Prime cattle supply forecast to tighten this year

Calf registration in Scotland during 2019 reached 552,700 head, on par with 2018 but 2.5% lower than in 2017, according to the latest market commentary by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

These registrations show a continuing trend towards native breed sires, which now account for around 28% of all registrations, up from 20% a decade ago.

Aberdeen Angus dominates the native breeds, accounting for 19% of all Scottish calf registrations, up from 14% 10 years ago.

The details of calf registrations also show a reduction in the importance of dairy-sired calves.

Despite the Scottish dairy herd maintaining its size over the past year, the number of dairy-sired calves has fallen by 3.5% between 2018 and 2019; however, all of the fall was in dairy-sired males.

“This reflects the growth in the use of sexed semen to produce replacement dairy stock leaving scope to increase the use of beef sires on a greater number of dairy cows,” said Stuart Ashworth, director of economics services at Quality Meat Scotland.

“Associated with this, beef-sired calf registrations in Scotland increased despite a fall in the size of the suckler herd,” he added.

Switching patterns

According to Ashworth, this pattern is not unique as it is repeated in both England and Wales, who showed a decline in dairy-sired male calves of 11% between 2018 and 2019; while female dairy calf registrations are broadly unchanged.

“Collectively, this adoption of science has contributed to a switch of around 34,000 head of cattle in GB from dairy-sired beef from the dairy herd, to beef-sired animals from the dairy herd over the past year,” said Ashworth.

Closer examination of calf registration data also reveals that while the age profile of female cattle under 30 months of age on farms is unchanged over a number of years, the profile of male cattle has changed with a greater proportion being slaughtered at a younger age.

For example, the proportion of 18 to 24-month-old male cattle on British farms at the turn of the year is two percentage points lower than twelve months ago.

Indeed, the average age prime male cattle are slaughtered at in the UK has fallen by around a fortnight in the past five years.

During 2020, prime slaughter cattle will be largely drawn from those animals born during 2018 and, because there were fewer born than in 2017 and with some having been sold younger, this points to a slightly tighter supply of prime cattle in 2019.

The recently released December 2019 census results from Ireland show a similar pattern there, with the number of one to two-year-old cattle on Irish farms falling 2.7% from a year ago and the number of male cattle in this age group falling 4%.

Prime cattle supplies in Ireland can therefore also be expected to tighten through 2020.

“Economic theory tells us that tighter supplies support prices, but the caveat to that is that demand must remain firm domestically and internationally and access to international markets must be open with minimal constraints,” said Ashworth.

“In this context, the demand side of the equation for beef from Scotland remains sensitive to consumer opinion and international trade arrangements.”