One in five beef producers could quit the industry unless prices improve, the South West's National Beef Association's chairman warned this week.
While beef sales at the supermarket and butchers' shop remain steady, the number of suckler cows in the UK has been in decline – down 1 per cent a year for every year of the last three – a total drop of more than 100,000 head.
John Vanstone, who leads the body that represents Britain's beef producers in the Westcountry warned that farm-gate prices were continuing to drop to the point where rearing and finishing beef cattle would become financially unviable for many producers.
He said if things did not dramatically improve 20 per cent of beef farmers will be forced to leave the industry in the near future. He said that compared with last year, producers are losing £250 a head for every sale in the conventional market and between £450 and £500 a head on organic cattle.
The importance of the beef sector to the South West agriculture economy is underlined by the fact that the region is home to 950,000 cattle.
Yet across Britain cattle herd numbers are at their lowest point since 1948 with non-dairy calf registrations worst hit – down 75,000 in 2013.
Statistics show prime cattle prices are the lowest they have been since 1970 – when Defra records were first introduced.
Meanwhile beef imports for 2014 are expected to increase due to increased production in Ireland and resumption of shipments from the African state of Botswana and overall beef consumption is on the rise.
"There is not enough competition in the buying market," explained Mr Vanstone. "There are fewer processors out there bidding for our cattle and so they, rather than market forces, dictate the price."
Mr Vanstone, who farms near Bude, Cornwall, said he would like to see the industry unite behind a campaign to ensure production does not fall into the hands of a minority.
"Soon the farmer with just 30 or 40 suckler cows will not be able to survive and the environmental benefits of those farming systems will be lost," he explained.
Mr Vanstone also warned it would be, in his words "suicidal" if the South West lost any more abattoirs or the remaining smaller ones were taken over by larger organisations. He warned that the result would be a monopoly on the price paid to beef farmers.
And he said supermarkets should be shamed into showing a commitment to British farmers, especially in light of the South West being awarded PGI status for beef and lamb, recognised for quality and contribution to our region.
Beef farmer Adam Quinney, a former NFU vice president, said yesterday: "There is real anger out there amongst finishers. They feel that they've been abandoned as profit margins for the supermarkets rise even further."