SCOTTISH prime cattle prices have started the year four per cent lower than at the start of 2018, with the wider European beef market also down 3% in Euro terms, according to the latest market commentary from Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

"Within this average, Irish prices are 6% lower than last year and bigger falls are reported for Spain and France - the countries with the two largest cattle herds in Europe," said Stuart Ashworth, QMS director of economic services.

Current prime cattle prices in the US are reported to be unchanged on the year, but on lower throughputs.

"Australian producers, in contrast, have seen prices firm in the final couple of months of 2018 and, despite dipping through late December and into January, are 10% higher on the year," said Mr Ashworth.

"However, because of drought conditions, slaughtering over the first ten months of 2018 was around 10% higher than in 2017 and prices reached a low point during August - 10% lower than they currently are.

"As 2018 drew to a close, volumes fell back towards more typical levels and going into 2019 are expected to fall below the long run average," he added.

Brazilian producer prices have also started 2019 slightly higher than they started 2018 but, when considered in sterling, they have fallen slightly as have prices in Argentina.

According to Mr Ashworth, the June 2018 census across Europe reported a decline in the breeding cow herd with dairy cow numbers down 0.5% and beef cow numbers down 1.4%.

"Only Spain, out of the five largest European beef herds, showed an increase in numbers. France, the UK, Ireland and Germany all showed declines," said Mr Ashworth.

"A small breeding herd points towards lower production in the coming months unless further decline in the herd occurs," he added.

Scottish calf registrations dipped by 0.25% in 2017 and in the 11 months to the end of November 2018 had fallen a further 2.5%.

"The volume of prime beef production in Britain would only be maintained if carcase weights were to rise, but even then as the year progresses production is likely to decline," said Mr Ashworth.

Market round-up

Harrison & Hetherington Ltd sold 79 store heifers in St Boswells on Thursday to a top of 207.8p per kg and an average of 189.9p, while 72 store bullocks peaked at 223.3p and levelled at 207.2p.

C&D Auction Marts Ltd sold 4,485 prime hoggs in Longtown on Thursday to a top of £120 per head and 292p per kg to average 196p (-2.9p on the week).

A larger entry of 5,006 cast sheep saw heavy ewes sell to £170 for Texels and average £76.61 (+£4.17), while light/export-type ewes peaked at £70 for Cheviots and levelled at £42.13 (+£2.76).