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Q&A: Outlook for British red meat sector

Louise Hartley asks the company’s head of agriculture, Dr Jonathan Birnie for this thoughts on the British red meat sector.

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With the beef and lamb prices low at the moment, what can farmers do in terms of carcase production to boost returns?


The most effective thing which can be done includes ensuring the animal grows quickly and steadily without a store period – this just costs money, says Dr Birnie.


“Secondly, making and using high quality silage reduces the cost of gain. As an example, if a farmer uses silage with an ME of 11.9 versus 9.2, concentrate supplementation can be reduced from 8kg per day to 2kg per day during the finishing period for a gain of 1kg daily.


“Ensuring a carcase does not become too fat, and finishing the animal at a slightly lower weight can pay dividends as well.”


What is the optimum carcase specification and why?


The window for the optimum carcase is fairly wide, but as a guide, a producer should aim for a carcase around 320kg with a fat class of three, advises Dr Birnie.


“Carcases which are below 260kg or above 390kg start to cause difficulty because they fall outside retail specification and other markets for these products have to be identified. Too much fat has the same effect,” he says.


What percentage of farmers hit specification and do you think they should be a bigger incentive to hit specification?


Very few farmers have 100 per cent of their kill hitting specification so there is room for improvement across the supply chain.


According to Dr Birnie, in the last 12 months, only about 70 per cent of heifers and 60 per cent of steers have actually hit the ideal specifications.


“There are substantial penalties for falling outside this specification and producers who do not keep their animals within the market requirements are losing substantial amounts of profit,” he says.


Do you think producers would welcome some form of contracts to take some of the volatility and uncertainty out of beef and lamb production?


Dr Birnie says some producers would welcome contracts, but surprisingly, many of those he talks to are not very concerned one way or the other.


He says: “I think it is likely the number of contracts in the industry will climb steadily over the next few years, and the volume of stock procured via contract will increase as the participants in those contracts become used to riding out the storm when the contract is actually to their disadvantage for a period of time.


“A culture change is needed for the wholesale adoption of contracts, but I think the signs are there that this is starting to happen.”


Are you concerned about a shrinking suckler herd?


“We are always concerned at any reduction in the supply of stock, because a reduction means the same industry costs are carried over a lesser amount of stock. We are always monitoring suckler and dairy cow numbers and know farmers are responding to their own economic situation,” says Dr Birnie.


“The concern for me is often the economic situation on a farm is worse than it has to be because of the failure to really pay attention to the details in the business, and it is this detail which vastly increases profitability.”


Is the market becoming saturated with black and white bull beef?


Due to a reduction in available markets for bull beef finishing systems, there is a general decline in the number of producers specialising in this area. However, Dr Birnie believes there are always opportunities to develop markets for these products.


He says: “With the apparent decline in the suckler herd, there is also a general feeling within the industry that black and white beef will become more important in the future.


“There has been a ‘taboo’ around black and white beef among the public, but in actual fact, from a meat quality perspective, this product is just as good as others on the market.”


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