1 March 2002

An easy year for French…

THE first anniversary of foot-and-mouth means a year has passed without much competition in the French sheep sector, writes Tim Green. It has provided a welcome boost for sheep farming; one of the few parts of the industry that is not self-sufficient. In fact, it is only 40% self-sufficient and has been in decline for years.

The market is usually buoyant at this time of year thanks to the Muslim festival of Aid-el-Kabir but it is exceptionally strong at present. Reports of entire lambs selling at £100 plus are common and just about anything male will command good prices.

Barren ewes are also enjoying a good trade with our nearest market selling 70kg ewes for £46 and the best heavy ewes up to £60. New season lamb of 19kg dw and reasonable conformation, is averaging £3.90/kg, while the top lambs within our sheep group marketing scheme have sold at more than £5/kg dw. Thats encouraging while it lasts and you wont find many French people keen to see a start to live exports. It will be interesting to gauge the atmosphere at the Paris livestock show this year and learn how the sector envisages its future.

Meanwhile, weve taken advantage of the trade to move some older, leaner ewes for further breeding to someone who wants to maintain numbers to fulfil his ewe premium. Also it will take some pressure off our sheep system because we have limited accommodation and land that does not outwinter stock well.

N frustration

Wet weather has hampered our first application of nitrogen which is frustrating because on some neighbouring farms with lighter land, they have been busy. Imported 33.5% nitrogen has cost us £106/t and delivery has been cancelled twice because of problems with shipping. Current advice is for 50kg/ha (40 units) of N for the first application.

After last years dreadful spring we are also keen to grow some more grass this season and build up stocks of silage for next year. Having made very little hay last season we are missing it this winter.

The ewes are receiving straw, but obviously that does not provide the same quality and they are not as content as last year.

Young stock are being fed straw plus concentrates and 5kg freshweight of maize silage. They are making fair progress but not as much as if they were enjoying good quality hay. Our best heifers were reared mainly on hay after weaning.

Test scare

December gave us a scare with our first positive reaction to a milk test for IBR. The only previous occasion when we encountered the disease was when a cow sold for breeding tested positive on arrival. All purchased cattle are bloodtested for IBR, TB, brucellosis and leucosis. Under a non-compulsory regulation, she was returned when she tested negative.

The health people reconfirmed a minor positive reaction in late December when we were notified. Subsequent bloodtesting of all the cows has proved negative and we have regained our valuable IBR-free status. Coincidentally, the old cow that tested positive three years ago was sold the day after our second positive milk test. So we will never know if it was her who was responsible.

As regards BSE, there has been a minor relaxation in the slaughter policy. Any cattle born since January 2002 will now not be destroyed.

Our calf trade is quieter than of late because veal producers are reluctant to finish calves during the summer; usually a season of reduced demand. Calf quality has slipped in recent months not just at Vimer but across the region. Holstein calves are fetching £60-£70 apiece with calves of exceptional quality about £90-£100.

Despite having spare milk, we are struggling to produce top quality calves for sale. Heifer calves are equally difficult to start but catch up well after about three weeks of age.

Our last milk cheque saw a price of almost 24p/litre. We dont expect that to last because manufactured product prices are falling. Since we are linked to retail prices, there has been some compensation but not enough to maintain the price. Despite a supposed indexation between farmgate and retail prices there is always a disagreement between producers and processors as each fights his or her corner.

Mole plague

On a more practical note, Ive lost the knack of catching moles and we, along with most farmers, are plagued with them this year. They have prospered over the past three years and despite some baiting last year, we are infested on our river meadows to the point that silage is no longer an option. Finding a mole catcher is difficult; everyone has known one, but they all seem to have either moved, retired or died. &#42

Tim Green, with student help, ear tags one of Vimer Farms orphan lambs. The French lamb market is unusually buoyant – partly thanks to the Muslim festival of Aid-el-Kabir. Reports of entire lambs selling for £100 are common and almost all male lambs command good prices.