16 August 2002

20-day rule U-turn good – as a start

By James Garner

A LEADING livestock auctioneer has welcomed the governments partial U-turn on the 20-day rule as a move in the right direction.

But more needs to be done to save livestock markets, whose weekly throughputs remain throttled, says David Brown, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers Association.

"The devil will be in the detail, but if the concept is moving to a less stringent regime, then, of course, we welcome the move, but it could be an expensive option," he adds.

Mr Brown refers to the clause that requires all farmers, who buy breeding sheep or cattle from a market, to place them in an isolation area for 20 days to avoid locking up the farm. But, according to the rules, the stock will also have to be inspected by a vet while they are isolated.

"It will make a lot of money for the veterinary profession," says Mr Brown. Vets have been a central part of the negotiations on movement regulations post-foot-and-mouth, and farmers might feel aggrieved that they have set up a system that will pay them millions of £s, he adds.

"It will be interesting to know how much the veterinary associations will be advising members to charge farmers for these visits."

Until the 20-day rule is abandoned completely or a more lenient regime put in place, Mr Brown says that most markets will still struggle to make money.

"We cant survive on selling just store stock alone, because markets cost too much to run. It is difficult for farmers to sell fat cattle in a market at the moment, if they are buying stores regularly."

Last weeks live market throughputs reported by the Meat and Livestock Commission economics department confirm that finished cattle numbers, in particular, are still struggling.

From the 181 markets that reported prices in 2000, just over 50% did so last week, with only 4757 fat cattle passing through the live ring, compared with 13,504 two years previously. Even so prices between the two weeks were remarkably similar with cattle trading at the 90p/kg mark in both weeks.

Bigger numbers of lambs have returned to markets with 79,118 lambs sold live last week, about half the number of two years ago. Recent lamb prices though are far better, levelling last week at 103.57p/kg for standard quality lambs, more than 20p better than the same week in 2000.

But although the new exemptions to the 20-day rule wont boost slaughter stock sales, the move will help sheep breeding sales this autumn, says Stuart Bell, senior auctioneer for Harrison & Hetherington.

"It will mean a lot of people can identify a part of their holding and continue to operate after sales. It is particularly important in the north, where large numbers of farmers sell Mule ewe lambs, but need to buy in hill ewes to breed them with."

These sales take place a week after each other and the new rules will allow breeders to trade, he adds. &#42