NBA Warns that UK Beef Industry is Eating Itself Up

UK - The UK beef industry is, perhaps unwittingly, heading relentlessly down the road to self destruction the National Beef Association has warned.
calendar icon 2 June 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

It wants Government and retailers to make clear their long term need for beef and emphasise by word and deeds that they want more heifers to be retained for breeding. The NBA is also urging breeders to resist the temptation to sell relatively young cows that are still fully fertile on the manufacturing beef market and hold them back to produce more calves instead.

“Anyone taking an analytical look at the number of females being rushed into abattoirs has to conclude that the entire beef industry is in the process of eating itself,” explained NBA director, Kim Haywood.

“Nothing can be done if this alarming trend, which is the equivalent of grinding seed corn for flour instead of holding it back for future planting, is the result of deliberate action at farm level.”

“But if the industry is rushing into this self-destructive position without being conscious of what it is doing then the National Beef Association will at least have made everyone, including retailers and processors, aware of what is happening.”

The NBA regards the 13 per cent, 240,000 head, reduction in UK suckler cow numbers between 1997 and the end of last year as a disaster in its own right.

It warns that if breeders cannot resist the temptation to cash fertile cows for £800-£900 apiece then another 40,000 head could be lost over 2009, and the UK herd of suckler cows will continue to move relentlessly towards an extremely threadbare 1.5 million head compared with 1.8 million at its pre-BSE peak.

“Unfortunately it is not just young intentionally culled cows that are going down the road. All the signs point to fewer heifers being kept back as replacements and more young females being pushed into the finishing yard instead of being put to the bull - which means the capacity to breed beef calves over 2010-2011 is already diminishing faster than the processors and retailers think,” said Ms Haywood.

“The most recent slaughter figures for the whole of Great Britain show that while steer production was down, as anticipated, by five per cent on the year, and young bull output was down by 20 per cent there was a two per cent increase in heifer slaughterings – while in England alone the number of heifers killed for prime beef production rose by an alarming eight per cent (highlighting the effect of Mrs Beckett’s English only hybrid SFP scheme).”

“The only way heifer disposals can rise like this is if they are being sold off for apparently good money as slaughter stock instead of being offered earlier in their lives as bulling heifers. Recent breeding heifer prices now show that they could have made even more money.”

“Unfortunately the conversion of this breeding stock into beef is disguising the depth of the future supply problem for abattoirs and retailers that lies ahead, because, although their carcases have contributed to this year’s production figures, the calves they would have produced will be missing for anything between ten to fifteen years to come,” Ms Haywood added.

Several causes bring about this lack of confidence. (i) Hilary Benn’s toleration of the spread across the land of TB infecting healthy badgers resulted in 40,000 cattle being compulsorily purchased by Defra last year and at least 10,000 of these are likely to have been heifers for beef breeding and suckler cows. The 10,000 is anticipated to rise to 14,000 in 2009. (ii) Some sections of Government still hint at wanting a reduction in cattle numbers “because they produce methane”. (iii) Nearly every beef farmer is acutely aware that, although their Single Farm Payment has in many cases dropped by over £100 per animal since 2003 the same amount will disappear between now and 2013 and they question whether the market will further increase to cover that loss. (iv) As salt in the wound, Defra have recently made it clear that a tax of over £15 per suckler cow will have to be bourn by any remaining producers. (v) A cartel of retailers and their suppliers seem determined to hold down their purchase numbers and prices by importing Irish finished cattle as a means of persuading UK finishers that the price will go no higher. (They appear to have succeeded – to their own and the consumers’ great future disadvantage).

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