Growing pressure from processors and retailers to optimise the value of beef cattle in the food chains is resulting in an increased demand for smaller carcases.

According to David Bonsall of animal nutrition UFAC UK, supermarkets are looking for steaks at around £5 on the shelf which has seen the average size of a steak drop to 200g. However, if processors have to trim steaks down, they lose around £11/kg on the offcuts, therefore the optimum carcase to supply a suitably sized loin is 280-350kg, he said.

The industry is nevertheless producing larger animals with around 35% of carcases currently more than 380kg, according to AHDB, which explains why some processors are penalising heavier animals.

Mr Bonsall added that Scotbeef and ABP Perth, have announced a lower cap for carcases, down from 420kg to 400kg which in turn represents a major challenge for producers.

“On many beef units the strategy has been to produce a larger animal in a drive to maximise income," he said.

"They target producing to the highest weight possible, but with the target weight declining and more penalties being applied it is time to reconsider the strategy for beef finishing," he said.

Instead, he urged producers to focus more on increasing feed efficiency to ensure animals grow quicker, which Mr Bonsall said can be done by increasing the inclusion rate of fats in beef diets while cutting back on cereals.

The recommended inclusion rate of fat in growing diets is up to 5% but most diets are closer to 3%. In finishing diets a typical inclusion is also 3% fat but diets can safely include over 5%.

“By replacing barley with a fat supplement you can increase the energy density of the ration to promote faster growth with little impact on cost. Feeding the correct blend of rumen protected fatty acids improves performance whilst maintaining rumen health.”

He added that a supplement such as UFAC Megabeef, containing a range of rumen protected C18 and long chain marine sourced omega 3 fatty acids helps improve feed conversion, encourages faster growth, enhances meat quality and ensures a robust immune system for better health.”

And, by replacing 300g of barley with 300g of the supplement in the growing diet from 80-350kg will increase DLWG by 10% to 1.1kg/day, which would mean these cattle would reach 350kg, 25 days quicker. Feeding optimum fatty acids also improves carcase classification he said and can increase price per kilo.

“If the pressure is going to be on producing lighter carcasses, then the focus has to switch to producing as efficiently as possible and optimising fatty acid content in the ration is a proven way to achieve this.”

While some producers have been increasing carcase weights to boost end prices, Shropshire-based beef processor, Pickstock Telford, has nevertheless seen a growing number of cattle meet target weights and grades over the past three months which in turn have been rewarded with 15% uplift in prime carcases hitting specifications.

Gareth Parker, livestock procurement officer at Pickstock Telford, puts this improvement down to an increasing number of farmers recognising the financial benefits of getting cattle away sooner and focusing on processors specifications.

“The old adage of ‘weight always pays’ has been a difficult concept to overcome but when you scrutinise the figures, the improvement in profit margins that can be achieved by finishing cattle in spec and in less days is clear,” says Mr Parker.

Taking into consideration grid penalties for overweight cattle, the additional feed costs and time involved in an extended finishing period, he says there is an increase in net profit finishing cattle earlier, within specification.

There are also other financial benefits to factor in for the farmer, including greater capacity to increase the throughput of finishing cattle through a shed per year, plus bedding and labour savings.

“With ever increasing retail demand for consistency, when it comes to meat on the shelf, it’s crucial that we produce products that are the same weight and size, and fit within specific packaging guidelines,” explains Mr Parker.

“This means the more animals we receive in specification, the better the price we can offer our farmers.”

Previously around 73% of the cattle Pickstock Telford processed were within specification, but this is now closer to 88%, with very few overweight cattle now being received.

Mr Parker says this improvement is a big step forward and beef producers and processors must continue to work closely together to improve consistency within the supply chain.

“Our procurement team are getting out on more farms than ever before and working much closer with farmers to help assess cattle. An increasing number of producers are now weighing regularly and monitoring growth rates, as well as considering the EUROP grid.”

While there are multiple factors at play which are affecting current market value, Mr Parker says getting cattle finished to market spec pays dividends for farmers when it comes to maximising profitability.

“At the end of the day, sustainable beef production is important for the whole supply chain and an integrated approach can support this, but consistency and accuracy at every stage is key,” he concludes.

Getting down to the nitty gritty – beef prices remain at a five-year low with the latest GB figures from AHDB again down on the week, although steers improved by just 0.4p per kg.

The situation is worse in Ireland where deadweight values of 317.2p per kg for steers, 327.4p for heifers and young bulls at 305.7p have seen farmers revolt by blockading the meat factories over the past two weeks.

As The Scottish Farmer went to press on Wednesday, information from Eire revealed 80% of the factories had been blocked.