The shift towards young bull beef slaughter is roaring ahead and bucking all the slaughter trends.
Despite an overall decline of 7.5pc in the total number of cattle slaughtered in beef plants so far this year, the number of young bulls slaughtered is up by 35.6pc.
Bord Bia market analyst Joe Burke said the high proportion of young bulls processed was a clear indication of farmers' decision to take advantage of the higher efficiencies from finishing young bulls at a younger age, compared to steer beef.
In 2010, 20pc of the prime male kill consisted of young bulls, rising from 10pc of the kill in the previous year.
The Bord Bia analyst said he expected the trend to continue, with young bulls reaching 25pc of the prime male kill in 2011.
However, Rory Fanning, managing director of Slaney Foods, urged farmers who were switching away from steer beef to check with their meat factory that there was an outlet for bull beef. Too much of a swing towards bull beef could have a negative impact on markets where our Irish steer beef was sought after, he said.
Meanwhile, changing customer requirements and rising feed costs in Italy could affect the type of Irish weanling required for export this year, farmers have been warned.
Younger bulls under 12 months of age and under 430kg will be in demand but heavier, older bulls will not be attractive to Italian buyers, Mr Burke has predicted.
This shift was already being borne out by the January live export figures, which showed a 38.4pc fall in the number of stores exported during the first month of the year.
"The Italian market will probably still take the same number of weanlings this year but the requirements will be stricter," said Mr Burke.
"They will be looking for bulls of the right age, in-spec and of the right weight," he explained.
Customer preferences in Italy are moving towards younger beef, dropping from a slaughter age of 24 months down to 22 or 20 months.
Under the partially coupled payment regime in operation in Italy, feedlot buyers must hold stock on their farm for a required period to secure the slaughter premium.
The younger slaughter age preferences and required period on-farm mean that bulls must be bought from Ireland at a younger age. Rising feed costs were also affecting feedlot buyers' decisions, pushing them towards a more exact specification for their stock, he said.
Irish exporter Hubert Maxwell said Italian buyers were "very sticky" due to higher feed costs and lower profits.