2018 will be another 12 months of fingers crossed for cattle farmers, as the beef industry attempts to weather a second year in a row of rising beef supply.
However, relief could come towards the end of the year, when the market will start to feel the absence of the increased number of cattle sent for live export in 2017.
Beef slaughterings will increase further this year, with growth in male cattle and beef bred females in the 12-24 month age category.
According to Bord Bia, Irish beef exporters will focus on diversifying to markets that demand high quality beef, especially in Europe and Asia.
The industry will hope this strategy will counter an expected 3% increase in global exports, due to recovery in key exporting countries such as the US, Australia and Brazil.
Joe Burke, Meat Department, Bord Bia, says that 30,000 to 50,000 extra cattle are expected to hit the Irish beef market this year, compared to an increase of 105,000 in 2017.
And half of the extra cattle this year could be cull cows.
A sell-off is expected from the ageing dairy herd, but the timing of when cull cows hit the market will depend on factors such as grazing conditions, fodder availability, and milk prices.
From November onwards, the effect of strong live exports in 2017 could begin to be reflected in a reduced supply of beef from the spring 2017 dairy calf crop.
This effect will increase into 2019, with fewer 22-24 month finished animals appearing.
And the live export effect on the beef market is here to stay, according to Bord Bia predictions, with another strong year for shipments expected, due to demand for calves and weanlings across the EU, North Africa and Middle East.
Last year, Irish beef exports grew by 5%, to €2.5 billion, helping to make 2017 the strongest year on record for meat exports (pigmeat exports grew 14%; lamb exports were up 12%; and poultry exports also rose, by 3%).
Our volume of beef exports grew 4%, to 556,000 tonnes, due to cattle supplies rising 6.5%, but carcase weights declining.
But the supply increase didn’t hit the beef cattle market as badly as had been feared, with prices holding up better than many had expected, partly due to relatively tight global beef supplies and strong consumer demand largely shielding the market from Brexit currency effects, according to Bord Bia statements at their Meat Marketing Seminar last week.
The R3 steer price averaged 2% up on 2016; the heifer price fell about 1%.
In 2016, the average finished animal price had fallen 9%.
Cattle finishers in 2017 had to be content with 380-385c per kg 12 months ago, and prices were still at 390c early in December, last month, until a late rise lifted the market to 405c.