18 December 1998

A year of more downs than ups

Its been another year of ups-and-downs in agriculture. More

downs than ups, say many, with pig and sheep farmers

following their cattle-producing counterparts into the red. As

1998 draws to a close, though, the mood seems to be

changing. There have even been some quite optimistic

predictions for coming months. Here FW remembers the

past year from the auctioneers rostrum…


Storms hit big areas of the country leaving farmers unable to shift stock. Lamb entries at markets are depleted – but its only a temporary supply shortage, with big numbers still in the pipeline from the previous year. Abattoirs hit out at specified risk material rules which require carcass splitting on older sheep, fearing the loss of overseas customers. Wheat straw makes a bumper £65/t at a Berkshire auction and its celebrations in the north-west where the Lancaster and Adjacent Counties Holstein Friesian Breeders Club holds its 500th sale.


Four Aberdeen Angus bulls top the 10,000gns-mark with the highest at 16,000gns at the Perth sales. Not quite as much as the Charolais, though, which reach 18,000gns. Farmers scramble to find sheep quota, with many reluctant to sell hoggets onto the depressed slaughter market. Disappointment comes at the money made by the first spring lambs. "Soul destroying," says Exeter auctioneer Alan Venner of the 107p/kg lw average in the middle of the month.


More than a quarter of a million people join the Countryside March in London. Back at Bishops Castle, Shropshire, a venue record was set when a Belgian Blue cross Limousin store steer made £6000. Grass keep, meanwhile, is making 25% less than a year earlier, in the face of across-the-board lower livestock profits. As Phil Blackman of Bruton Knowles says: "Nobody has a bright story to tell."


Dairy farmers plan to leave the industry, after changes to the tax regime in the Chancellors budget. For many, it is a case of "now or never," says Gloucester auctioneer Keith Flemington. Markets host spring lamb shows and sales, among them the new multi-million £ mart at Ashford, Kent. And the UKs biggest ever one day dispersal took place at Elm Farm, Wickham Skeith, Suffolk, where the 500-head Mendlesham herd goes under the hammer.


Bidding reaches 15,000gns at a reduction sale from the Sterndale black-and-white herd for the Nadin family at Buxton, Derbys. In Yorks, one of the chief topics of conversation at Warter Estates annual cattle auction is that the estate is up for sale. It came with a price tag of £30m. Auctioneers are angered by Tescos remarks that the supermarket giant plans to bypass auctions, buying all its cattle and sheep direct by the end of the year 2000. "A breathtaking example of high-handed corporate arrogance," says Ripon auctioneer Norman Bagley.


Banbury market, one of the biggest in the country, closes. But new facilities open at Melton Mowbray market, with space for 8000 sheep. Early signs show breeding sheep to be worth less than 1997. At a big west-country offering, for example, ewes averaged £55.52, down nearly £17 on 12 months earlier. Farmers have a break from their day-to-day business, attending county shows. And anyone looking for suckler cow quota finds GB lowland samples making between £140 and £150/unit in the opening days of the trading period.


The UK farming industry turns out in force for the Royal Show at Stoneleigh and British farmers again prove that, when it comes to stock breeding, theyre in a class of their own. More bad news for pig farmers, though, as prices slide down to a 60-year low. Consultant Peter Crichton likens the situation to the negative equity evident in the housing market in the early 1990s. "Some people cant afford to stay in – but they cant afford to get out either." As the new farm minister arrives, farmers ask, "Nick who?"


Ram prices nudge up on 1997 levels at the National Sheep Associations big ram sale at Builth Wells. "Encouraging news after a traumatic period in the sheep industry," says sale committee chairman George Hughes. At the summer sales, stores lambs are changing hands for about £30 apiece. It was standing room only at the annual hard fruit auction at Horsmonden, Kent, where prices reached £2700/acre for Bramley apples. Another new market opens its doors, this one at Bakewell, Derbys. "Good news for farmers at a time when good news is thin on the ground," say the auctioneers.


Sheep producers brace themselves for further falls in prices, after BSE-related stories again hit the headlines. Thankfully, the scare passes quickly. John Thorley of the National Sheep Association urges farmers to "keep marketing in a sensible way and consumers to keep eating in a sensible way". The second-hand machinery market remains buoyant, according to auctioneers, as farmers look for an alternative to new-buy in a bid to cut spending. A sale of vintage kit – and shire horses – took place at Flower Hill Farm, Newbald, East Yorks, for the Northern Shire Horse Centre.


Suckled calf sales get into gear. One of the first big offerings at Hallworthy, Cornwall, sees steers average £258, compared with £385 in 1997. Beef farmers finally have something to smile about, with the prospect of Christmas beef buying likely to push prices up, after spending much of the month below 80p/kg/lw.


Suckler cow quota is in short supply, as the trading deadline looms. "Like gold dust," is how Richard Hyde of Sunderlands describes it. Christmas primestock shows kick off with the National at Bingley Hall, Staffs. The mood of the 8000 visitors is raised by news filtering through from Brussels that the beef export ban is to be lifted. News breaks that Bury St Edmunds, one of the countrys biggest pig markets, has become a casualty of the collapse in livestock prices and is to close.


Farmers and auctioneers are in town for Smithfield Show. One of the highlights is the carcass champion which made £9611, snapped up by top London restaurant, Rules. The day after, the supreme champion beast went through the ring at Earls Court for £10,000. And the seller, Archie MacGregor, announced hed be donating the money to the Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Fund. &#42