28 April 1995


APRIL traditionally marks the start of the grass keep season in the south-west. But this year many private treaty deals were completed in March, reflecting demand for extra grazing.

Rents have reached up to £140/acre, representing an increase of between 15% and 20% on last year. Agents identify four main reasons behind the growth in demand. Those are a shortage of winter fodder; the wet winter giving rise to poaching; the livestock extensification scheme and a shortage of grass keep.

Last summers heavy rainfall prevented many farmers from making enough silage or hay for winter feeding. That shortfall is forcing many farmers to seek more grass for grazing and conservation, according to agent Martin Dare of south-west agents R B Taylor and Sons.

"More farmers are wanting to buy keep for grazing heifers on in order to free up grassland for hay making to ensure they dont run short this winter," says Mr Dare.

The shortfall of grass for conservation last season has lead to higher fodder prices at auction. At a recent Somerset sale clamp silage fetched up to £23.50/t, bagged silage between £11 and £15/bag, and small hay bales about £2.30/each.

Private treaty prices have ranged between £70/acre for poorer quality land to £120/acre for fields suitable for mowing. Keep which has been fertilised, or where the owner is prepared to keep an eye on the stock, commands a £20/acre premium. Smaller 5 to 10- acre blocks are also commanding a good price because they are of interest to a greater number of people who are not necessarily full-time farmers.

Last year agents Stags sold more than 5620 acres of grass keep, mainly in Devon. Prices ranged from £50-£60/acre for steep/rough grazing to £130/acre for good quality land.

Land which is well fenced, watered and in good heart is fetching a premium. That is particularly the case in dairying areas, where farmers are looking for land close to their farmsteads.

Winter poaching by all stock, including sheep, last winter has led farmers to seek extra grass keep, explains David Kivell, agent at Kivells Tavistock office. "The most badly damaged areas wont green up until well into the summer, leaving many farmers short of grazing in the meantime," says Mr Kivell.

Because the livestock extensification scheme is in its third year, farmers are watching their stocking density and securing extra grass keep to ensure that they qualify for the maximum payment.

There is also a shortage of grass keep this season because farmers, who have usually let land for keep, are finding other uses for it.

More land has also been let by private treaty this season. That is because at auction there is no control over who buys the keep, leading to fears of importing disease on to previously clean holdings.

Another reason for the shortage is more landlords are now retired farmers who prefer to have control over the tenant.

Those landlords are also approaching past tenants with private deals which avoid the publicity associated with an auction. &#42

Louise Rose

Pressure to keep within the stock extensification scheme stocking rates, coupled with months of wet weather, are forcing up the price of grass keep.