21 May 1999

Breeding sows hit new low

By Robert Harris

BREEDING sow numbers fell almost 14% between June 1998 and March this year to reach historic lows, according to an additional pig survey undertaken by the ministry in response to industry requests.

The rate of decline is now expected to slow, though the news has prompted renewed calls for government aid from Scottish farm leaders.

The March estimates, based on 2500 producers, show the UK breeding herd total fell from 705,000 to 672,000 head in the first three months of this year, a 5% fall. This follows a 9% fall between June and December 1998.

In-pig sow numbers dropped by 6.5% between January and March to 436,000 head, in pig gilts by just over 4% to 86,000. In line with previous declines in the breeding herd, the number of fattening pigs on farm fell by 6% over the same period.

But with numbers so low and prices edging closer to break-even values (last weeks adjusted k spec GB average topped 86p/kg), the rate of decline is likely to slow, says Meat and Livestock Comm-ission economist Tony Fowler.

"We could see a further drop to about 650,000 head in June, after which it could stabilise. But these numbers are breaking new ground, the breeding herd has not been this small in the past 30 years."

This should lead to some significant price rises, but probably not until later in the year when the EU pig herd starts to contract, he says. "The next couple of months is very difficult to call. There are a lot of pigs being produced on the Cont-inent, which is certainly capping any rise. I would expect prices to be above 100p/kg by the end of the year, and to rise further next year."

A breakdown of the figures shows the English breeding herd dropped 3.8% to 553,000 head, while Scottish numbers fell 5% to 57,000 head.

This takes the reduction in Scotland to almost 20% in nine months, says Scottish NFU vice-president Peter Chapman.

At recent meeting with the Scottish Office, Mr Chapman called on the government to back the industrys self-help measures. He is also seeking an early meeting with Scotlands new agriculture minister to make the sectors case.

Help could include offal disposal, which adds £1.50 a pig to costs, he says. Brussels should also be pushed to take surplus pigmeat off the market, the EU food aid programme to Russia has achieved little so far, he adds.

Software gives Euro-wide view

PIG producers in the UK will soon be able to compare herd performance directly with their European counterparts, thanks to developments planned for PigPlan software.

This, and other improvements, follows the acquisition of a 50% shareholding in AgroSoft by Signet Farm Business Consultancy, taking the collaboration which produced PigPlan a step further. AgroSoft supplies Windows-based herd recording and management software to pig farmers across the world. &#42

Call to adjust aid calculation

DIRECT aid payments to farmers should be calculated as now, using to the spot £:k exchange rate on the day the payment period begins, rather than a proposed average rate for the preceding month, industry experts believe.

Exchange rate

Most respondents to MAFFs recent consultation on the proposed change, suggested by Brussels after pressure from Denmark and Sweden, favoured the existing proposals, where area aid is set according the exchange rate on Jul 1 for arable payments and Jan 1 for livestock aid.

Although the proposed monthly system was more transparent, and could be more stable since it would average out currency fluctuations, opinion supported MAFFs view that it was too early to judge the effects of a system which had only been introduced on Jan 1. &#42