Meat & Livestock News

Recent Trends in the UK Cattle Industry: A Comprehensive Overview

Cow Milk Industrial Automated Farm. Cows in the paddock with tags on the ears eat hay and rest

As of June 1, 2023, the UK’s cattle herd has experienced a modest decline, with the total count standing at 9.6 million, a decrease of 0.8% from the previous year. This equates to a reduction of approximately 76,500 head. The breeding herd, which represents about a third of the total cattle population, has seen a more pronounced year-on-year decline of 1.9%, reducing its numbers to 3.2 million head. Scotland, in particular, recorded a notable decrease of 2.4%.

The reduction in the UK’s breeding herd is largely attributed to the decrease in the suckler herd. Over the past year, the number of beef cows has decreased by 3.8% to 1.4 million animals, marking the most significant annual decline in over a decade.

This trend is part of a longer-term decrease, with the suckler herd shrinking by 13% or 203,800 head over the last ten years. In contrast, dairy cow numbers have remained relatively stable, with a slight decrease of 0.3%, bringing the total to 1.8 million head. Consequently, the dairy herd now constitutes 57% of the UK breeding herd.

Data from the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) as of October 1 provides additional insights. There was a 1.3% increase in the number of prime cattle available for beef production in Great Britain compared to the previous year, with the total reaching 1.99 million head. This increase was largely driven by cattle aged 24-30 months, which saw a 6.9% increase year-on-year. Beef males were the primary contributors to this growth, registering a 12% increase.

However, the number of cattle under 6 months old has seen a significant decrease, dropping by 4.3% or 50,600 head. This trend is consistent across all categories and follows the patterns observed in calf registrations. GB calf registrations for beef production have decreased by 2.7% year-on-year.

The decline in the number of dairy male calves continues, reflecting the growing use of sexed semen and beef semen within the UK dairy herd. The number of younger beef animals in GB is now showing a decline, reversing the trend of annual growth seen in recent years.

These trends indicate that the contraction in breeding herds may be starting to have a more significant impact on beef cattle supply than recent insemination practices. Birth registrations in 2023 show an accelerated reduction in suckler-born calf registrations, surpassing the growth in dairy-born beef calf registrations.

Looking ahead, the larger population of 12–30-month-old cattle as of October 1 suggests that cattle supplies may be supported into the early months of 2024.

However, various factors, including last year’s forage pressures, high feed costs, and reports of learner cattle, could influence finishing times. With lighter average carcass weights reported throughout 2023 and considering the current levels of youngstock and calf registrations, cattle supplies may start to tighten as we approach 2025.