the family meat business based at Bridge of Allan which is in the process of designing a new abattoir at Thainstone, near Inverurie, in collaboration with Aberdeen and Northern Marts.

“Many farmers today are finishing their cattle at a younger age and we would encourage more to do the same.

“For us, in specification cattle (R3, R4L and R4H) at 340-400kg deadweight and an age of 18-22 months are ideal, and give the best return and efficiency for the producer. However, we are still getting cattle for slaughter at nearer 30 months and older, and there is greater variation of margin for the farmer on these older animals.

“Our retailer customers are challenging us to constantly drive efficiencies in our businesses, and the whole supply chain needs to work together to ensure we can produce our high quality beef in the most efficient and sustainable way. The more collaboration and communication we have along the supply chain, the more efficient and profitable our industry will be.”

Mr Galloway also encouraged producers to consider marketing their stock at times of the year when traditionally prices are more favourable.

“Demand for beef is relatively steady, apart from a few seasonal peaks such as Christmas. However, spring calving regimes mean that too many cattle are processed around two years later between February and May, and this oversupply depresses prices.

“Younger cattle being processed in the October to November period when demand is higher would tend to command better returns, and would help us in the run up to Christmas. A more even flow of supply would also lead to a more level store and prime trade, avoiding the roller coaster values which make trade difficult for all of us.

“While no single part of the supply chain can control prices, famers can influence the time at which their cattle are ready to be sold, collaborating with their processor to target the best pricing periods,” added Mr Galloway.

He pointing out that there are some similar trends in the sheep sector, with the bulk of best quality lambs finished in September and October.

“It would benefit us all if we can widen the shoulders of the lamb season. If sheep were lambed over a more extended period, meaning lambs were available for finishing throughout the season, prices would remain more consistent. However, recently we have seen a reduction in early lambing numbers due to the higher production costs involved. Again, communication, collaboration and planning through the supply chain is the key to optimising our opportunities.”

In addition, he added that there is more demand for locally produced lamb, and breed specific or speciality lamb such as salt marsh. These lambs can command a premium, providing they deliver a high quality product which lives up to the marketing messages, Mr Galloway said.

“There is some leeway on fat with beef, but you can’t sell fat lamb. To attract the best prices, lambs need to be sold when they hit the spec, and this means regular checking for condition, and good forward planning with the processor.”

Looking at consumer trends, with the growing popularity of fixed price and weight retail packs, means carcase weight and size is a key factor.

“Consumers will only pay a certain amount for beef and lamb, and portion sizes are getting smaller. We need to reflect this in the size of the animal – weights of 360kg for beef and 18.5kg for lamb are ideal.”

Mr Galloway also remains confident about the future for exports, and particularly lamb, with 70% of Scotbeef’s lamb kill shipped across the Channel.

“We sold lamb into Europe before we joined the EU in the 1960s and early ‘70s, we have sold it successfully during our membership, and I have no doubts we will continue to export after Brexit.

“Our European customers want and need our lamb and we need to find a way to enable this through the Brexit negotiations. If we speak together as one industry then I am very confident we can do this,” he concluded.