October 3, 2023


UK cattle herd slightly smaller in 2023


As of July 1, 2023, the UK's cattle herd numbered 7.9 million head, showing a marginal decrease of 0.9% (70,400 head) compared to the same period in the previous year, UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board reported.


Among the notable changes, the population of females aged over thirty months (OTM) declined by 2.4%, amounting to 2.7 million head. This decline was primarily attributed to the continued contraction in the beef herd.


When considering cattle available for beef production, including beef males, beef females, and dairy males, there was a 1.8% year-on-year increase in the number aged between 12-30 months in the UK. This growth was particularly influenced by older beef males aged between 18-30 months.


Conversely, the population of cattle aged under 12 months showed an ongoing annual decline, extending a trend observed in quarterly population figures since October 2022. This decrease was mainly driven by reduced numbers of dairy males.


For the first time since 2019, the count of beef males and females aged under 12 months was also lower than the previous year, albeit by a slight margin (-0.3%). In previous years, the number of these animals in the UK had consistently increased annually, potentially due to a higher incidence of beef crossing among dairy cattle, leading to more beef X youngstock.


The most significant decline was observed in the under-6-month age group. Previous analysis had indicated lower calf registrations in the current year compared to the previous one, primarily due to fewer registrations in the beef herd.


This recent shift in the trend raises questions about whether the decline in cattle numbers is beginning to outweigh the adoption of beef semen in the dairy industry or if the dairy sector has reached its maximum capacity for producing beef calves. Both dairy and beef cattle populations have been decreasing for several years, although the rate of decline in the suckler herd has been accelerating.


A larger population of 12–30-month-old cattle at the start of July suggests increased supplies for beef production throughout the remainder of the year. In the beef market outlook updated in June, it was forecasted that prime cattle slaughter would rise in quarters three and four, but a lower year-on-year performance was expected in the final quarter, considering the particularly high slaughter rates for the same period in 2022.


Year-to-date data from the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) indicates that prime cattle slaughter has been below 2022 levels, with notable declines in April and May. June showed a slight increase in slaughter, but the trend of reduced slaughter resumed in July and August. Early estimates for September, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, suggest that weekly slaughter rates have been picking up, albeit starting from historically low levels in August. In parallel, finished cattle prices have been on an upward trajectory.


Based on data from the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) and the lower-than-expected slaughter numbers in July and August, it appears that more cattle might enter the market in the fourth quarter than initially forecasted. However, whether slaughter levels will reach the highs of the previous year remains uncertain. The direction of cattle prices will also depend on the balance between supply and consumer demand as the colder months approach.


-      UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board

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