National Beef Association
For everyone with an interest in the British beef industry

Low prices threatening future of NI beef sector, warn industry body

22nd March 2019

Region: Northern Ireland

Latest DAERA figures are showing a 30-year low of suckler cows in Northern Ireland, and this trend will escalate until farmers receive a fair price, according to the National Beef Association’s (NBA) NI board representative, Ernie Ritchie.

“Costs have continued to rise, and this is raising serious questions of the industry,” says Mr Ritchie. “NI beef was quoted at 334p per kilo in the last week, and this in itself is down some 30p in the last few months,” he explains.

Combine this with the figures from the December 2018 agricultural survey published by DAERA, showing a reduction of 5% on number of suckler cows from the 2017 figures, and at 245,100, the lowest number recorded in NI since 1988, it paints a disturbing picture for the future of the NI beef sector.

“Processors have been filling cold stores in anticipation of a worst-case scenario and pre-empting a lack of imported beef, effectively looking after themselves,” says Mr Ritchie.

In fact, this is having the opposite effect and creating over-supply, which is driving prices down. The weather conditions have compounded the situation, and the end-result is that NI farmers are being left behind due to lack of profits.

Many beef farmers have moved to dairy, or have simply stopped due to concerns on increased costs and reduced prices. “It ultimately comes down to lack of profit and rising costs of all inputs and the mediocre margins left by these unsustainable prices,” continues Mr Ritchie.

NI beef farmers have long faced being behind GB prices, with the argument being that the reduction reflects the additional cost of getting NI beef into GB. In reality, the numbers do not add up, and the difference between NI and GB prices is far higher than the associated transport costs.

“Northern Ireland complies to all the same quality standards as the rest of the UK, and should be encouraged to continue to supply to the UK market,” adds Chris Mallon, chief executive of the NBA. “But they need to be able to compete and be able to achieve a fair price.”

Mr Richie continues, “My question to the NI processors is this, ‘if we in the UK are only 65-70% self-sufficient, how are you managing to fill your cold stores?’ We can’t produce the numbers coming through.”

While there are on-going discussions on trade post-Brexit, the NBA is calling for a more joined-up approach now to ensure the future of the NI beef industry. If NI farmers are not able to secure a fair margin, the very future of the NI beef sector is at risk, as more and more beef producers look to other avenues to return a profit.