AT long last, beef prices are on the up, with values jumping in all sectors over the past two weeks as supplies tighten and the first signs of summer and barbecues kick into gear to increase the demand for steaks and rebalance the market.

Last week, the Scottish deadweight trade for all steers increased by 5p per kg to 352.2p, with heifers rising 6.1p to 352.9p. Young bulls and cows also headed north by 6.1p and 8.7p to average 329.3p and 259.9p, respectively.

It was a similar situation south of the Border too with the overall steer and heifer average rising 3.6p and 4.3p to 336.9p and 337.8p, respectively, while young bulls and cows improved by 4.9p and 3.5p, to 318.5p and 231.2p.

Latest figures from the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) show further improvements too with the prices for the week ending April 20 revealing a further 4.2p per kg rise for all steers in Scotland at 356.4p and a 3.1p increase for heifers to 356.0p. Young bulls and cows were also on the up by 11.5p and 4.7p, to average 340.8p and 264.6p per kg. Beef values in England in Wales also headed north albeit at a reduced rate, on the back of reduced supplies.

Compared to previous weeks, supplies are down in all sectors too, with reports of abattoirs "desperate" for numbers. As it is, overall GB steer numbers for the past week were down 5.4% and heifers back 9.2%. Young bull and cows numbers were also well down by 11% and 7.3% respectively.

"There are a number of factors affecting the trade to include seasonality and the drop in supplies," said Iain Macdonald, senior economics analyist at Quality Meat Scotland.

"Registrations were well up in the spring of 2017, so the market has been over supplied in recent months. Numbers have however tightened in the past few weeks and are likely fall further in the second half of the year."

Mr Macdonald also pointed out that while confusion still reigns over future exports, the delay of Brexit until later in the year, has boosted the carcase trade to the continent.

Deadweight cattle prices in Northern Ireland also showed some signs of improvement, last week. While average steer price slipped marginally to 330.4p, heifers improved by 1.4p per kg deadweight to 334.2p while those hitting the R3 'spec increased by 1.9p to 339.4p.

Young bulls nevertheless slipped by half a penny, while the average cow price rose 5.5p to 224.4p, with those grading O3 holding steady at 244p.

There was some good news for beef farmers in the Republic of Ireland too with the deadweight trade increasing both in euro and sterling terms.

The R3 steer price in ROI was the equivalent of 316.4p per kg, up 3.6p from the previous week, which puts the differential between NI and ROI at 23.1p per kg or £81 on a 350kg carcase. The R3 heifer price was also up by a similar margin to the equivalent of 327.4p, putting the differential between NI and ROI at 12p per kg or £38 on a 320kg carcase.

The O3 cow price in ROI last week increased by the equivalent of 2.2p to 234.6p, 9.4p below the same price in NI.

But, while the prime market looks set to improve in the coming months, reports from the major processors have indicated some difficulties in sales in recent months with supplies of beef running ahead of demand from major customers.

This trend has now been reflected in retail sales data from Kantar for the 12 weeks ending March 12, 2019. During this period, retail beef sales in GB were valued at £536.3mn, a notable 4.8% decline from the corresponding 12-week period in 2018. This equates to a decline of £25.7m in the value of retail sales year on year and is the lowest retail spend on beef recorded during this same period since 2016.

The volume of beef sold through major retailers totalled 68,749 tonnes during the 12 weeks ending 24 March 2019, a 5.2% decline from the same period in 2018. In volume terms this equates to a decline in retail sales of 3575 tonnes year on year.

The decline in volume sales has been driven primarily by reductions in the sales of some of the major beef cuts. The most notable decline during the period has been in the sale of beef roasting joints which were back 30%.

Lamb sales also struggled with total sales valued at £125.2m during the 12 weeks – down 9.9% from the same period in 2018. Lamb sales

also suffered in volume terms with retail lamb sales back 13.5%.

Much of the decline in volume lamb sales has been driven by reduced sales of lamb shoulder roasting joints (-26.4%) and leg roasting joints (-26.6%). There have also been notable declines in volume sales of lamb marinades and frying steaks/chops during the 2019 period although not to the same level as the declines seen in lamb roasting joint sales.

There was however some positive news for lamb mince sales in the UK which increased by 6.8% in volume terms year on year.