11 September 1998

Autumn outlook bad for suckled calf producers

SUCKLED calf sellers are bracing themselves for an autumn of misery, with buyers likely to be more cautious than ever before.

"There still is not an awareness of how bad it is going to be," says Scott Donaldson, auctioneer at Wooler, Northumberland.

The weaker demand for store lambs this summer will be repeated at suckled calf sales, he says. Not only have beef finishers lost money for a number of years but there is also less grain money around to spend. "People are not in a position to gamble and the banks wont let them anyway."

Meanwhile, there is little prospective sellers can do to mitigate the downturn. A few, with the space and food, will take stock through to slaughter, says Mr Donaldson. "But those that are selling should not do any thing different to usual. You have to make the best of them – because poor, weathered calves will be even more difficult to sell."

Timothy Garratt at Chagford, Devon, agrees. "They have to come out of the top drawer or they do not stand a chance."

Demand, he says, is always there for the better sorts which – when they are offered for sale as finished animals – can easily make a 30p/kg lw premium over their poorer counterparts.

The traditional feeders will still be buying this autumn, reckons Mr Garratt. "But the dealing people who buy to trade on will want much bigger margins because they will be afraid they wont be able to unload all of the cattle." He, too, thinks many vendors are in a no-win situation. Most, though, will "take the devil of selling them, rather than dive in to the deep blue sea of keeping them".

One farmer who is not overly optimistic is Newton Abbot-based Brian Quantick, chiefly because it is mainly females he is selling. "They are the wrong sex," he declares, dubbing the heifer trade hopeless. "We will be lucky if they make £200."

A repeat of last autumns experiences would be much appreciated by Mr Quantick. He collected first prize with his first ever foray in to the showing world with some February-born Limousin cross South Devon steers at Newton Abbot last November. The animals went on to make £510 on a day when the top price was £575.

Stock, meanwhile, is looking well, says Mr Quantick, who has just starting giving them some creep feed in a bid to improve their bloom.

NFU livestock committee secretary Kevin Pearce says that any progress with the date-based export scheme will give a boost to trade. "It would be a very positive signal – because a lot of these suckled calves would qualify.

"They are the very animals that could go out and fill the beef markets that we had before the ban was imposed."

lTop-quality Continental cross suckled steers were making £450-£500 last autumn. Heifers were just under £400. &#42

Buyers will be in a cautious mood at this autumns suckled calf sales.