“One of the main difficulties in marketing beef from young bulls of more than 16 months of age is that these animals are deemed ‘out of spec’ as far as the UK market is concerned.” This is according to Joe Burke, beef specialist with Bord Bia.

Burke outlined the fortunes of these animals are unlikely to improve as the UK will continue to be a key market for Ireland and it only wants in-spec animals particularly steers.

“UK market accounted for 250,000 tonnes, or 53 per cent, of Irish beef exports in 2013,” he said. “Most of that volume was purchased by retail customers, including Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys. These supermarket groups have high standards with regard to the type of beef that they buy.”

He stressed processors are only permitted to supply beef from carcases, which meet the following requirements: Steers or heifers of less than 30 months of age (*Some have raised this age limit to 36 months.). Or alternatively: Young bulls of less than 16 months of age, From Quality Assured farms, Carcase weights of between 280 and 380kg, Carcase conformation of ‘O=’ or better, Fat class of 2+, 3, 4- or 4=.

Burke noted: “Cattle which does not meet these conditions, such as ‘older’ young bulls, are less valuable to meat plants. When such carcases are deboned, they do not have the option of selling any of the cuts into the UK retail sector. This is a major disadvantage at present, because the UK market has effectively become the highest-priced beef market in the EU.”

He also added: “Many people have pointed out Irish beef exports into the UK tend to command a lower value per kilo than domestic British beef this is correct. However, the prices achieved there would be well ahead of equivalent beef prices across most of the Continental EU markets, where finished cattle prices are much lower.”

Looking forward Burke said: “I expect more farmers to go down the route of traditional steer beef finishing. With steers Ireland has a real point of difference in the market with enables us to achieve higher prices for that product.”

He cited that this is already happening. He said: “Over the past 12 months, the popularity of young bull production has been in decline. In 2013, the proportion of prime male cattle slaughtered as young bulls fell from 31 per cent to 26 per cent, as a result of a 10 per cent decline in young bull slaughtering’s coupled with a 13 per cent increase in steer throughput.”

He stressed: “The feedback that Bord Bia has continually gotten from customers across various Continental markets is that they put a real value on prime steer beef coming from our grass-based production systems. Young bull beef, on the other hand, is seen as more of a commodity and therefore it tends to sell for a lower price,”

Burke added: “There will continue to be niches, in markets like Italy, which present demand for a certain amount of young bull beef from Ireland. However, Irish beef producers should be mindful that this is a specialised market for a defined carcase specification, and also that it has become more price competitive in recent years.”

Key specifications for UK market

•             Steers or heifers of less than 30 months of age (*Some have raised this age limit to 36 months.)

•             Or alternatively: Young bulls of less than 16 months of age

•             From Quality Assured farms

•             Carcase weights of between 280 and 380kg

•             Carcase conformation of ‘O=’ or better

•             Fat class of 2+, 3, 4- or 4=

Image: Shutterstock