Prime cattle prices have been on a downward spiral since mid-September, but at long last, some positive signs are emerging, with the GB all prime average slowly but surely tipping in favour of the producer.

While higher cattle slaughterings in Ireland and exports not only flooded the GB market for most of December, they also hit beef farmers where it hurts most – their wallets – with the all Scottish average falling from a peak of 389-390p per deadweight kg mid-September down to 363p mid-December.

As a result, farmers having been losing up to £90 per head on a typical 350kg carcase, which, when coupled with a significant increase in feed and forage values, has meant little Christmas cheer for producers.

According to reports from LMC, total prime cattle throughputs in Ireland increased 1% on the year, from 332,715 head in 2017 to 336,991, while the number of cows killed slipped marginally from 103,533 to 103,440. Part of this could be because of stockpiling of beef as a hedge against a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

However with throughputs falling week on week both in the north and the south of Ireland, beef prices are improving across the Irish Sea, which should point to improved values in the weeks to come in Scotland.

Last month, R4 steers fell as low as 346.7p per deadweight kg in Northern Ireland, while in the Republic, the same cattle bottomed out at 326.9p. The most recent figures from Ireland show that for the last week in December, R4 steers averaged 352.8p per kg, with those in the south at 336.0p. Notably the same grade of cattle in Scotland averaged 369.4p per DW kg, with the GB average just 1.6p less than that at 137.8p, which begs the question, how long with the Scottish premium remain?

Nevertheless, the tide does appear to have turned in this country, with the GB all prime average rising by almost 4p per deadweight kg in the final week of 2018, to 354.65p, while the GB all steer and heifer values for the first week of 2019, slipped only marginally despite increased numbers coming forward.

There are also reports of back-logs at the abattoirs coming to an end. “Most of the abattoirs maintained their previous week’s prices this week which is a good sign, even though there is still a queue to get cattle into some of the slaughterhouses,” Tim MacDonald, prime cattle auctioneer at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre, told The SF.

“It looks as if there are fewer cattle out there, too, as many have finished a month earlier than they normally would due to the better quality feed and forages. A lot of the grass silages produced last year are real rocket fuel.”

As a result, Mr MacDonald believed the cattle trade will start to pick up at the end of this month, although he also expected an increase in the number of young bulls coming forward during March/April to hamper trade slightly, before supplies slip again in early summer.

However, he was keen to highlight that 2018 has been one of the worst seen in recent years for beef farmers. “The beef job is changing so much and so quickly. Last year was so difficult for producers and with feed and forage costs at horrendous prices, the only way to make things pay is to buy cheaper stores, but they’ve held up well in comparison.

“The other problem is that butchers no longer have the demand to justify buying whole animals, which, combined with the fact that sourcing skilled butchers is also difficult, means more are looking to buy boxed beef.”

Further south, Harrison and Hetherington auctioneer, Grant Anderson, who is based at Borderway Mart, Carlisle, said that while many of the processors have maintained their previous weeks’ prices, trade for Aberdeen-Angus cattle took a small rise this week, which again pointed to improvements across the board in the coming weeks.

“Prices in the live ring have remained fairly steady all through the back end with us, but with most of the processors in Scotland paying anywhere from 362-368p per kg this week, and cull cows were sharper on the week at our sale on Monday, prices will hopefully start to improve at the end of the month.

“The problem is that finishers are not making any money. Prime cattle will be £50-£80 per head back on the year and so too are longer keep store cattle and even they look set to rise before finished cattle will,” concluded Mr Anderson.