As the National Beef Association (NBA) announces that its National Spring Spectacular Show is returning to its headquarters at Hexham Mart in May, chief executive Chris Mallon took the opportunity to speak out on the future of the beef industry.
He said: “In 2013, the cattle industry had a better-than-average year, in no small part aided by the discovery of horsemeat in processed meat products which led to consumers demanding British.
“The year also had the benefit of one of the best summers in a long time. Although trade tailed off slightly towards the end of the year, for most of the year we saw good prices for all classes of stock and I’m sure 2013 will be seen by most as one of the better years.”
But one good year on its own will not bring back cattle numbers. The industry needs stability and long-term profitability before we see reinvestment and growth in numbers, added Mr Mallon.
“Beef cow numbers are falling and the demand for high-provenance, locally-sourced beef is rising so the simple law of supply and demand should lead to an increase, or at least, maintenance of the price.
“This will be dependent upon processors and retailers backing British and committing to the future stability of the industry.
“The recent price weakness has been blamed on imported European beef from Poland entering the supply chain into the catering and processing markets.
“The concern always with such beef is its traceability, welfare standards and is it exactly what it purports to be.”
The settlement of Pillar 2 CAP transfer from Pillar 1 was decided at the end of 2013 with the UK areas having different rates and different rates across the EU – Scotland has come in at 9.5%, Germany 4.5%, France 3%, Wales 15% and England 12%. Northern Ireland has decided against any transfer.
“Taking money from the farming community when there is no clear idea how the money will be spent, while at the same time putting British farmers at a competitive disadvantage, makes no sense,” Mr Mallon said. “In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, we know that the British public wants to see more British food produced.
“If rural communities are to remain living, habitable areas for people as well as wildlife, farming needs the support it deserves.
“The funds in Pillar 2 need to be readily accessible to farm businesses and not allowed to be squandered on unsustainable, uneconomic novelty ideas that do not truly benefit rural businesses.
“The hope is that all in the beef supply chain can make a living; when we get that balance, long-term investment becomes possible. 2013 saw a rise in confidence among beef producers which was perhaps the catalyst for the start of growth in suckler numbers.
“However, a serious fall in price for finished animals would be disastrous for the industry and for many producers it would be the last straw.
“This would lead to a major fall in numbers, the closure of processors and result in British retailers and customers relying more on imported meat. Processors may wish to bring back the beef price, but it will end with one long-term result, no cattle to process.”
The profitability of a suckler herd is directly related to the number of calves reared per cow served annually, Mr Mallon explained.
Recent figures show that the average calving interval for suckler herds in the country is 406 days which is somewhat off the target of 365 days.
A cow that does not calve every 365 days is a drain on the system and not earning her keep.
This means that in a 100-cow suckler herd, the average farmer is weaning 79 calves from 100 cows while the target should be more like 95 live calves per 100 cows.
“It has been shown that it costs between £350 to £600 to keep a suckler cow for the year depending on land type and whether the cow calves in the spring or autumn.
“It is therefore essential that she produces a calf every 365 days to deliver an output which will cover this expenditure and produce a profit.”
On the subject of herd health and the threat from bovine TB, Mr Mallon said: “As everyone knows, some disease and health issues are difficult to control and eradication of persistent infections is key to BVD management, with estimates of £100 per cow being the cost of BVD within the suckler herd.
“Cow management is within our control but the sale of the end product is in the hands of others and if they wish to stay in the business of processing beef, it is in their own interest to pay a price that ensures their suppliers remain in business.
“Threats of bringing in cheaper imports only succeed in reducing farmer confidence and prevent growth in the beef sector.
“We need aggressive promotionof beef by retailers and continued support of high-provenance British beef.”