2 January 1998

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," so

Charles Dickens wrote. For many farmers looking back on

1997, however, therell no doubt about it – it was the worst of times. Concluding a two-part series, FW remembers the

key events, as seen from the auctioneers rostrum

July

HUGE backlogs of cattle build up in slaughterhouses, as farmers rush to get stock culled on the OTMS before an 11% cut in compensation. Record highs are seen at Lambert and Fosters annual auction of on-the-tree hard fruit in Kent, as Bramley apples average £4670/ha (£290/t). Auctions of standing straw, like crops in a thunderstorm, tumble with barley crops struggling to make £50/ha (£20/acre) and wheat straw half that. Store heifers, meanwhile, can make a £70 a head premium if they have a CBRD, without this the controversial dentition rules for ageing stock applies. All told, its a worrying time for farmers – and the situation isnt helped by the EU Commissions proposals for support cuts of up to 30%.

August

To widespread outrage among farmers, a new weight ceiling of 560kg is introduced for compensation under the OTMS. At 57.7p/ kg, thats £323. Better news for those selling store lambs – never mind the volatile finished sheep values and the sterling-hit export trade, stores average £43 at Partney Fair, Lincs. Demand is also buoyant for breeding sheep. A breed record price is paid for a maiden heifer when bidding reached 3100gns at the Cream of the Crop sale in Scotland.

September

Markets observe a minutes silence to mark the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Farmers gather at Reaseheath College, Cheshire, to discuss a possible merger between the two black-and-white cattle breed societies. For rare breed enthusiasts, the only place to be is Stoneleigh for the annual show and sale. A topic of conversation at both is the governments cancellation of the years national hill farming review. With silage clamps full and grass growing well, standing maize crops are making about £450/ha, about half the level seen a year earlier. Theres a record entry of 9000 head of 36 breeds at the National Sheep Associations annual ram sale at Builth Wells, where price top at 3100gns.

October

Walk Farm, Witham Friary, Somerset hosts the first offering of stock from Europes largest Mont-beliarde herd. Top price of 1060gns goes to a freshly-calved heifer. Suckled calf sales get underway. The sentiment was summed up by one seller who says: "Prices werent as bad as they could have been – but we were disappointed they werent better." Farmers from around the country converge on Perth for pedigree beef week, where an 18,000gns bid marks the highest Aberdeen-Angus price for 30 years.

November

Lamb prices dip below 100p/kg as lorry drivers strike sparks fears of traffic chaos in France. In the face of low prices, farmers postpone selling sheep, adding to the backlog already on farm. With just a few weeks to go before the trading period closes, suckler cow quota is in short supply. "Rarer than hens teeth," as one auctioneer describes it. Sheep quota prices are on the floor, with GB lowland samples leasing for about £1. Hunting is the subject of debate as Michael Fosters Bill gets its second reading in the Commons. You can tell Christmas isnt too far away, meanwhile, with the big primestock show at Bingley Hall, Staffs.

December

At livestock markets, meanwhile, lambs are making about two-thirds of the values seen a year earlier. Farm-fresh turkeys face stiff competition from frozen supermarket sales at 49p/lb. More bad news for the beef industry as the government ban sales of beef-on-the-bone from all cattle over six months of age. Cattle prices fall further, as import pressure, the absence of intervention and the on-going export ban take their toll. Its not just beef farmers under the cosh, either, with MAFF figures showing farmincomes to have fallen by 37% this year.

Machinery and equipment prices came under pressure from the strong £ sterling.