The latest Bluetongue outbreak in Dorset has placed Deer Park Farm within a mile of the new surveillance zone, forcing Martin Howlett to face some difficult decisions. “The dilemma is that Cornwall is now almost an island, surrounded by the Bluetongue zone,” he says.

“We can opt into that zone to free up trade, but there will be winners and losers whatever we do. As both a livestock producer and Cornwall NFU chairman it’s very difficult to decide which way to jump.”

As a Bluetongue-free zone, Cornwall’s livestock trade with farmers in the surveillance zone will be severely limited, threatening auction markets and prices. Opting into the zone would free up local trade, but prevent sales to the north of England and Scotland, which take up to 25% of the region’s store cattle.

Once within the zone, farmers would have to pre-movement test all stock, at a cost of about £5 a head, says Mr Howlett. “We would also be committed to vaccinating our animals at a cost that is not known, for a supply that is not guaranteed. There’s a lot of uncertainty and really we are shooting in the dark.”

Lambing

Fortunately, all Mr Howlett’s ewes are already on the home farm, and are now almost half way through lambing. “We started on 10 January and are now onto our second batch. The scanning rate has been 20% points above last year, at 160%, and we already have 100 ewes with lambs turned out to grass. The weather has been a real bonus this year – the lambs have gone out well and it’s kept the sheds a bit more manageable.”

He has 100 ewes and 50 ewe lambs left to lamb, and will be scanning the ewe lambs this week. “Anything that isn’t in lamb will be sold with the last 50 male hoggets to go. I held them back because I thought the price was going to get better – and it finally has.”

Having sold some hoggets before Christmas at 190p/kg dw, he is pleased to have recently been quoted 250p/kg. “I’m hopeful that, because of the lack of confidence and the movement restrictions last autumn, we’ll see a lamb price that is sustainable into next season.”

High beef price

The same is true of the beef market. “Everything has turned around since the start of the year – last week we sold our first eight winter-finished Angus steers for 235p/kg, including a suckler bonus. That is a welcome return to a more realistic price.”

In fact, it is the highest price he has seen since before the BSE outbreak. “In any other industry, to go back up to a price last received 12 years ago would be a disaster.” But it still hasn’t reached the 240p/kg demanded two years ago, when farmers predicted the haemorrhaging of beef production should retailers not react.

“It takes two years for a suckled calf to get to a finished animal. If abattoirs had committed to higher prices two years ago they wouldn’t be in the position of a shortage now,” says Mr Howlett. “It is clear that if you don’t pay enough the supply will disappear.”

Costs have also risen significantly over the past two years, and Mr Howlett reckons he now requires at least 270-300p/kg to produce beef sustainably. “There is no good this just being a blip. My costs of production have risen by £50/head this winter due to higher feed, fertiliser and fuel prices, and while I am cautiously optimistic that we have turned a corner, we need the trade to inject that confidence we require to commit to beef in the coming years.”