Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Outlook for beef prices in the long term a cause for optimism

Beef should be on everyone’s mind at the moment with St George’s Day heralding the start of a week-long national campaign to raise awareness of the product.

While consumers are being reminded that they have such a versatile product on their doorstep, however, anyone in the industry will be acutely aware of recent falls in prices that beef farmers are receiving.

A multitude of factors have led to the current situation, but longer-term beef price prospects should prompt a more optimistic outlook. The absence of any significant seasonal uplift in the final quarter of last year resulted in downward pressure on prices. As Christmas approached, expectations of a November/December increase in prime cattle values quickly dissipated on the back of continued subdued retail demand.

Processors managed stocks carefully and reported little difficulty in securing supplies necessary to fulfil their Christmas retail contracts. Cattle outside required specifications were proving to be more difficult to place, particularly young bulls over 16 months and any plainer steers and heifers

Traditionally, the cattle trade would see some easing of prices for January and early February, amid subdued consumer demand after the holiday period.  This pressure has been compounded in 2014 by the absence of any colder weather, which would normally give retail demand a boost. As such, processors have continued to drive caution in the trade with small changes in supply being a determining factor on prime cattle price movements.

Another factor to consider is the impact of last year’s horse meat revelations which added some significant upwards pressure to prices during the spring and summer in 2013 as demand for British beef intensified.  Deadweight prices were hitting new record levels week after week. Additionally, the late start to the spring limited grass growth which gave some challenges to finishing.  When the opportunity for turnout arrived, some cattle required additional feeding to finish adequately which in the short term contributed to the tight supply/demand balance and gave further impetus to the already robust upwards pressure on price.

Cattle supplies in the first quarter of 2014 have been more readily available, with GB prime cattle slaughterings in the first three months  of the year over two per cent  ahead of year-earlier throughputs. Consequently, supply has more than matched demand, which has been a major factor in keeping a lid on prices as the year has progressed so far.

In addition, there have been some significant pressure points in the trade of late.  Demonstrating evidence of difficult market conditions for young bulls outside industry requirements, pressure on price for these types has been the greatest and they have consistently traded at a significant discount to other prime cattle.

As of December 2013, there was reportedly an increased number of cattle on the ground, as weaker market conditions gave little encouragement for producers to market cattle. These results supported the current market signals of there being increased supplies in the first half of the year. The number of male cattle on the ground over two-years-of-age and those aged between one and two years were both recorded to be higher on the year.

There does, however, appear to be light at the end of the tunnel as the survey recorded fewer cattle on the ground under one-year-of-age, indicating a potentially fairly swift return to tighter supplies.  Longer term, calf registrations in the first two months of this year are at their lowest number since 2009. Therefore, cattle availability in the next three-year production cycle is destined to remain tight, which should contribute to generating better returns for producers

While acknowledging that the current situation is tough, tight supplies in the future, coupled with EBLEX’s ongoing marketing activity to stimulate consumer demand with initiatives such as mini joints and a TV advertising campaign scheduled for the autumn, should certainly give beef producers cause for optimism for better prices in the longer term.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

How an international butchers’ challenge is helping share good practice

On Sunday July 6 this year, three great nations will draw knives against each other – but in the nicest possible way. Great Britain will take on Australia and New Zealand in the Tri-Nations Butchers’ Challenge. It will be the first time GB has hosted the contest, the second time we have been involved, but the third time it has been held between Australia and New Zealand (it was formerly called the Test Match).

Six butchers from each country will join forces to try to outdo the other teams with a demonstration of cutting and imaginative presentation after being presented with a whole lamb carcase and a side of beef.

They will have just two hours to showcase their skills – and those of the industry – to judges and visitors to the Great Yorkshire Show where the contest will take place. The teams will then be whisked down to London for the announcement of the winner and the presentation at the Supermeat and Fish Awards the same night.

Independent judges provided by the three competing countries will score the teams based on butchery skill, workmanship, product innovation, overall finish, presentation and/or display.

Teams are allowed to provide their own seasonings, spices marinades and garnish to finish products that are designed for a modern retail outlet. They can also provide their own props by way of plates, bowls and signage. Apart from that, its all about cutting, skill and imagination.

The banter between teams has already started with online profiles on dedicated Facebook pages and some press interviews in the three countries. But underneath all this are some important messages. It is about showcasing the industry, sharing good practice and encouraging carcase utilisation, productivity, and sustainability. It may be a fun format, but it is designed to benefit the butchery sector internationally.

The competition itself – won last time by the Kiwis with the Brits in third position – is the culmination of a 10-day study visit by the teams from the other side of the world, hosted by The Q Guild of butchers and EBLEX. There will inevitably be some sight-seeing, but there will also be farm visits, retailers visits, industry networking and a summit to look at the state of the industry, where butchery goes next and what needs to be done to attract the next generation of butchers to the industry.

