6 November 1998

Big income fall means cutbacks, but from where?

So worried are the Daltons

about the business that

they have suspended

personal drawings and sold

the farm car they shared.

Robert Davies reports

PROVISIONAL accounts for the year ending in April show that income was £15,000-£20,000 down on the previous 12 months; the position has deteriorated since.

Although Margaret and John Dalton retain the confidence of their bank manager, they have decided to voluntarily examine all outgoings to see if further borrowing can be avoided.

"Cutting back is much more difficult now than during our last really bad time in 1974," says Margaret. "We are carrying many more stock and have to pay for the feed, staff and fertiliser needed to keep them. Selling the cattle is one option, but not a very sensible one when prices are at rock bottom."

The next 18 months are going to be difficult, John predicts. But both are determined to stay in farming and are prepared to take drastic action if necessary. The first step might be to cut spending on labour.

To some extent their depression has been exacerbated by the wettest year Margaret remembers in the 35 years since she and her late husband moved to the farm. Cows and calves which were turning fields into quagmires have been housed a full month early. Ewes are being moved frequently as they poach, and many lambs refuse to fatten.

There are still 250 to sell, compared with 100 at the same time last year. As field conditions deteriorate, batches of lambs are being finished indoors on barley, sugar beet and a ewe protein concentrate left over from last winter. Apart from poor tail-enders, this is the first time lambs have been fed indoors. The partners feel the cost is justified if it allows them to move lambs off the wet farm more quickly.

At least the quality of those lambs that are finishing has improved. Of the last 90 submitted about 80% met the specifications of the Waitrose/Farm Assured Welsh Livestock contract. Despite this they realised just £30 a head on the depressed market, £15 less than last year.

"The trade says that with good lambing percentages and lambs finishing later there is little prospect of better prices during the rest of the year," says Margaret.

Market prices are so bad that she has decided that returns do not justify the stress involved in breeding from ewe lambs, so they will not be tupped this year.

The partners are worried about selling heifers which were withheld from the depressed store market. The aim was to finish them off grass at about 400kg. But it has been impossible to find a buyer for the six that are now ready. And with butchers demanding heifers weighing about 500kg, the economics of finishing another 25 heifers over winter look uncertain.

Modification of the buildings over the past year has provided adequate accommodation for all cattle on the farm. There is also plenty of silage, which has turned out to be of better quality than John had anticipated. Analysis results have not arrived, but cows and calves are looking well.

Calves, which seemed to be making slower growth than normal when housed, are also being creep-fed barley and sugar beet and are improving.

Barrenness and deaths meant the suckler herd was operating below quota, so the partners bought five heifers with Continental cross calves at foot. These cost an average of £325, a price that made Margaret feel sorry for the breeder.

"Everyone in the livestock industry is taking a beating. Markets are now depressing places, but at least people are talking about their problems and not bottling them up. We all seem to be bonding in our adversity and I am sure that this is reducing the number of suicides."

The Christmas poultry flock has been boosted by the arrival of 250 chickens which join the geese, ducks and turkeys. The annual search for casual workers for processing is underway, preparation of the licensed facilities will begin shortly, and Margaret is due to talk prices with the outside caterer who provided staff lunches last year.

Bad weather and an accident that did £19,000 worth of damage to a JCB Fastrac during silaging have hit Johns contracting business. Negotiations with the insurers are continuing, but a provisional deal has already been struck on a year-old replacement with 1000 hours on the clock. &#42

Accounts at Gelli make gloomy reading. But everyone in the livestock industry is taking a beating, says Margaret Dalton.

There is plenty of silage, and cow condition suggests quality is good.

&#8226 A 125ha (310-acre) less favoured area beef and sheep unit in mid-Wales farmed by Margaret Dalton and her son John, who also operates contracting services.

&#8226 Managed in association with an ADAS full-farm advisory package.

&#8226 Quota for 435 ewes. Scotch Mules are put to Rouge tups and the female progeny used to produce Texel sired prime lambs.

&#8226 Quota for 85 sucklers, Hereford x Friesians, Welsh Blacks and Longhorn x Welsh Blacks, used to breed Charolais cross stores.

&#8226 Small poultry enterprise.

&#8226 One full-time stockman, and variable number of full and part-time contracting staff.