A good turnout of farmers, exhibitors and spectators were forward for the National Beef Association’s 2024 Beef Expo, staged a month earlier than in previous years, at North West Auctions’ J36 Crooklands Rural Centre.

Timed to coincide with British Beef Week and free to attend for the first time, the event again featured the National Commercial Cattle Show and a record number of trade stands – in excess of 100 with some 13 breed societies.

However, while there was no doubting the quality of beef cattle on show, huge uncertainty remains on the future of the sector according to a results of a state of the industry survey.

The Scottish Farmer: Prys Morgan - Livestock Procurement Director, KepakPrys Morgan - Livestock Procurement Director, Kepak

Of the 1100 responses announced, a massive 66% of beef producers said they would have difficulty surviving without subsidy, with only 33% believing their enterprise makes a profit each year.

More worrying is the fact that 78% of the respondents said government policy posed the biggest threat to the future of their beef enterprises, followed by 71% who highlighted media demonisation of ruminants in the climate change debate as the main risk. Some 62% said the cost of inputs was the biggest concern with 56% citing southern hemisphere imports.

Interestingly, most respondents (71%) said devolved agricultural policy is not working for most beef farmers and is better managed at a UK level (England 77%; Scotland 44%; Wales 84% and Northern Ireland 32%). Only 30% said their devolved nation’s agricultural policy would help deliver on biodiversity, landscape and food.

Other concerns from the survey announced in the seminar included finished cattle prices not being high enough to justify the continuation of units, tenancy security, input costs such as straw, fuel and machinery and bovine TB restrictions.

The survey which was made up of 54% suckler calf producers; 39% breeder finishers; 32% store cattle buyers; 18% finishers and 17% calf rearers, was made up of the average farmer running 88 suckler cows with 249 head of cattle. Those replying to the survey were on average 53 years of age and they were farming 259ha or 640acres.

Most respondents (90%) revealed managing costs and price volatility were the biggest concern and in doing so, 56% had reduced their use of fertiliser and a further 54% had cut their reliance on bought in feeds. Others reduced labour costs (27%) with 26% cutting back on machinery and 22% had started out wintering cattle. Most beef farmers (53%) said their feed system was mostly grass based with only 15% feeding a total mixed ration.

The Scottish Farmer: Sir Mark Spencer minister of state for food, farming and fisheriesSir Mark Spencer minister of state for food, farming and fisheries

Most beef farms (80%) were run alongside other enterprises such as arable or sheep, with family members working part time but unpaid on 36% of such units. On average three people were taking a salary from the beef unit.

Growth rates, shape and conformation, fertility and ease of fleshing were the most important traits sought after in beef cattle.

Interestingly, while 80% of respondents said they record key performance indicators, only 20% said they used data capture tools to do so. Calving ease, daily liveweight gain and growth rates were the top three recorded KPIs which were either taken down by pen and paper (48%) or software (42%).

The average number of days taken off during they year of those surveyed was 10.7 in 2023 compared to the ideal believed number of 18.6.

The announced results paint a picture all too familiar on family farms, and sadly one which is unlikely to change significantly when the UK Government is transitioning away from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

Sir Mark Spencer, minister of state at Defra, said many of the difficulties being encountered at present were the combination of the poor spring and the transition away from BPS south of the Border. However, he added that the UK Government is doing its best to ensure the premium prices paid for British Beef around the world continue.

“We are continually seeing people prepared to pay a premium for grass-fed British Beef which is why we are providing grants for new slurry systems, new dairy and beef calf housing, and we’ve improved the grassland payments available.

“We have maintained the annual farming budget for England at £2.4bn per year which provides an opportunity to all in the chain to show how important the industry is. We are seeing high prices for finished and store cattle and we have to paint ourselves as the part of the solution to climate change,” he said.

Despite these claims, Prys Morgan, procurement director for Kepak in Wales, warned net farm income is set to fall 40% due to the 50% reduction in basic payments this year.

“We hear how government is supposed to be supporting agriculture, but we have a declining beef and sheep population and devolved governments with different agendas. We need people in the beef industry and a level playing field. We need a frame work that works in all the devolved nations because we are seeing a 3% decline in the availability of finished beef in 2025.

“Either the government has to support farmers or the public will have to pay more for their food. You can’t expect failing businesses to continue to produce food,” he warned.

On a more positive note, Neil Shand, chief executive of the National Beef Association said their has been a sizeable change in the way people relate to food covid.

“Since covid we have seen a change in the way people see their food. There are a lot more people working from home with more disposable income looking to cook local foods from scratch. The beef price is higher than it has ever been and we have to cash in on that.”

The award for the Best Breed Society Stand was presented to Hereford Cattle Society; Datamars was awarded the Best Indoor Trade Stand, and Agri Lloyd scooped the Best Outdoor Trade Stand.