There has been a positive start to the year for the Irish sheepmeat sector, with deadweight prices trending above the previous year's levels.

The average reported price for the first six weeks of 2024 was €6.72/kg, up from €6.18/kg in the same period in 2023.

There has also been a strong liveweight trade reported in the marts, with firm demand for lambs that meet current market specifications for both the domestic and export markets.

Sheep throughput in Department of Agriculture-approved plants was 301,865 head during the first six weeks of 2024, down 4% on the corresponding period in 2023.

Lamb/hogget throughput was 271,504 head (-1.5%), while ewe/ram throughput was down by 22% over the same period.

Overall imports from Northern Ireland were 45,113 so far this year and have accounted for 15% of total throughput, up from 11% on the same period in 2023.


The current stability in the sheep trade is being maintained in part by the tighter availability of suitable sheep for slaughter.

However, there is an expectation of supplies to pick up as the year progresses, with an additional 40,000 hoggets forecasted to have been carried into 2024.

Increased demand for sheepmeat is expected around Ramadan (10 March to 8 April) and Easter Sunday (31 March), which should help provide a market for these.

Lamb consumption

There was some recovery in demand for Irish sheepmeat in the final months of 2023 across our key market outlets and this has carried through into the early weeks of 2024.

Kantar data for the Irish retail market shows an increase of 2.3% in sheepmeat sales to reach €70.7m in 2023. This increase was driven by additional buyers in the category, an increase in volume sales and a slight increase in average retail prices.

Feedback from the key lamb processors has indicated more positivity from Irish retailers in stocking lamb and increasing visibility on retail shelf as a result.

Analysis of the Kantar data for 2023 has also indicated some welcome growth in lamb consumption among younger consumers (under 45), which has coincided with the availability and growth in value-added and ready-to-cook products. There have also been some more positive signs for lamb consumption in Irish food service in recent months.

The EU remains the priority market outlet for Irish sheepmeat, with exports in the final months of 2023 on par with the previous year.

Feedback from Bord Bia’s European shopper insights work across key export markets has indicated higher levels of consideration for lamb among consumers.

Irish supply

While the December 2023 sheep census figures have not been published, some further contraction in Irish ewe numbers is possible, with Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures collected in June 2023 indicating a 3% decline in the breeding flock.

However, with reports of relatively good scanning results this year, the impact on spring lamb supplies may be minimal, provided we have favourable production conditions for the 2024 lambing season.

Fall in EU and UK sheep production

The EU ewe flock is also expected to decline further in 2024 (-1.5%) with declines in many sheep-producing regions, including Spain, France, Italy and Greece.

This is expected to contribute to a 1% decline in EU sheepmeat production this year.

Consumption is expected to hold stable, with the reduction in food inflation rates allowing more price-sensitive consumers to come back into the category.

The latest forecast from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) in the UK has indicated a tightening in sheepmeat supplies this year, which will reduce product availability for export. This is expected to be most apparent in the first half of the year, with the hogget carryover into 2024 forecast to be back 10% from 2023 levels.

The UK lamb crop for the 2024 season is predicted to be 16.4m head, an increase of 2% from last year, which is expected to boost lamb supplies marginally towards the second half of the year.

Sheepmeat imports

Declining domestic production in the EU, combined with a wide gap between northern and southern hemisphere sheep prices, has made the EU a more attractive market for imported sheepmeat, which competes directly against Irish product.

While some increases in EU imports from New Zealand and Australia are expected in 2024, no further increase in UK imports is forecast following several years of growth.

Beef market update

Cattle availability for slaughter has now started to pick up with supply and demand finely balanced. \ Donal O’Leary

The deadweight prime cattle trade has started 2024 on a firm footing, with the average R3 steer price increasing steadily during the early weeks of 2024, with tighter supplies of prime cattle driving the trade.

However, cattle availability for slaughter has now started to pick up, with supply and demand finely balanced. This has resulted in a steadying of beef quotes across the major beef-processing plants.

The average R3 steer price for the year to date was €5.13/kg, back marginally from 2023 levels.

The cow trade has also remained firm in the early weeks of 2024, with seasonal demand for mince and manufacturing products.

Cattle throughput in Department-approved plants has totalled 207,616 head during the first six weeks of 2024, a 3% increase from year-earlier levels.

Throughput of prime cattle (steers, heifers and young bulls) has increased marginally, with 1,700 additional animals processed. However, while prime cattle numbers have remained relatively steady, overall there has been a notable decline in the young bull kill (-2,323 head/11% year on year).

