Store cattle - too expensive or not?

5th April 2016

Another highly successful sale of 1,000 store cattle at our March Fair was again met with a chorus of buyers complimenting the vendors for the quality of cattle on show - but unanimous in their concern that they were too expensive to face the finished market.

 With the average trade back on the previous month by around 10p/kilo the best grazing cattle still commanded a similar trade but buyers were more reluctant to pay the high prices for dairy bred or the heavier cattle.

With bullocks averaging close to £1,000 and heifers £900, the margins are tight even for the most efficient finisher.

For as long as I can remember farmers have been encouraged to “produce for the market” and - to be fair - the quality of cattle presented has improved vastly over the years as farmers have moved with the times and kept up with market demands.

However, despite the general opinion that stores are too expensive, there is still a move away from keeping suckler cows which are essential for producing “what the market wants”.

Rearing a heifer calf for 3-4 years before her first progeny is ready for sale is only part of the reason why suckler calf production is in decline. This is despite the fact that on the vast majority of hill farms mixed sheep and suckler cow enterprises are essential to keep the land in optimum condition and ultimately in a way the general public expect the land to be maintained for future generations to enjoy.

After calving down, a suckler cow has to be kept for a further 12 months along with her calf, which will realise on average approximately £900 before taking into account all the associated costs and disregarding inevitable mortality.

Standing on the rostrum we’re in a privileged position where an extra bid here or there doesn’t determine whether we’ve had a good or a bad day. However, in the long term, with margins so tight, it’s essential for our business that both buyers and vendors not only survive but prosper if a traditional way of farming is to continue.

The general public expect high quality food at an affordable price, with animals kept in welfare friendly conditions and in a way which maintains our treasured landscape. This can only happen if we encourage more young farmers to stay in the industry by paying a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, which has not been the case for many years. Why else would the average age of farmers be so high? Many cannot afford to stay in the industry while others cannot afford to retire.

Our buyers want to have a good number of top quality cattle to select from but this can only continue if there is a financial reward for the suckler cow enterprises. With an undoubted emphasis on keeping food prices down, I’m of the opinion that the only way of keeping a traditional industry alive is for a return to the suckler cow production subsidy before it’s too late. While it will be seen as a subsidy for farmers, it would really be for subsidising cheap food and the protection of the countryside.