After a record year of beef exports in 2022, US traders are finding it much more difficult to do business this year.
Exporters are caught in something of a perfect storm of lower cattle supplies in the US, which means prolonged high farmgate prices and the return of much lower-priced Australian beef in high volumes.
Asian markets are the main high-volume markets for US beef exports outside North America and had delivered both volume and value over the past two years, while the Australian cattle herd was rebuilt following drought.
US beef exports in September were the lowest so far in 2023 at 98,757m tonnes, which is down 15% on September 2022 and the value also fell, down 12% to $795.5m (€743m).
For the year to date, beef export volumes are down 13% to 980,100t on the same period in 2022.
While South Korea is the biggest market for US beef markets - taking 188,652t in 2023 to the end of September - this was down 15% on the same period in 2022 and value fell by even more, down 26% at $4.57bn (€1.47bn).
Volumes to Japan were down 21% to 186,943t for the year to date, with value down 26% at $1.39bn (€1.3bn), while volumes to China continued the trend, down 23% to 146,327t.
Given that this is just the third year back in the China market for US beef exports, this is still a very healthy volume and highlights how insignificant a supplier Ireland was of beef to the Chinese market, sending 2,700t up to the end of August.
The EU and UK is a minor but growing market for US beef exports.
Up to the end of September, 16,270t of US beef was exported to Europe, a 6% increase on the same period last year, with most of this coming from the UK, which increased its volume to 1,744t compared with just 627t in the same period in 2022.
The main reason for a squeeze on US beef exports to Asian markets is the surge in Australian beef exports in 2023 following herd rebuilding.
Export volumes to the end of October are running 24% ahead of 2022 and are on track to be the highest since 2019, when there was destocking because of drought.
Exports to the US have shown the greatest increase, with volume reaching 190,616t, an increase of 60% compared with last year.
Exports to China so far this year have jumped 30% to reach 171,587t and volumes to South Korea are running 18% ahead of the same period last year at 155,350t.
Japan is a weaker beef market, as volumes from Australia are also down, falling 6% to 169,932t to the end of October.
With cattle prices in the US running well ahead of Irish prices, we might have expected an increase in Irish beef exports to Asia this year, but it hasn’t happened.
China had been our main market, taking 2,700t up to the end of August, but it is now closed for the foreseeable future because of the atypical BSE case.
The strong supply coming from Australia means that it will remain a tough market to break into for the remainder of this year and into 2024.