Beef and lamb outlook for 2024

The cost-of-living crisis continues to have an effect on consumer demand for red meat, but there are signs that sheep farmers will see some ‘excellent’ returns this year.

Sheep and Beef Cow looking at camera - ForFarmers UK

According to AHDB’s Agri Market Outlook retail performance for beef and lamb was down, but strong year-on-year. Foodservice (particularly takeaways) performance mitigated some of the losses. It expects that as inflation falls and wages rise the overall economic outlook will improve however it expects any changes in shopping behaviour to be gradual.

Overall lamb volumes for 2024 are expected to fall by 2% compared to 2023 and to be 16% lower than those of 2019. This is due to the combination of overall eating-out not returning to pre-COVID levels and retail sales of meat suffering from the cost-of-living crisis.

Meanwhile beef volumes are forecast to be up 1% compared to 2023 figures but 6% lower than 2019 levels. AHDB anticipates that 2024 will bring increased demand for beef in both retail and out-of-home, with volumes forecasted to rise slightly compared to 2023.

Sheep production in 2023 fell slightly due to lower adult kill numbers, and slightly lower clean sheep carcase weights. UK imports of sheep meat were also lower than 2022 – particularly in the first six months. However the second half of 2023 brought increased pressure from imports, after the trade deals with Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, exports were higher than 2022. Production is expected to fall again (by around 1%) in 2024 following contraction in the breeding flock.

In 2023 UK prime cattle slaughter fell by 1.3% against the year before, with the first quarter seeing uplift in throughputs, boosted by a stronger January, before dipping through the spring. Kill levels remained below 2022 levels through the third and fourth quarters, despite some monthly fluctuation.

Average carcase weights were ‘persistently lighter’ in 2023, which AHDB believes was due to poorer forage reserves over the winter, alongside the challenges of increased feed costs and adverse weather. It also expects that the greater proportion of dairy-bred beef and increases in native registrations will impact average weights on a longer-term basis.

Prime cattle slaughter is expected to edge up by 1% in 2024 to 2.06 million head. However, supplies may begin to tighten up towards the end of the year and into 2025, based on the number animals aged under 12 months.

Positive signs

ForFarmers UK Beef & Sheep Manager Alister Davies believes that farmer confidence is buoyant.

“The recent record cull ewe, fat lamb, finished beef, store sheep and cattle prices are giving farmers confidence that their investments will be rewarded. Farming will always have its challenges but there are some promising signs for good returns this year.

“We have had the most difficult weather throughout the lambing period - relentless rain from January right through to April - with all flocks suffering increased lamb losses.

“This combined with the effect of Schmallenberg has reduced the lamb crop significantly that in theory should maintain the excellent returns longer into the season.”

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