It is no secret that the number of independent butchers has been falling in the UK for a number of years and this is something that needs to be addressed. We also need to look to reduce waste, selling cuts not carcases on a global market to where there is demand, and ensure the work that a butcher does on the high street is acknowledged and valued by consumers. This is all wrapped up in this one project. And as David Lishman, GB team captain said: “It’s also important for us to demonstrate to those involved in livestock rearing how much effort and skill goes into their carefully-nurtured produce once it has left the farm.”

If you want to keep an eye on things are progressing or find out more about the teams, you can like the Facebook page.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Easter and the “spring lamb” culinary connection

Easter is just around the corner and is traditionally a time when people get together with family and friends to enjoy a roast dinner. A leg of lamb will be the centrepiece of the meal in many households, having become as much of a central part of the Easter festivities as hot cross buns or Easter eggs.

However, despite "spring lamb" being a seasonal favourite, the term can still cause confusion among consumers, many of whom don’t understand the relationship between the lambs they see gambolling in the fields at this time of year and what they eat for their Easter lunch.

Lamb in this country is predominantly a seasonal product, with the majority of ewes being tupped (put to the ram) in early Autumn and their lambs arriving from February onwards, giving the ewes the opportunity to graze fresh, spring grass while the lambs are suckling. This lamb won’t be found in shops until May onwards, when it’s described as “new season lamb”.

However, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, with certain breeds, such as the Charollais, lambing earlier than the peak lambing period, while the Poll Dorset breed is naturally predisposed to breeding all year round.

There is also significant geographical variation in the lambing season, with, for example, Poll Dorset lambs from the South West, which has a milder climate and a longer grazing season, being some of the first new season lamb to appear in the shops, usually in time for Easter. As the spring season progresses, new season lamb from more northern parts of the country can be found on sale. Likewise, lowland farmers market their new season lamb earlier than their hill farming counterparts.

This sort of pattern isn't unusual in nature, with daffodils from the Scilly Isles, for example, available in the shops as early as January, a couple of months earlier than when you would expect to see them bloom elsewhere in the country.

The Easter culinary connection with spring lamb certainly has benefits for our sheep industry, however on the flip side it generates a peak in demand at a time when our new season lamb supply is only just getting going. While lamb early in the season commands a premium due to its delicate flavour and succulent, tender texture, lamb that’s marketed later in the season tends to have a fuller flavour, providing a different, but equally tasty, proposition for consumers.

A key objective for our marketing team is to create sustainable demand for lamb, bringing it on to our family menu all year round. As part of this brief they will shortly be implementing new plans around making lamb an 'adventurous meat', capitalising on lamb’s popularity around the world as a meat that works well with rich flavours.

In the meantime, if you are planning on tucking into a roast dinner this Easter, why not get some inspiration from our latest Simply magazine, which includes a range of delicious lamb (and beef!) recipes.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Beef and sheep farming’s positive environmental impact

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that climate change has again been high on the news agenda.

The publication of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a stark warning on the global impact of climate change, with Britain pinpointed as being at risk from some of the more immediate negative fallout.

Inevitably, such an important and highly emotive subject prompted a swathe of media coverage, outlining the potential impact of a continued, unmitigated global temperature rise.

The meat industry is well-versed in addressing environmental challenges and a line that stood out from one article again raised the question that meat might have to be taken off the menu to help ensure climate change targets are hit.

An element often overlooked, however, is the positive environmental contribution made by grazing livestock. This important factor was raised last year by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Beef and Lamb’s inquiry into the carbon footprint of the beef cattle and sheep sector.

The report, which drew on a broad spectrum of expert evidence, raised a number of important points, including questioning the accuracy of the well-publicised environmental impact of the livestock sector. Crucially, it highlighted a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions and the shortcomings of supranational debate on the issue.

Importantly, the report acknowledged the potential negatives of turning land currently used for grazing animals into arable land. It also highlighted the major role played by grazing livestock in the management of the landscape, an issue addressed in EBLEX’s Landscapes without Livestock report. These are key points, as a little under 65 per cent of our farmland is only suitable for growing grass to feed ruminants.

EBLEX has examined the efficiency of the beef and lamb sector in its three-part environmental roadmap − Change in the Air, Testing the Water and Down to Earth. Covering topics including greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water usage in production and waste in the supply chain, the reports provide a clear insight into the industry’s environmental impact and what it is doing to mitigate it.

Balancing the dual challenges of addressing climate change and food security is important, but to simply suggest removing meat from diets is part of the solution is questionable. The fact remains that the UK’s rain-fed pasture system makes it one of the most efficient places in the world to produce beef and lamb.

By continuing to look at ways of making the industry more efficient, while minimising its environmental impact, there’s no question that the beef and lamb sector is doing its bit. As the APPG report noted, ‘The beef and lamb industry is a net emitter of carbon and therefore has to accept that it has a duty to reduce its environmental impact as much as possible. From our evidence, we are confident that the industry accepts this responsibility and is working on the challenges of meeting it.’