15 January 1999

Beef price fillip as the unrelenting rain falls…

Cattle prices have finally

risen at Rugley. But the

increase has been small and

the Jacksons New Year

optimism has been

dampened by continuing

adverse weather.

Tim Relf reports

STORMS over Christmas and New Year caused havoc, bringing down trees and blowing off roof tiles. But at least the rain stopped. Then the wind died down – and the rain started again.

An inch fell in one night last week, putting pay to any hopes of landwork. Winter corn still needs a dose of herbicide, the 40ha (100 acres) to be spring drilled looks as much of a no-go area as ever and, with the slugs still busy, some re-drilling of autumn-sown crops will be needed. "I cant remember the last time we did that," says Alan.

Hoggets are on a go-slow, too, with 250 still to sell, more than twice the usual number for this time of year. Those that have been sold have graded Us and Rs and prices, so far, havent dipped below the 150p/kg dw mark. That means animals are making £28-£30/head. "But were still losing money at that level."

Cull ewes have also been shifted, the most recent – Milksheep cross Texels – making £22 each. "Thats a fortune," says Alan, considering others went for £17 and hill breeds, like Blackfaces, have made just £7.

Despite these sales, the pressure is still on for space, with ewes and hoggs housed in the face of badly-puddled pastures. Ewe lambs have also been kept for sale as gimmers and, though these should make at least £20 more, its putting further pressure on space.

Its also meant sheep quota has been needed, something Alan sourced for £5/unit soon after the trading period opened last summer. This compares with the £1.50 at which it was leased in during the previous season.

Shed space will be at even more of a premium after next Monday (Jan 18), when the first round of lambing starts. One week will see 75 Suffolks and Texels lamb, with the main flock beginning at the end of March.

Wet weather has also meant cattle have been housed early and the first batch to be sold finished since then left the farm recently, making 170p/kg lw. "Were grateful for small mercies," says Alan, in view of the 10p/kg rise over what they were typically making last spring. And a few, back then, went for as little as 150p/kg.

The next ones are due to start their two-month beef special premium retention period soon and will leave the farm in March. "Ours and everyone elses, probably," says Alan. Progress over the winter has been no slower than usual, but inclement conditions last autumn meant stock was housed about 30kg lighter than was traditionally the case. "They started from a lower base – but if you push them too hard, you push them too fat."

Alan has also seized on the New Year buoyancy in the store cattle trade to sell a bunch of 600kg, 20-month-old animals on blue CIDs through the store ring at Hexham market. The top was £580, with an average of about £1/kg. "If prices stay like this I could be tempted to sell a lot more."

The drop in cattle prices compared with before the BSE crisis hit was again only too apparent when Alan and his wife, Lorna, carried out a valuation for the annual bank review last month. The farms asset base is about half what it was pre-1996, with cattle numbers lower and a fall in the value of all livestock.

"Like most farmers, we have never been cash rich, but we have tried to live on relatively low drawings while building up capital. And this has been in animals. This is our safety net. Its for our retirement. We are tenants – so when we retire, well need to buy a house."

One of Alans aims for the year ahead is to build up the number of Aberdeen Angus cattle which, sold to Waitrose, have a more guaranteed market. If they can hit the right grading specification – R or better – and are not overfat, they can make a 25p/kg premium over other cattle. "The problem is getting a supply of good enough ones at the right price."

While the arrival of the New Year brings a little more optimism for the livestock side of the business, the prognosis on arable remains gloomy. "The weather so far means it already looks like being a terrible harvest already."

The knock-on effects to later years are already a factor. Sowing spring, rather than winter, barley this season means therell be less straw next winter.

So top of the Jacksons wish list for 1999 is a return to more seasonal weather. A neighbours gauge showed 1998 rainfall to be more than 50in. Thats more than double the norm. "Even Oliver Walston would need his subsidy to farm with that much rain."

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Two full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.