When comparing beef prices across the UK, historical data show that factories in NI lag behind counterparts in Britain when it comes to prime cattle, but they are normally competitive buyers of cull cows.
Shown in Figure 1 are the November prices paid for O3 grading cows by factories in NI and Britain in the years 2017 to 2021.
In each of those years, NI farmers received between 7p-21p/kg more for O3 grading cows than counterparts in Britain, despite the fact that the prices for prime beef in NI were significantly less.
Over the same period, farmers in Britain received up to 21p/kg more for U3 steers than farmers in NI (see Figure 2).
That gap in prices for U3 steers also exists at present, standing at around 17p/kg, although it did narrow throughout the summer of 2022.
In fact, during three weeks in June 2022, U3 grades in NI were actually making slightly more than in Britain.
But in general, the trade for prime beef has followed a traditional pattern in 2022, with NI farmers receiving less than those in Britain.
However, when it comes to cull cows, the advantage normally enjoyed by NI farmers over those in Britain is gone, and as shown in Figure 3, prices here have lagged behind for most of the year.
At present, a farmer in Britain gets around £80 per head more for a 350kg O3 grading cow.
It is a reversal from November 2021, when the same 350kg cow received £60 more in NI than Britain.
Since June 2022, nearly 50p/kg has been wiped off the prices paid for O3 grade cows in NI.
Over the same period, the price paid for a U3 grade steer is back 14p/kg.
While there are probably various reasons why NI factories are not as competitive for cows as they were in previous years, fundamentally it always comes back to supply and demand, and with record numbers of cows being sent to slaughter in 2022, it has put pressure on prices.
In the week ending 12 November 2022, the cow kill of 3,307 was the highest ever recorded in NI, beating the previous high of 3,158 set the week before.
In total, to mid-November, 101,252 cows have been slaughtered in NI, up 15% on the same period in 2021.
There has also been an increase in the prime cattle kill in NI during 2022, with 325,725 cattle slaughtered up to the week ending 12 November 2022, an increase of 8% on the same period in 2021.
That leaves the total cattle kill for the period up 10% at 438,684 head.
Assuming a reasonable pattern of slaughtering over the remaining weeks of 2022, NI is looking at a total kill of over 500,000, significantly ahead of the previous record high of 473,900 from 2010.
That 2022 total is much greater than the forecast kill published in February 2022 by the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC).
Using what it described as “its own sophisticated software systems”, the LMC projected a kill for the year of 472,532.
With the actual kill running much higher, it may suggest that prime cattle have been brought forward, potentially leaving supplies tight in the new-year.
The average weight of prime cattle in the second week of November 2022 was 342kg, compared to 348kg in the same week in 2021. In addition, high costs on farms mean farmers have been quick to move out animals earmarked for culling this year.
However, a similar pattern of increased slaughterings is not being seen in Britain.
The total cattle kill to the end of October 2022 is actually slightly behind the 2021 figure, which has helped keep the beef trade there reasonably solid over the last six months.