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Beef and sheep production need to be more productive

Results of the agri benchmark Beef and Sheep Conference 2012

Growing demand, rising prices and costs as well as and land scarcity will require further productivity increases in beef and sheep production if production is to be maintained or increased, agreed the participants of the 10th agri benchmark Beef and Sheep Conference which took place in South Africa end of June. Agricultural economists from more than 25 countries are represented in the global network, including Algeria, Morocco, Russia and Tunisia as new members.

The international comparison of production systems and their economics is the core competence of agri benchmark and were discussed in the context of rising and more volatile costs for feed and other inputs. Recent feed price increases were relatively well absorbed by cow-calf operations which mainly rely on pastures, use less purchased inputs than beef finishers and where profitability is in short-term more driven by weaner calf prices than by costs. In the beef finishing comparison of the year 2011, in many countries, feed, land and labour costs increases could at least partially be compensated by beef price increases to retain profitability. This is different in the U.S. feedlots where high feed prices were accompanied by historically high feeder/stocker cattle prices, resulting in another year of loss and over the last years pointing at a combination of high competition and overcapacity in the feedlot industry given current cattle inventories.

Asia and Africa are expected to lead global population growth in the next 35 years. This and an expected per capita income growth will most likely result in growing meat demand. In North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, land degradation, informal markets and their implications for meat quality and safety are main constraints. On the other hand, the cost structure of many smallholder farms can relatively easily absorb impacts from price volatility. Finding a balance between sustainable stocking rates, individual animal performance and income needs is one of the key factors for unlocking the potential of this type of production. In terms of disease status and considering the proximity of farming with livestock and game, it was questioned whether Southern Africa will manage to overcome the issues with FMD and other diseases. This will also impact on the ability of the industry to create a significant export orientated industry.

Asia and Russia are leading the import demand for beef. At the same time, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have rolled out government programmes to increase production of beef and other products such as milk. Large scale agricultural holdings are among the beneficiaries of these programmes. In EU countries, a stable to slightly decreasing beef production appears to be the future trend, with uncertain impacts from the policy reform starting in 2014 and the milk quota abolishment in 2015.

Land expansion to maintain or increase beef production is a medium- to long-term option in some countries, but requires political stability, investments and sufficiently high prices to justify them. Further, it is questionable whether new land is going to be used for beef production. Therefore, narrowing the productivity gap between countries as well as between the top and bottom producers within countries will be crucial. Potential is particularly high when coming from a low level like smallholder farms in developing and emerging countries but also in important beef producing countries like Brazil and Argentina. In those countries where weaner supply is tightening (ex. South Africa), increasing the calf crop is a major aim. The two major alleyways to increase productivity are firstly the improvement of pasture productivity and its management and secondly moving animals from pasture to higher energy rations for the last 90-150 days (i.e. a feedlot-like situation). It is expected that in the short- to medium-term, market signals provide the incentives but they can also (or have already) lead to undesired side effects such as overgrazing, water pollution and animal welfare issues. The single most important challenge to any productivity increase is management skills. Capacity building, education and mentoring were therefore defined as most important but need to be embedded in a strategy which should be developed by all actors in the value chains. Finally, policy interventions on land acquisition and use can foster or slow down productivity developments.

A workshop labelled ‘The return of the sheep’ addressed the question of whether the latest price rises for lamb and mutton will lead to an increase of production and an expansion of sheep production. The answer was a cautious and differentiated ‘yes’. Demand in Asia and the Middle East is expected to further drive prices and provide a good basis for profitable sheep production. Potential is mainly seen in developing and emerging countries as well as Australia where recently some regional expansion of sheep production at the expense of beef production has taken place. In the former group of countries issues like overstocking, land degradation, productivity and meat quality need to be addressed but as most of these countries come from a low level, progress could be made relatively quickly if price relations remain favourable. In some cases the supply chains need restructuring to reduce unrealistically high consumer – producer price ratios. With an increase of 78% in the weight produced per ewe in the last 20 years, New Zealand provides an example for the potential, compensating for the decline in sheep numbers.

A Global Forum in Pretoria saw 120 decision makers from policy, agribusiness, research and NGOs, discussing a mix of international and domestic South African topics. Apart from the above mentioned issues, the importance of sustainability, government intervention addressing the creation of a better market environment instead of handing out subsidies, the impact of domestic demand growth in Brazil resulting in higher prices and reduced exports, the special needs of emerging markets and the old but true fact that eventually consumers determine the direction into which meat production is heading to were stressed by the speakers.

Dr. Claus Deblitz
Thünen Institute of Farm Economics
Braunschweig (Germany)
Fon: +49 531 590-5141

Dr. Michael Welling | vTI
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