Opinion

‘Beef farmers must become more efficient – there’s no other show in town’

The Christmas beef shows and sales are about to get into full swing around the country. And they are all worth a visit.

I have always been in awe of those farmers who could select a young calf and turn it into a beef animal capable of turning any judge’s eye.

If nothing else, events of this nature highlight just how good livestock farmers throughout the UK are when it comes to producing beef of the highest quality.

But there’s a problem. And it goes to the very heart of the challenge facing the livestock sector.

In essence, farmers are not making enough money from the cattle they are producing on a consistent basis.

In real terms, livestock producers deserve a much better return on their investment. But this will never be the case.

Farmers should not be lulled into a false sense of security regarding their future prospects on the back of predictions which point to a further erosion in the UK’s potential to produce beef.

A case in point is the recent call from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for a very significant reduction in cattle and sheep numbers

In reality, however, imports will always make up for the shortfall in the UK’s indigenous beef output. The potential impact of Brexit must also be factored into the beef economics equation.

Traditionally, finishers have responded to better cattle returns by paying more for stores. But this only served to put more pressure on their margins further down the line.

Some of this activity could be excused by the fact that farmers needed cattle to claim subsidies. However, those days are gone forever, with the result that beef producers have no option now but to concentrate on those costs they have control over and not the vagaries of the marketplace.

Economists continue to point out that lower performing farms must increase their efficiency levels if they are to remain in beef production.

A temporary price rise alone will not be enough to deliver sustainable incomes, given the pressures that are coming down the track.

However, the worrying fact remains that a significant number of livestock farmers across the UK do not have a detailed handle on their operating cost base.

It’s extremely difficult to implement any on-farm improvement programme when the producers concerned have no idea as to what their actual starting point is.

The most obvious way around this problem comes in the shape of the various benchmarking programmes that operate throughout the UK.

It costs nothing to get on board, yet the schemes offer a host of opportunities for farmers to gauge the efficiencies they are achieving and, thereafter, identify possible ways forward. Sounds like a plan to me!