A new, growing market for beef calves from the dairy herd has emerged on the back of a buoyant prime cattle trade, with demand and prices rising on an almost weekly basis.

Add in the increased value for store cattle, and weaned calves are now seen by many to be a better investment, and especially this year when there is a real shortage of grass and silage supplies are running out fast.

“Calves are an unbelievable trade and going from strength to strength on the back of the beef market. Demand is outstripping supply,” Joe Bowman, calf auctioneer at Harrison and Hetherington, Carlisle, told The Scottish Farmer.

“Prices started to rise this time last year and we’re now selling 350-400 head of calves every week from as far afield as Aberdeenshire, right down to Cheshire. We’re also selling up to a 100 head more every week compared to May, 2020, with prices significantly higher too.”

He added that calves are seen as a better investment when they can be sold either as yearlings at four-figure prices or, taken right through to finishing. Government schemes to assist with the cost of EID, automatic calf feeders and weight recording are also helping to bolster trade.

Such is the demand for weaned calves that British Blue bulls are selling from £400-£420 at six to eight weeks of age, with heifers of the same age at £380-£400. Six to eight-week-old Aberdeen-Angus bull and heifer calves sold through Borderway Mart, Carlisle, are making £350-£450 and £300-£350, per head, respectively, with similarly aged Limousin bulls at £500-£550.

Young Limousin heifers often obtain a premium with the potential to go on and make breeding females, with such entries selling for £550-£600 per head again at six to eight weeks of age.

There is also money in 100% dairy-bred calves, with the last sale at Carlisle, peaking at £375 for a pair of Montbeliardes, while the 87 Holstein Friesians forward sold to £310 for a bull, or £375 for a Friesian heifer, to average £150.92.

“We now have at least 50 active buyers attending our calf sales every week which is up 20-25% on the year, so there is a real shortage of calves. We’re also seeing fewer 100% dairy calves coming forward when most people now use sexed semen on their top end cows and heifers and beef bulls on the remainder,” said Mr Bowman.

Backing up these statements, Craig Wilson auctioneer, Drew Kennedy, added that deadweight cattle prices in excess of 425p per kg were adding further confidence to the sector, which coupled with the cold weather, shortage of grass and depleting silage stores, had created the ‘perfect storm’.

“Finishers have more money in their pockets when the beef trade is as high and calves can be seen as a better investment, when depending on the quality, they can be bought at anything from £250-£550 per head from three to eight-weeks of age, compared to grazing cattle at £1000-plus,” said Mr Kennedy.

He added that British Blue cross calves sell best through Craig Wilson’s Ayr market, with six to eight-week-olds regularly making £500+ while Aberdeen-Angus will sell for nearer £450 at the same age.

“Beef calves from the dairy herd are a lot more viable to buy when finished cattle are £300-£350 per head up on the year,” added Mr Kennedy.

Looking further ahead, while the prime trade stabilised somewhat this week, the good news is, prices are unlikely to slip below £4 per deadweight kg, according to those in the know.

Furthermore, with the UK government reluctant to confirm the possibility of foreign holidays in the summer, it is thought that more people will look towards ‘staycations’ which in turn will help the home market for all types of red meat.

“I can’t see finished beef values falling below £4 per kg deadweight – I think we now have a new normal price for beef and that’s north of £4/dwkg, which is a result of Covid and increased support from the consumer for home-produced beef which will remain,” concluded Neil Shand, chief executive of the National Beef Association.