Can global beef and sheep production keep pace with increasing demand and reflect growing concerns about natural resource use? This was one of the central questions addressed in the Agri-Benchmark Beef and Sheep Conference 2013, which took place in York England from 13-19 June and was hosted by the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX).

Some 29 countries participate in the global network, including Ireland, Namibia and Uruguay as new members. The week-long event consisted of an internal workshop and a public global forum on the last day, at which Anne Kinsella of Teagasc National Farm Survey was also a participant.

Beef production

Global beef production continues to face major changes. Growing demand drives beef prices up but feed and land prices keep pace and payments linked (coupled) to production have disappeared in almost all countries. As a result, margins of typical farms analysed by agri benchmark have remained unchanged or decreased.

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen the levels of prices and costs between countries narrowing continuously,” said Claus Deblitz, co-ordinator of the agri benchmark Beef Network. “A number of countries in Asia, Middle East, North Africa as well as Russia have joined the group of high cost and high price countries with implications for competitiveness and global trade flows.”

In this context, Uruguay provides yet another example of dramatic land use changes and land values seven times as high as 10 years ago. Similar to Argentina, the drivers were the expansion of soybean, corn and wheat production which led to a dislocation of beef and sheep production to more marginal areas.

Growth issues in sheep production

In his overview on global trends in sheep production, Peter Weeks, representing Meat and Livestock Australia pointed out: “Sheep prices continue to rise as supply struggles to meet demand”.

There are various limitations to the production of sheep meat: competition for land, degradation of grasslands, rising feed costs, labour shortage and poor prices for the by-product wool. However, global sheep meat consumption is rising, and demand is expected to further grow in the future. China’s share in global sheep production is 26 per cent and China has dominated sheep production growth of the past 10 years with sheep farming being profitable due to the high sheep meat prices. In arid areas such as Inner Mongolia but also in Northern African countries, sheep production often comes with overgrazing, degradation of grasslands and subsequent low productivity levels.

The need to be more productive

With competition from crop farming and other livestock industries, beef and sheep production must become more productive if the present production levels shall be maintained or even increased.

The two main pathways are a) the increase of productivity in pasture systems (both cow-calf and finishing) and b) the shift of finishing cattle from pasture to grain finishing in feedlots for the last few months of the finishing period.

Decreasing stocking rates in vulnerable areas can provide an opportunity to increase both individual animal performance as well as land productivity. Recent production increases have in fact been mainly driven by productivity increases, often accompanied by decreasing cattle and sheep inventories.

Sheep production in New Zealand provides an example where weight sold per ewe increased by almost 80 per cent in the past 20 years, driven by higher lambing percentages and higher slaughter lamb weights.

Carol Davis, senior analyst with EBLEX, concluded: “The reduction of the difference between the top and bottom 30 per cent performers constitutes a huge potential, even for so-called ‘developed’ countries.” To address and analyse the issues surrounding productivity growth in a systematic way, agri-benchmark has been elected to chair the focus area group ‘Closing the efficiency group’ within the FAO-led multi-stakeholder initiative Global Agenda of Action.

… and the need to measure

Assessing the status quo situation, possible improvements of production and its economic implications in a comparable way is key to the process of informing decision makers in agriculture, agribusiness and policy. agri benchmark is a global, non-profit network of agricultural economists, advisors, producers and specialists in key sectors of agricultural and horticultural value chains.

We analyse production systems, their economics, drivers and perspectives on a permanent basis, generating annual updates of data and results and providing a unique data set of typical agricultural farms and production systems. The data can be used for farm comparisons, policy and farm strategy analysis.

Claus Deblitz, co-ordinator of the agri benchmark Network, while on recent work trip to Ireland, visited the Teagasc Mellows campus in Athenry. He was given an overview of some of the current research projects being undertaken in the Teagasc Rural Economy Development Programme. Philip Creighton, researcher on the Teagasc Sheep Demonstration farm in Athenry showcased to Dr Deblitz the latest research being undertaken on the Mellows farm while taking a tour of the farm.

This updated was provided by Teagasc