Strong grass growth drives store price rally

Mart prices rise by €40-€100/hd, but bull finishers call for action on factories' 'massive' price cuts

Martin Coughlan and Martin Ryan

Lively competition among grass finishers has pushed on prices for stores by €40 to €100/hd, despite the continuing concerns over low prices in the beef trade.

Strong grass growth over the last month has driven demand for stock, and mart managers report an increased numbers of buyers at ringside adding a lot more bite in the trade for good quality stock.

There have also been suggestions that both the factory and independent feedlots have been more active for stock over the last fortnight, with intensive finishers looking to restock empty sheds.

George Candler of Kilkenny Mart said the trade for black heifers was particularly brisk with prices generally up 20c/kg and the better lots selling in the 180-200c/kg range.

Strong farmer buying saw 300kg bullocks sell to a top of €3.10/kg at New Ross Mart, with most moving for €2.40-2.80/kg. Bulls were harder to sell and generally made €100/hd under the bullock price.

Mart auctioneer Jim Bushe said bullock prices had increased by close to €100/hd in the last three weeks on the back of improved farmer demand and lower numbers.

An equally lively demand for store heifers saw light heifers generally make €2.20-2.70/kg, with heavier 500kg animals selling for €1.90-2.00/kg.

However, there is still growing unease among mart managers over the uncertainty from the overhang of Brexit on the trade.

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Beef finishers have found their margins have been eroded by the low prices at the factory gates, with calls for direct state intervention to avert a serious "financial crisis" in the sector over the coming weeks.

For the first time in almost two decades, prices are "frozen" on par or well below the previous autumn when most were out buying their winter stores. Farm organisations have warned this is "completely unsustainable".

The official statistics show that each year for almost 20 years between November and the following February, prime beef prices increased by up to 35c/kg which delivered a margin in the higher cost winter finishing period.

Steer and heifer prices are on par with November 2018, while returns for young bulls and cows have fallen well behind.

Friesian bulls are fetching around €3.00-€3.10/kg, while beef bulls are getting €3.50-€3.60/kg. Factory prices for bullocks and heifers continue on €3.75/kg and €3.85/kg.

IFA president Joe Healy held discussions with Agriculture Minister Michael Creed and called on him to "intervene directly with the meat factories" to ease the financial crisis facing finishers.

Mr Healy said bull finishers who cannot get stock killed "are at their wits' end facing massive price cuts of up to €200 per head". He called for weight restrictions to be parked until the current crisis is resolved.

ICSA beef chairman Edmund Graham described the current beef trade as "absolutely toxic for farmers" with the prices down 40c/kg or €160 on a 400kg carcass compared to the summertime, which is "a real sign that winter finishing is in total crisis".

He said that bull beef prices from the suckler herd are about €1.50/kg less than what is needed, and unsustainable.

ICMSA livestock chair Des Morrison said farmers were fed up hearing about new markets being opened, and the need for higher farm standards and more cattle specifications, while never receiving a cent per kilo more for meeting all these new standards.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said the beef sector is navigating a "very challenging course", with major Brexit uncertainty undermining confidence.

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