While 2024 will probably go down as one of the worst spring seasons in a long number of years, there is some cautious optimism around the beef trade and all things suckling.

The winter finisher once again has been the fall guy in Irish beef factories quest to buy beef as cheap as they can.

Our beef finishing industry is changing. Factories have adopted a policy to source their finished animals requirements through bigger operators, feedlots and mega finishers.

This gives them the ability to have clear sight on what is coming down the tracks and also continuity of supply with many of these feedlots killing cattle on a weekly basis.

Confidential supply and price agreements can be drawn up with a chosen few people dealing in thousands and not tens of cattle annually.

Specialist operation

Winter finishing is once again in 2024 a loss-making enterprise and more and more it is becoming a specialist operation.

A continued drop in carcase weights year on year for the last number of years has to be a concern for factories.

It’s not that long ago since they were appealing to the country’s finishers that heavy carcases were wanted no more and the supermarket spec and fixed unit pricing dictated that a carcass of between 280-380kg was the ideal in terms of marketing and selling the meat.

The explosion in dairy cow numbers and drop off in suckler cow numbers has meant that over 60% of our annual kill of cattle is now coming from the dairy herd with a higher proportion than ever before of P1 dairy cows in 2024.

This presents some challenges for our industry. Very low carcase weights and a drive to finish cattle off grass at the end of the second grazing season could bring back seasonality of supply as a real issue for the industry.

Live exports

Live exports have seen a very positive start to 2024 with weanlings’ exports and store cattle exports almost doubling for the first four months of 2024. Bluetongue restrictions on live exports from many countries in Europe is an ill wind that is blowing Ireland some good once that same wind doesn’t blow the midges that are responsible for spreading Bluetongue to Irish shores.

Present indications are that this demand for weanlings and store cattle will continue for the rest of 2024 and into 2025. North Africa, the middle east and eastern Europe have all become very important markets for Irish cattle.

Any year we have high live exports, it always helps shift the supply/demand curve.

Suckler cow numbers continue to decline with almost 30,000 less suckler birth registrations so far in 2024. The industry is set for some huge changes in the coming years with Teagasc predicting that we could end up with just 600,000 suckler cows in the country by 2030 if the current rate of decline continues.