The UK’s mainline processors want to buy a higher proportion of heifers because this reduces the risk of them handling out of specification, overweight or overage, male carcases.

Pre-Christmas purchases have seen some UK companies offering a base line for heifers which is 10p higher than for steers although others are content with a bonus of just 5p.

Indeed demand for heifers, which has seen base prices for commercial stock rise to 365-370p, is one of the biggest drivers for continuing price improvements across the English, Northern Ireland and Welsh markets.

Retail specifications forced on processing companies supplying supermarkets include cut size because the beef must fit inside uniform shelf packs – and this can only be done by avoiding underweight, or overweight, stock.

Meeting retail needs, which reduces the cost of disposing of out-of-specification beef onto the secondary wholesale market at a savage discount, became a priority for processors over the course of 2014 – as evidenced by the price purge on bulls over 16 months old or weighing more than 380 kilos.

Figures covering 2013 which were released in the Republic of Ireland in September confirm that heifers are more likely to hit spec than steers.

For example, 35%of steers (average weight 370kg) and 45% of bulls (354kg) produced carcases that were too heavy but only 4% of heifer carcases (312kg) were above the 380kg limit.

If this level of processor concentration on heifers continues finishers could be tempted to take as many as possible to the highest possible weight – and this could trigger penalties if more become overfat.

This being the case feeders hoping to finish more heifers need to be aware of the depth of penalty on carcases classifying 4H.

It is expected that at some stage over the next four years, and sooner rather than later, the UK’s principal supermarkets will demand that the beef they buy is only taken from for steers and heifers under 24 months instead of 30 months because this raises the likelihood of the beef they offer being more consistently tender.

Further reductions in maximum weights to 360kg are considered likely too.

One of the features of 2014 was the determination of the biggest processing companies that 90-95 per cent of cattle in a consignment met supermarket specification.

When challenged by disappointed feeders, who had come to rely on being able to include some out –of-spec stock in a delivery, they explained they no longer wanted to bear the cost of disposing of beef their customers did not like because it had been taken from cattle they did not want.

Robert Forster is a UK-based journalist who produces the Beef Industry Newsletter.