Record prices for livestock but worry over national picture

Although farmers have benefitted from rising livestock prices this year, the cattle and sheep sectors have not been without their challenges

Blue Grey suckler cows
Blue Grey suckler cows

Although farmers have benefitted from rising livestock prices this year, the cattle and sheep sectors have not been without their challenges.

Prices for store cattle and suckled calves have reached record highs this year and demand for traceable British meat has been fuelled by the horsemeat scandal. However, there are concerns across the beef industry about the shrinking size of the national herd.

David Pritchard, operations director of Carlisle-based auctioneers Harrison & Hetherington, said the reduction in the number of beef suckler cows had been one of the major issues the industry has become aware of over the last few years.

“This has been offset by better prices – the supply and demand rule supported by improved returns for the end product,” he said.

“There is more demand for British meat post the horsemeat scandal, subsequently pushing some extra requirement into the system and supporting prices. These higher prices may hopefully bring back confidence to the industry and a turnaround for breeding cow numbers.”

H&H, headquartered at Borderway Mart in Carlisle, has now finished the year’s main store and breeding sales.

Mr Pritchard said: “We have recorded some healthy sales figures this autumn. Trade for store cattle and suckled calves has seen new levels that have not been achieved before.

“Sales can now achieve averages of over £1,000 a head and reaching £1,500, reflecting increases of between 5% and 10% on last year, but of course this is reflected by fewer numbers in the system to be sold. 

“Trends for suckler cows and calves tend to follow through with producers assessing the available money to spend on breeding replacements, albeit that the availability of numbers is less. Trade for breeding cattle has remained strong with top-end units making £2,000 to £3,000 and middle range units achieving prices of £1,500 plus. Coincidentally, these trends are in keeping with last year and can be directly attributed to lack of supply.”

Highlights recorded at H&H marts this year include:

Store cattle averages achieving £1,200 and more per head and as predicted this year’s autumn sales of suckled calves have exceeded expectations with spring-born calves achieving prices in some cases over £1,000. Top price at the September sale was £3,200.

A huge interest in Bluegrey cattle at Newcastleton mart saw averages rise to £934 and peaking at £1,880 for in-calf heifers.

Strong demand for suckled calves at Middleton-in-Teesdale mart saw averages rise to £875 up £104. Carlisle is renowned as a centre for selling pedigree beef cattle and the highest prices recorded for bulls were 40,000gns and 32,000gns for Limousin, 31,000gns for Charolais and 20,000gns for British Blue. The autumn sales of pedigree breeding bulls have seen difficult trading.

“With more and more farmers changing away from autumn calving, there is evidence that the numbers of bulls reaching the open market in the autumn is less,” said Mr Pritchard.

“Therefore, buyers had less choice of bulls to pick from. Although it is very difficult to predict the trade for bulls, it is fair to say that quality in any breed will always sell and achieve realistic price trends above expectation.”

Carlisle is also a major centre for dairy cattle sales in northern England and the Scottish Borders. Borderway hosted the annual Black & White Holstein sale at the end of November, which attracted entries from the cream of North American dairy cattle genetics as well as domestic vendors and buyers, which recorded an average of £4,000. The recent dispersal sale for the renowned Lemington Herd attracted buyers from 29 UK counties, pushing up the average price of heifers in milk to £2,173.

Borderway is also a major centre for cast cow sales, selling upwards of 300 each week to a captive audience of buyers from all over the UK

In addition to the tighter supply of cattle, the industry is also facing up to the challenges of tackling disease.

Both bovine TB and bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) are a huge cost burden to the industry which will continue to affect the national herd population in the long term, unless they are adequately addressed.

The autumn ram sales at H&H marts saw some fantastic prices for commercial and pedigree stock but in some cases averages were back slightly compared with the previous year’s record highs.

The early autumn ram sales at Carlisle were topped by a 20,000gns Texel lamb ram, 16,000gns Beltex shearling ram and £8,500 for a Bluefaced Leicester ram lamb. Meanwhile, Lockerbie mart’s North Country Cheviot sheep in September set a new breed record for the centre, with one tup selling for £7,500.

The Hill Cheviot ram sales achieved a top price of £14,000 and the 966 Swaledale rams presented at Kirkby Stephen averaged just short of £1,561, with a top price of £24,000 and a number of others selling for £20,000.

Mr Pritchard said “Like their counterparts in the cattle sector, this year’s sales show that sheep farmers are prepared to pay for good breeding stock.

“We have offered 50,000 Mule gimmer lambs this autumn through our centres at Carlisle, Lazonby, Middleton and Kirkby Stephen.

As well as breeding sales, Harrison and Hetherington marts play a large role in the prime sheep trade.

“We are regularly seeing many key buyers/agents at the weekly sheep sales at Kirkby Stephen and Carlisle, while the Middleton and Broughton Collection Centres for prime sheep are integral parts of the supply chain.”

Borderway is also attracting national attention in the livestock showing world. Borderway Agri Expo, held at the start of November, attracted record attendances with 800 livestock and 12,500 visitors. Dairy Expo, which will be held for a third time in March, is following in Agri Expo’s footsteps and is recognised as a major national business showcase event.

“Our new exhibition hall is now a recognised commercial venue for staging all kinds of events such as machinery events, dog shows, parrot shows, black tie dinners and shortly will be staging its first wedding reception for 400 guests,” said Mr Pritchard.

“All in all, this has been a major year forthe group, and I hope the strong activity across all our livestock interests is an accurate reflection of the current strength of cattle and sheep farming across northern England and the Borders.”

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