Higher levels of live export activity for bulls in the second half of 2023, along with the contraction in the availability of suckler origin stock, contributed to this trend.

The decline in the young bull kill has been compensated for by higher steer and heifer throughput.

Cow throughput has remained very strong, with 53,823 cows processed so far this year.

A significant proportion of the cows slaughtered have been of dairy origin, with total cow throughput for the year to date up 12% from 2023 levels.

Lower carcase weights

A growing dairy influence on the national beef kill combined with the impact of challenging grazing and production conditions during 2023 have continued to affect average carcase weights.

The average steer carcase weight during January 2024 was 339kg, back 3kg from January 2023 levels.

Heifer carcase weights were back by a similar margin to 302kg in January 2024, while young bull carcases were back an average of 10kg to 358kg.

Meanwhile, cow carcase weights were back by 2kg to average 294kg in January 2024.

Analysis of the grading profiles for January 2024 have also indicated the growing impact of dairy genetics on the national beef kill.

U and R grading steers accounted for 36% of the price-reported kill in January 2024, back from 41% in January 2022.

The proportion of O grading steer carcases has held steady over the same period at 51%, while the proportion of P grading carcases has increased from 9% in January 2022 to 13% in January 2024.

A large proportion of customer specifications require beef from carcases achieving an O=, or better, for carcase conformation, so developments in the last few weeks to encourage greater collaboration between the beef and dairy sectors to improve the quality of animals being produced is very important.

Forecasted kill

Initial cattle kill forecasts for 2024 have indicated a contraction in the total cattle kill of between 30,000 and 40,000 head compared with 2023 levels.

Supplies of prime cattle are expected to hold relatively firm in the early months of the year, with cattle numbers on-farm aged 18 to 30 months in December 2023 similar to levels a year earlier.

As we move into the second half of the year, numbers are expected to tighten due to lower levels of cattle availability in the lower age cohorts, a consequence of a very strong live export trade for calves in 2022 and 2023.

The cow kill has started 2024 very strongly and, if this remains strong, it may affect these initial forecast figures for the total kill.

Beef market outlook

The UK was the standout market for Irish beef exports in 2023 and this is expected to continue into 2024, with domestic beef production in the region stable at best.

A slight recovery in UK beef demand in both retail and out-of-home dining is expected in 2024 as inflation falls and wages rise. This is expected to help maintain the current strong demand for Irish beef in the UK market.

The latest UK cattle population figures show slightly more 12- to 30-month-old cattle on the ground and this, combined with a reduction in heifers’ retention for breeding, is expected to contribute to a marginal 1% increase in prime cattle for slaughter in 2024.

In the short term, uncertainty over milk prices is incentivising some additional dairy culling. However, UK cow slaughter is expected to decline by 2% in 2024.

In the longer term, both the dairy and suckler breeding herds are expected to remain pressured by a higher cost of production, market volatility and reducing direct subsidy.

EU market opportunities

The EU is a key market for Irish exporters.

The EU market remains a priority for Irish exporters. Beef production across the trading bloc is expected to continue its longer-term decline this year (-1.3%). This downward movement will underpin demand for Irish beef in key export markets.

Similar to the UK market, demand for beef across the EU is showing some signs of recovery in response to declining inflation rates and improvements in consumer spending power.

While this may create some opportunity for Irish beef exporters, there is some potential for additional competition in the market in 2024 with an increase in non-EU beef imports expected (+3%).

Irish Grass Fed Beef PGI

In March, Bord Bia will officially launch a comprehensive campaign to promote the Irish Grass Fed Beef PGI across Europe.

In 2022, Bord Bia commissioned research to gauge consumers’ awareness of the PGI logo in several countries.

The research found that the highest consumer awareness and appreciation of PGI labels is in southern Europe and Switzerland.

It also found that when considering buying beef with a PGI, consumers associated that beef with grass-fed, local, high-quality, better animal welfare and traceability.

This research has informed the launch strategy for the Irish Grass Fed Beef PGI, which will take a tiered approach. Italy is the only tier one market and will enjoy the greatest investment, featuring both consumer and trade marketing.

Switzerland, Belgium and France are tier two markets, where the focus is on building awareness among trade buyers of the PGI status of Irish grass-fed beef through trade advertising in the spring and autumn.

For tier three markets (Germany, Sweden and Netherlands), there will be one burst of trade promotion as part of the spring launch.

Later in the year, Bord Bia will invite media and customers to travel to Ireland to better understand the production methods and product specification of the Irish Grass Fed Beef PGI.