Reports suggest finished cattle numbers are pretty tight, helping to put some more life into prices.

One of the main factors is probably the poor summer in 2023, which inevitably will have had a negative impact on weight gains at grass. Cattle have been housed at lower weights than in previous years.

Compounding the issue is a lot of poorer-quality silage on farms. Even where silage analysis is reasonably good, cattle are simply not performing as might be expected. In many cases it comes down to dry matter – intakes suffer when silage is wet and ultimately it is intake that drives weight gains.

But there is another fly in the ointment this year with the new beef carbon reduction scheme (BCRS) payment due to begin in January (see page 7).

It might only be starting at £20/head, although that still equates to around 6p/kg on finished cattle. Given current feed costs, it is hard to justify holding finished cattle for any length of time, but it will be understandable if farmers want to avoid killing at the end of the month, when 6p more is effectively available a few days later.

It is a scenario that will play out a number of times in 2024, given the BCRS will increase to £40 in February, £60 in March and £75/head in April.

While some in the trade argued against an immediate move to £75/head from January, it might have been a better scenario to do it all in one go.

Beyond that, as the requirement around maximum age drops from 30 months in 2024 to 26 months by 2027, there has to be some concern this will have a distorting impact on trade.

Most of our suckler calves are born in spring months, so will have to be finished out of the house two years later to get the payment. It is not an ideal time of year to have a lot of cattle coming forward and is an issue to be monitored by DAERA.

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