17 August 2001

Autumn sheep challenge

As autumn approaches

marketing breeding sheep is

preoccupying Ceiriog Jones

and his neighbours.

Robert Davies reports

SELLING breeding sheep this autumn without the usual big autumn sheep fairs is going to be a real challenge at Cilgoed, where Ceiriog Jones is trying to figure out the best way to sell his breeding ewes.

A dozen producers have met twice to discuss ways of helping themselves and potential buyers. Between them they have come up with an advertising scheme to help sell their 2500 female sheep and 40 rams, which would normally go through Beulah, Welsh Mule, Welsh Half-bred and Welsh Mountain breed society sales. The organisers of these sales are planning to send catalogues with photographs to regular customers, and to link sellers and buyers.

Mr Jones and his friends have decided to try something simpler; advertising what stock they have to sell in farming publications and providing general information, including guide prices and contact phone numbers.

Interested customers can get hold of more details, including the identity of the breeders, from the two co-ordinators. If required they can also arrange for sheep to be inspected and ensure necessary tight bio-security.

"In most cases we expect people to buy on trust, or on the reputation of the breeders involved," says Mr Jones. "The seller will pay for the on-farm veterinary check and the customer will carry the cost of vehicle disinfection."

Recent rain has started grass growth after a prolonged dry spell when half the farm burned up. This will help to improve the condition of poorer ewes before tupping. When they were last checked two-thirds of ewes were in fit condition, but about 100 were one body condition score too fat, and about a similar number were too thin.

"Now we have split them into three groups and will juggle the available grazing to get them all in the same condition in about one months time."

Though grass has been tight lambs have grown well, especially since almost 200 old ewes were sold in late May and early June. Lambs are now on reseeds and handling indicates that some are almost ready for sale to produce 18-21kg deadweight carcasses.

These would be eligible for freezing through Private Storage Aid, but Mr Jones is worried about the impact on the market once lamb from this scheme is released on to the market. He says that there is no point in the scheme if freezing simply delays the financial pain.

The super lightweight lambs that the government is prepared to buy up and destroy are not produced at Cilgoed, although they are on some of his neighbours farms. If, as he anticipates, the price being offered for these is not acceptable, lambs might be taken on to heavier weights. This could drag down the whole market.

Attending the Meat and Livestock Commissions recent market outlook conference in Aberystwyth did nothing to boost his confidence about prospects for the rest of the year. Neither did a farm diversification meeting that looked into earning extra income off the farm.

"I have a full time job here, but the rewards for the work I do are just not good enough. Low prices and rising costs are really biting on livestock rearing farms in this area, and I know that many people are asking whether they have a future in farming."

Looking ahead to the winter, Mr Jones is pleased to have 300 big bales of silage and 150 bales of hay. There is also the prospect of a reasonable second cut of silage in late August. He has also bought barley straw forward for £55/t, or about £8/t less than current quotes.

He reckons he will need as much fodder as he can get because away wintering will be hard to find and expensive. He also wants to winter as many ewe lambs as possible because he believes there will be good demand from restocking farms next year.

This means he will buy no replacement breeding ewes to offset the heavier than usual flock cull two months ago, and his 248 ewe lambs will run through this winter without going to the tup.

With no recent sales of stock and bills to pay, Mr Jones has been contract baling for neighbouring farms. He has also spread the second half of last winters muck from the cattle and sheep sheds, which he could not do earlier because of the wet spring.

About £80 was spent turning one particularly wet area into a stream filled pond. The spoil has raised the surface of the surrounding area, so it should now be fit for grazing all year.

As he comes to the end of his two-year stint as a farmers weeklys Management Matters farm, Mr Jones is struggling to stay optimistic in the face of apparent government indifference to the farming industry.

"I feel like a mole, blindly digging like hell in the dark and with no idea where I am going," he says.

Selling breeding sheep this autumn is an immediate concern for Ceiriog Jones – but he also lacks confidence for his long-term future in farming.

FARMFACTS

&#8226 An 81ha (200 acre) farm in north Wales owned and run by Ceiriog Jones and his wife Mair who are also tenants on a further 18ha (44 acres). There is 10ha (25 acres) on an 11-month let.

&#8226 Most land is steep, classified as severely disadvantaged. It carries 600 Builth Wells-type Beulah ewes, 250 ewe lambs and 60 spring and summer calving suckler cows.

&#8226 Older ewes not breeding replacements are put to Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce Welsh Mules for sale as ewe lambs or yearlings. Bull calves, once finished on farm, now planned to be sold on green CIDs.

&#8226 Mr Jones was a Welsh Sheep Strategy scholarship winner in 1998. The farm is one of three in Wales selected for an MLC co-ordinated technology transfer project.